LAST BUT NOT LEAST
The final race of the season could be the most important of all. Richard Drew explains why
There are the cynics among us who have been heard to utter in the last fortnight: 'What's the point of the Chinese Grand Prix?' They argue that since Fernando Alonso has already claimed his first world championship, the 20 drivers lining up on the grid in Shanghai will just be going through the motions.
Admittedly, it would have been nice to have Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen battling it out right up to the last race, but these things can never be guaranteed. Besides, there are a lot of other things the drivers, and the teams, will be racing for in Shanghai. It will be as fast and furious as any of the previous 18 races.
And here's why. First off, there's the small matter of the constructors' title. This is going down to the wire. After the fireworks in Japan, Renault are just two points ahead of McLaren, and either team could grab glory in Shanghai. Make no mistake, this title is a big deal for the teams, as important to them as the drivers championship. You only had to witness the tearful reaction to Raikkonen's win in Japan last weekend from the back of the grid from his boss, Ron Dennis. Asked why he was so emotional, he said: 'We want to win the constructors' championship.'
There are other reasons why this race should be a cracker. There are a host of drivers for whom a standout performance in China could save their careers. Take Jacques Villenueve. The former world champion has one year left on his contract, but with Sauber being taken over by BMW next season that might not mean a great deal. A decent race in Shanghai could keep him on board.
The same could be said for Antonio Pizzonia, the Brazilian who wants to make the vacant Williams seat his own. Takuma Sato may have already been dropped by BAR, but there will be a new Honda feeder team next year. If he can prove in Shanghai that he doesn't always create havoc on the racetrack, a seat for 2006 could be his.
For the teams not involved in the constructors' title there will still be no slacking off. They want a good performance to give them some precious momentum going into the hard slog of testing for next season. A podium finish will ensure not only bragging rights, but also a solid platform for negotiations with sponsors and perhaps even potential drivers and other key staff.
It's also a chance for race fans to say a few sad goodbyes. Shanghai will be the last race for Minardi before the Red Bull machine swallows them up. The team may have been perennial also-rans, but they were a lot of fun and in boss Paul Stoddard they had a man who wasn't scared to speak his mind and challenge authority. Sauber will also bow out after this race, and although they were more successful somehow they were less loveable as a team.
If you are a Ferrari fan there might be another reason to dust off your Michael Schumacher T-shirt this weekend. There is the slightest possibility this could be the last race of arguably the greatest driver of all time. The seven-time champ has not enjoyed being an also-ran this season and might surprise us all by calling time on his career this winter.
Despite all the speculation in the media, Schumacher has another year left on his contract, and if Ferrari can sort their problems out for next season he could pick up title number eight.
The last reason why the Chinese Grand Prix is still relevant is surely the most important: it's a race in its own right. Whatever the state of the various titles, the 20 drivers are pure bred racers. Give them a race and they will want to go out and win it. And in providing this entertainment they are aided by a fantastic Shanghai track.