On a wet track Renault’s Alonso swept to a 25-second advantage over Schumacher in the Ferrari prior to the first set of pit stops. But then things began to go wrong for the champion. First Schumacher stayed on the same set of intermediate Bridgestones during his stop, whereas Alonso changed his Michelin front inters. The new ones did not give him anything like the performance of his originals. Then, to compound everything, a sticking right rear wheel nut in Alonso’s second stop cost him at least seven seconds.
By that stage, lap 35, Giancarlo Fisichella in the second Renault was leading but under attack from Schumacher. The Italian made his second stop on lap 41 and was still leading when he left the pits, but then he ran wide and Schumacher, who had stopped on lap 40, pounced.
Alonso’s final set of dry tyres was back up to par, and he soon caught and passed his team mate and started to slash into Schumacher’s advantage. But that wheel-nut problem would prove decisive, and the German finished 3.1 seconds to the good, elated. Each now has 116 points, with two races left.
Nick Heidfeld should have been fourth for BMW Sauber after a great run. But the final corner proved his undoing. Jenson Button had been scrapping hard for fifth with Honda team mate Rubens Barrichello in the closing stages, when slight rain made the track treacherous. Button slid wide at one stage and fell behind McLaren’s Pedro de la Rosa. He eventually recovered and repassed the Spaniard when De la Rosa made a mistake of his own, and going into the final lap Button used traffic to go round the outside of Barrichello. Going down to Turn 16 he caught Heidfeld and trapped him behind Takuma Sato’s lapped Super Aguri. As Button ducked down the inside, Barrichello hit the back of the BMW and spun it, damaging his own nose.
Button thus grabbed an unexpected fourth, De la Rosa gratefully snatched fifth from Barrichello, and the unfortunate Heidfeld had to be content with seventh ahead of Mark Webber in the Williams, who earned the final point when Red Bull’s David Coulthard half spun out of eighth place on lap 49. Four laps earlier the Scot had collided with Felipe Massa there, eliminating the Ferrari driver who had been trading fastest laps with Alonso during a strong recovery drive from his back-of-the-grid start.
Behind Coulthard, a single-stop run brought Tonio Liuzzi 10th for Toro Rosso, with Nico Rosberg in the Williams right alongside and Robert Doornbos also in touch in the second Red Bull.
BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica had an up and down race, getting shoved down the order early on in the opening lap melees in heavy standing water and high spray; later he was the first to switch to dries, just before the track was ready. He headed home Super Aguri’s Sato, Scott Speed in the Toro Rosso, Spyker MF1’s Christijan Albers (who was also involved in the final-corner incident), and Sakon Yamamoto in the Super Aguri (who received a drive-through penalty for ignoring blue flags when being lapped by Schumacher).
Neither of the Toyotas finished, their only high point being a spell towards the end when Ralf Schumacher set a couple of fastest laps, Spyker MF1’s Tiago Monteiro spun in Turn 1 and stalled, Massa’s rear suspension was damaged, and McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen, having run as high as second early on after overtaking Fisichella, dropped out with a stuck throttle.
Thus the championship fight could not be better poised as we head to Suzuka. As he said goodbye to his legion of Chinese fans, Schumacher savoured his first decent race in Shanghai and said: “Today was a little present to myself.”