Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fernando Alonso accepts 'favourite' tag as F1 title race accelerates

Fernando Alonso has won the past two grands prix and believes Ferrari have got their timing just right in the F1 title race

When Fernando Alonso clambered from his Ferrari at the conclusion of the British grand prix in July, it would have been safe to assume that the Spaniard's mood was not the brightest. Fourteenth-place finishes are not where world championships are won from and that result had left him fifth in the standings, 47 points off the pace. Yet Alonso felt a sense of optimism, and not simply because Spain were playing in the World Cup final that evening.

"After Silverstone," Alonso said here after being asked when he felt he could fight for the title. "We had made some improvements to the car and it felt good. Before that we had some up and downs, but the car was feeling OK, although not at the level of Red Bull Racing. After Silverstone, knowing it was a difficult weekend for us with the characteristics of the circuit being very good for Red Bull, we were still quite competitive there. With that car I had much more confidence in fighting for the title than before. So after Silverstone I was more optimistic."

A fortnight later in Germany Alonso won for the first time since the season's opening race in Bahrain. The victory at Hockenheim was not without controversy as it was gifted to Alonso after Felipe Massa was clumsily ordered to cede the lead to his team-mate in a blatant breach of the rule banning team orders. The result, however, put the Spaniard right back in the championship reckoning with enough races left to fight for the title. Having also won the last two grands prix, in Italy and Singapore, Alonso lies second, 11 points behind Mark Webber, in the five-way scrap to be crowned the 2010 world champion, with four races to come. To many in the gated community of the Formula One paddock the 29-year-old Spaniard is now favourite to add a third world title to his collection. Does he agree?

"I think if you see the last two races, yes, because you arrive in a good moment," he said. "It seems that you need to keep the momentum now for more races, but we saw this year that people that win two races, or have two or three podiums in a row, then they have some bad results and then they come back good. No one had consistently six or seven races in a good level for different reasons, so we expect there will be difficult moments for us.

"What we need to do is be prepared for those moments, not panicking, and score as many points as possible at every race. We know sometimes it will be a podium, sometimes maybe a fifth position – it is in those moments when we need to be united and not panic."

Of the protagonists Alonso is the only one with the full weight of his team behind him. Despite some mid-season signs to the contrary, most notably at Silverstone, Red Bull are splitting their effort evenly between Webber and Sebastian Vettel, as are McLaren with Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. On the other side of the Ferrari garage from Alonso sits the slighted Massa and the pressure is now on the Brazilian to produce the goods in support of his team‑mate.

"I have waited for Felipe with great perseverance in the last four races," said Ferrari's president, Luca di Montezemolo, this week. "I want a strong Massa who will shave points off the rivals. In Singapore he had some bad luck, but he is in good condition to win. Those who race for Ferrari don't race for themselves, but for the Ferrari team colours. One who wants to race for himself will have to face his team."

Di Montezemolo continued: "The decision to focus on Alonso has been proven to be right. He is extremely strong and very close to the team, and has been able to blend in well from day one. It has been a strange season. We won the first race, then we had some problems with the development of the car. The victories at Monza and Singapore have rekindled hope."

The decision to promote Alonso ahead of Massa at Hockenheim cost Ferrari a $100,000 (£63,000) fine and an appearance in front of the World Motor Sport Council, as well as the seeming alienation of the Brazilian a year to the day after his life-threatening accident at the 2009 Hungarian grand prix meeting. Massa has received assurances that from the start of next season he will once again be treated as Alonso's equal; until then he must act as the double world champion's wing man, however reluctantly.

All the teams in title contention are in a constant battle to improve their cars but Ferrari seem to have got the pace of their development just right and now appear to have the strongest all-around package, though on the evidence of today's running here at Suzuka they will struggle to match the pace of the Red Bulls on Sunday having been almost a second off the pace in practice and finishing in fourth and fifth.

The team principal, Stefano Domenicali, has admitted that Ferrari got distracted in focusing too much attention on their F-duct system, but they ran an improved version in Turkey and since then the upgrades have come on stream at a steady rate; the exhaust-blown diffuser appearing in Valencia and a new floor at the last race in Singapore. The team promise that there is more to come.

"The hard part is still ahead of us," Alonso said in a call to arms for his team. "Now it starts getting serious. We will have to experience some pain, and it is time for everyone to give their all without taking a single backward step." He will hope that Massa gets the message.


No comments: