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Monday October 23, 2006

Alonso retains F1 title; Massa wins Brazilian GP; Schumacher 4th in finale


SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP): Fernando Alonso retained the Formula One championship when he was second to Felipe Massa on Sunday in the Brazilian Grand Prix, a race which marked the end of Michael Schumacher's mighty career. 

"The important thing today was to become champion again for the second time and we did it,'' Alonso said. "Yes, it has been a fantastic weekend, especially the race.'' 

Schumacher, a seven-time F1 champion, needed to win his final race before retirement to keep alive his remote chance of another title. But the German punctured a tire less than 10 laps into the race, dropped out of contention, and finished fourth. 

"I have been told my tire was cut but I didn't feel any contact. The only thing I really felt was my tire was done,'' Schumacher said. 

Massa, Schumacher's Ferrari teammate, won the race from the pole before an adoring home crowd at the Interlagos circuit. 

His second career victory was also the first by a Brazilian here since Ayrton Senna in 1993. 

"I think it is a dream come true. I always dream to have this day,'' Massa said. "And I got it. 

"It was the easiest race of my life since I have such an incredible car.'' 

Honda's Jenson Button was third. 

As soon as Alonso crossed the finish line, the Spaniard thanked his crew over the radio in French (Renault's engines are built in France) and English (the team is based in Britain). He helped Renault also clinch the constructors' title but will race for McLaren next year. 

"Thank you, thank you,'' Alonso said. "Both championships again. It's been a pleasure for me. I wish you the best.'' 

Alonso became F1's youngest world champion at last year's Brazilian GP, and the 25-year-old continued to praise Renault, which gave him a start as a test driver in 2002. 

"We grew up together and we won two consecutive championships. It will be difficult to forget the years I did with Renault.'' 

He said he had bad luck when he went out of two races, the Hungarian and Italian GPs, and squandered a 25-point lead in midseason.  

Schumacher tied Alonso in the standings after winning the Chinese GP on Oct. 1, but Alonso replied by winning the following Japanese GP and virtually clinched the title. He topped Schumacher by 134 to 121. 

"I was convinced (we would) win. I had no doubts in these couple of weeks,'' Alonso said. "We deserved the championship.'' 

Schumacher's race troubles made life easier for Alonso, who entered the race needing to finish eighth or better to secure the championship. He started in fourth place but moved up to second halfway through the 71-lap race. 

Schumacher jumped from 10th to seventh on the first lap, but a flat left-rear tire entering the ninth lap shattered his chances of victory. 

He had just passed sixth-placed Giancarlo Fisichella on the outside of turn 1 when the tire blew, forcing him to slowly return to the pits. 

He changed tires and returned to the track in 18th place, more than a minute behind race leader Massa and out of contention barely 15 minutes into the race. 

Schumacher accepted his fate as soon as the incident occurred. "It was simply like this,'' he said. "But probably this is part of racing, too.'' 

Alonso heard about it from his team. 

"Well, first of all they told me to drop the revs,'' he said "Then they said he was back in 19th.'' 

On the first lap, Nico Rosberg smashed his Williams and spread debris over the track, drawing the safety car. 

It slowed and grouped the field before the race restarted after the sixth lap with Alonso 1.8 seconds behind in fourth and Schumacher 3.2 back in sixth. 

After Schumacher's tire blew, Massa built on his advantage. 

After 34 laps and the first pit stops, Massa was trailed by Alonso, who passed Kimi Raikkonen on the pit stop but was 24 seconds back. 

Button was third and Raikkonen dropped to fourth. 

Schumacher made it back to eighth setting the fastest lap of the race to that point. 

The German improved to sixth by the 55th lap. 

On the 63rd, Schumacher finally caught Renault's Fisichella and a chance to move to fifth. 

This time, misfortune fell upon Fisichella, who went off the track for a bit, and Schumacher went past, and took off after Raikkonen with six laps left. 

At the start of the 69th, Schumacher moved on the inside and passed Raikkonen for fourth with wheels almost touching around the first turn. Raikkonen will replace Schumacher at Ferrari next year. 

The positions remained the same to the end, where Massa stopped to grab a Brazilian flag to wave around the track. He'd also won his first grand prix from the pole in Turkey in August. 

"I'm sure after today's victory my life will change a lot, especially in Brazil,'' Massa said. "Brazilian people love Formula One, and hopefully I can give them a lot more good results like today.'' 

Schumacher also had thanks for his fans. "In all the beautiful moments and the bad moments they always supported me,'' he said. 

"They give me a lot of support and so I can give them the performance, especially in moments when it was difficult. Over these long years it was immensely important for me, and I can only give a very big thank you to all those fans.'' 

The 2007 season-opener, the Australian GP on March 18, will mark the first F1 season without Schumacher since 1991. 

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