| Fernando Alonso (left) and Giancarlo Fisichella after the race in Shanghai on Sunday. (AFP)
Shanghai: Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher swept to a sensational victory at a rain-soaked Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday to seize the Formula One Championship lead by the slimmest of margins.
The seven-time world champion pulled level with Renault’s Fernando Alonso on points, 116-116, but is ahead 7-6 on race victories.
With just two races remaining, Schumacher edged closer than ever to a record eighth title with a performance in difficult conditions that showed his genius remains undiminished despite his decision to retire at the end of the season.
Starting sixth on the grid, he roared into the lead 15 laps from the finish to take the chequered flag 3.1 seconds clear of his Spanish rival.
Italian Giancarlo Fisichella was third, allowing Renault to retake the lead in the constructors’ championship by a single point after Ferrari’s Brazilian Felipe Massa collided with Briton David Coulthard and failed to finish.
Briton Jenson Button was fourth for Honda, ahead of McLaren’s Pedro de la Rosa, after last lap chaos behind the leaders.
Honda’s Rubens Barrichello was sixth and Nick Heidfeld seventh for BMW Sauber. The German, who started the last lap in fourth place, complained bitterly that the Brazilian had crashed into him.
Australian Mark Webber ended Williams’ dismal run of 10 races without a point by finishing eighth.
Alonso had led from pole position, with Fisichella acting as a roadblock behind him, and looked to be steaming to his second successive Chinese victory until the first pitstop.
After discussions with the team and Michelin, only his severely worn front tyres were replaced — a decision that slowed his progress and allowed Fisichella and Schumacher to close up behind him and overtake.
Alonso then made an early second stop on lap 35, intending to fuel to the finish, but a wheel nut problem delayed his exit.
He would have been third had Fisichella not let him through.
“The winner is Michael and he deserves the victory. Today we lost a big opportunity,” said Alonso. “There were nine or 10 laps when I was completely off the pace and I think the race finished there.”
Schumacher had not previously scored a point in two disappointing previous appearances in China, with last year’s race one of the worst of his career, but his 91st Grand Prix victory ended any suggestions of a local jinx.
It also made it almost inevitable that the title duel will go down to the wire at the final round in Brazil on October 22.
Schumacher has not led the standings since 2004, when he took his seventh title, but he has tasted victory in Japan and Brazil before and could easily win both again.
If he needed any omens, it came when Alonso dropped his magnum of champagne over the podium balcony to a Renault mechanic below — who failed to grasp the bottle and saw it smash into smithereens. Schumacher’s was fielded safely.
McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen, Schumacher’s successor at Ferrari next season, retired with a throttle problem seven laps after he had overtaken Fisichella for second place on lap 13.