Schumacher, Alonso prepare for clash

A repeat of last month’s Italian Grand Prix in Japan this weekend would be Michael Schumacher’s dream and Fernando Alonso’s nightmare.

Ferrari’s Schumacher can clinch an unprecedented eighth world championship at Suzuka if he wins and Renault’s Alonso fails to score a point—exactly what happened at Monza two races ago.

The two title rivals go into the penultimate round of the closest season in years level-pegging on 116 points, with Schumacher ahead 7-6 on race wins.

Both drivers have everything to play for but they know one mistake or one failure could destroy at a single stroke everything they have worked so hard to achieve since the season started in Bahrain last March.

While the title race looks like going down to the wire in Brazil on October 22, possibly in a winner-takes-all showdown at Interlagos, there is every chance of a classic clash on Sunday in Suzuka’s Japanese Grand Prix farewell before handing over to Fuji next year.

“I think the people wanted a close championship this year, and they’ve got it,” said world champion Alonso in a team preview.

“The performance between both cars is very similar, so the last races will be dominated by the tyres. Michelin have done a great job in Suzuka for the past couple of years, and I have a good feeling.

“But we are confident at Renault, and they are confident at Ferrari. So let’s see what happens,” added the 25-year-old Spaniard.

Favourite track

Schumacher has won here more times than any other driver, taking his first with Renault-powered Benetton in 1995 and five more triumphs with Ferrari.

Alonso has yet to finish higher than last year’s third place in Japan but has no fear of Schumacher’s record, overtaking the German twice last October in one of the most thrilling races of the season.

Both drivers consider Suzuka one of their favourites.

“For a driver, it is a very demanding track, very challenging physically and a tough race.
It is one of those races that every driver wants to win—and I haven’t done it yet,” said Alonso.

“In terms of driving style and so on, I love Suzuka. It is a fantastic circuit,” declared Schumacher, now just two races away from retirement, after his Shanghai victory.

“Our car has been good and we have to see if we can manage the tyre situation as we have done in other circuits.”

While their private duel dominates the headlines, both will have to watch out for others eager to push them off the top of the podium.

Ferrari, winners of six of the last seven grands prix, and Renault have taken all but one of the races this season with Honda’s Jenson Button victorious in Hungary.

Briton Button and Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello both pose a threat at the Honda-owned circuit, with the team giving them a new development engine for the final two races.

McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen, superb last year when he roared through from 17th on the grid to overtake Renault’s Giancarlo Fisichella on the last lap and claim a sensational victory, is another danger man.

The Finn, who replaces Schumacher at Ferrari next year while Alonso takes his place at McLaren, knows Suzuka represents probably his best remaining chance of success this year after a barren run since his 2005 triumph.

He can be sure that McLaren, desperate to prevent their first winless season in a decade and eager for Alonso to arrive as number one, will be pulling out all the stops on Sunday. - Reuters

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