By Andrew Benson
There are some seasons when the term "world champion" sits a little uncomfortably on the shoulders of the man who wears the crown, but 2006 was not one of them.
Alonso and Schumacher staged a thrilling duel for supremacy
So deserving of that term were both Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso that it is sad in some ways that only one of their names will be in the record books.
In his final season, Schumacher, the most successful driver in the history of the sport, once again proved all the qualities that made him the outstanding talent of his generation.
And Alonso displayed exactly why he will take over Schumacher's position as Formula One's pre-eminent driver.
It was an odd season, split almost exactly into a Renault half and a Ferrari half. But the end result was a championship climax of compelling excitement.
Few would begrudge Alonso his second title after a season in which the fates seemed to conspire against him, only to smile on him again by handing him victory in the penultimate race in Japan.
At the age of just 25, Alonso's place in F1's pantheon is already secure.
F1's two best drivers - either would have been a deserving champion
In many ways he is reminiscent of a young Schumacher - both are blindingly fast, brave and committed, but what marks them out as special is their ability to drive right on the limit on every lap of every race.
The manner in which Ferrari and their tyre supplier Bridgestone recovered from a slow start, and a huge mid-season points deficit to Alonso, underlined all the admirable qualities of engineering excellence and strategic genius that have made them the sport's dominant force this millennium.
Ferrari undoubtedly had the strongest package from the end of June until the beginning of October, but their revival was aided by Renault suffering the sort of wobble that champions can ill afford.
Initially, the championship was contested in a spirit of good sportsmanship - the drivers have great respect for each other's abilities, and several members of the rival teams have worked with each other in the past.
But as the season wore on, bitterness crept in as Renault began to feel as if the cards were stacked against them, that Ferrari were using political as well as sporting means to advance their cause.
A series of events made their chances of holding off Ferrari's challenge harder than it otherwise would have been.
It started last winter, with the decision to reintroduce tyre changes after a season in which Bridgestone had failed to match Michelin's ability to design tyres that were competitive over an entire race distance.
The decisions kept coming:
- Ferrari's use of flexing front and rear wings was declared legal at the start of the season, forcing all other teams to follow suit
Renault's "mass damper" was banned on the grounds of being a moveable aerodynamic device, despite it being located inside the car and cleared for use since September 2005
- Wheel farings introduced by Ferrari on the basis that they cooled the brakes, but which also had an aerodynamic effect, were allowed
To the anger of fellow drivers, Schumacher was not punished for missing the chicane while defending his place in Hungary
Alonso was controversially demoted on the grid in Italy for allegedly blocking Ferrari's Felipe Massa
In isolation, each of these would have caused relatively little impact on Renault, or raised alarm bells in the consciousness of those involved in and following the sport.
Renault began to feel as if the odds were stacked against them
But seen together, it was not only conspiracy theorists who began to feel distinctly uncomfortable about the pattern of events.
The ban on the mass damper - a counterweight mounted within the nose of the car that helped stability and improved tyre performance - was the most disruptive to Renault.
It came at a time when Bridgestone had overturned its early disadvantage to Renault's supplier Michelin and given Ferrari an edge.
After a disastrous race in Germany immediately following the ban, Renault overcame the problem, and were quickly back on the pace.
But by then, pressured by Schumacher's increasing momentum, they had started to make a series of most uncharacteristic errors.
Until Japan, these looked set to cost Alonso the title, only for the mistakes to even themselves out with Schumacher's rare engine failure.
Raikkonen and McLaren had a disappointing, winless year
After that, with Alonso needing only a point from the final race, the title was as good as settled, and so it proved.
Schumacher and Alonso turned a season that had been expected to be one of the most open for years into a private battle.
Their respective team-mates, Felipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella, were usually nowhere near them, underlining the brilliance of the two title rivals.
Of the other teams, McLaren were arguably the biggest disappointment of the year on the basis of their own and others' expectations, even if Honda - for a while - and Toyota ran them close.
To go from having the fastest car in 2005 to not even winning a race this year must have given Alonso some pause for thought about the wisdom of his decision to join the team in 2007.
The departure of technical director Adrian Newey to Red Bull before the season started cannot have helped, and does not raise confidence in McLaren's ability to bounce back, even with Alonso in one of their cars.
Kimi Raikkonen consolidated his position as the other member of F1's top three. But his continuing occasional errors and lapses of concentration meant he failed to match the consistent excellence of Schumacher and Alonso.
And McLaren's season also saw the end of the brief but electrifying F1 career of Juan Pablo Montoya.
Disenchanted by a shortage of opportunities for the future and McLaren's lack of competitiveness, Montoya lost his spark, and - emotional as ever - he committed to a switch to Nascar for 2007, whereupon McLaren sacked him immediately.
Button finally broke his duck with a deserved win in Hungary
Honda looked set to be an even bigger let down than McLaren, but after a catastrophically poor start to the season they turned their car around.
It was never a match for a Renault or Ferrari, and rarely so for a McLaren, but Jenson Button drove superbly on his way to his deserved maiden victory in Hungary, even if he inherited it when Alonso retired.
Toyota, after the promise of 2005, went backwards, and it is difficult to see how firing technical director Mike Gascoyne, the man who inspired their upturn last year, will help them progress.
They will have the added pressure in 2007 of direct competition from Williams, to whom the Japanese giant will be supplying engines.
How strong that competition will be, though, is a moot point, for Williams continued their cycle of decline in 2006.
The team that 10 years ago could produce cars good enough to allow Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve to beat Schumacher to the championship ended the season eighth out of 11 teams, having produced a car that was neither quick nor reliable.
It will take more than Schumacher's retirement to put this once great team back in a position they once took for granted.