At Suzuka on Saturday evening, the Renault camp knew they’d blown it. With only the season-ending Brazilian grand prix to go after Japan, fifth on the grid was nothing short of the death knell for Fernando Alonso’s title bid.

Hoping for championship rival Michael Schumacher not to convert a two-point advantage at the season’s final hurdle, particularly when he had been 25 points behind just three months ago, would be like expecting Tiger Woods not to sink a winning putt having recovered from five over par. Or expecting Ayrton Senna to refrain from ramming title rival Alain Prost off the circuit at turn one of the 1990 finale. In other words, forget it.

“A mistake at this stage would be very expensive for either team,” Ferrari’s technical director Ross Brawn warned after qualifying, where his Bridgestone-shod drivers, including Schumacher, totally dominated. Presumably, he forgot to knock on wood.

Spaniard Alonso, admitting defeat before the five lights extinguished and written off by the in-paddock newspaper Red Bulletin, depressingly told reporters after qualifying: “If Michael wins (the race), the championship is over. There’s not much we can do about Ferrari”.

Indeed, before lap 37 of Sunday’s 53-lap Japanese grand prix, every card was turning up red. Friday’s rain at Suzuka would have spelled disaster for Bridgestone’s shonky wet tyres, but only a few spots returned for qualifying. The horrible-looking clouds of Sunday morning parted like the Red Sea as Schumacher pulled on his fireproof undergarments in the Circuit Hotel.

The Red Sea parted again when Schumacher loomed large behind teammate and pole sitter Felipe Massa on lap two. On lap 37 of 53, his final pit stop now successfully executed and enjoying a comfortable lead, the German would have been smiling at the perfume of certain championship triumph when, uh oh, his mirrors filled with white smoke. And, just in case you don’t believe in the spitefulness of fate, the last time Schumacher had an engine failure was six years – or 111 races – ago.

Get out your calculator, and Schumacher’s still in it. The retiring 37-year-old, though, is not interested. After hugging all 90 travelling members of the Ferrari team, he said on Sunday: ”The championship is over. I am not going to go to Brazil hoping someone retires – that’s not the way I want to win.”

Peter Fray

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