As the 2006 championship is whittled down to a battle of just two races, the formula one torch is being passed from one controversial driver to another.

For the first time since 2004, Michael Schumacher on Sunday reclaimed the lead of a drivers’ title after a stunning drive in China, and called his fightback this year nothing short of a “miracle”. With a car and tyre advantage, at least in the dry, he is tipped to walk into the sunset as an eight-time champ.

Meanwhile, the 37-year-old German seems to have spent his entire 16 year career cultivating an image as the “Red Baron”; a ruthless, controversial, uber-successful pilot whose win-at-all-costs-but-admit-nothing mentality was exposed indubitably in moments of madness at Adelaide ’94, Jerez ’97 and Monaco ’06.

But with Schumacher’s career now at an end, that torch is being passed to a new protagonist, reigning champion Fernando Alonso, who these days appears far more willing to do, or say, whatever it takes to rattle his foe or claim his prize.

Schumacher, meanwhile, is attempting a late play of the maturity card. In the Shanghai paddock before Sunday’s race, he refused to be drawn on Alonso’s latest unseemly attack.

”I don’t think his words will affect the championship and I don’t believe I have to react to everything,” said the German, after Alonso predicted he would retire with less glory than Zinedine Zidane, the footballer who head-butted a rival in his last World Cup match.

In recent days, 25-year-old Alonso has also been lashing out at alleged Ferrari cheating involving wheel covers, sprayed tyres and collusion with the governing body, and vowed never to join the red team because the FIA favours them.

”I would rather go with another team and try to win in that way,” said Fernando, who next year moves from Renault to McLaren.

In 2006, Alonso has also shown an inclination to lose his cool and let his dignity slip, such as when he deliberately brake-tested rival Robert Doornbos in Hungary, or when – incensed at a stewards’ decision to penalise him – he walked the entire length of the Monza paddock giving a huge “thumbs-down” for every photographer with even half a brain to snap.

Move over Schumacher. A new bad boy is in town.