Fabulous Fernando: The Speedy Spaniard Strides Towards Title #Three
Last weekend’s Korean Grand Prix was good for two things. Firstly, there was a vindication of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s belief that the Yeongam circuit would be ready (well, ready ‘enough’) in time for the arriving F1 circus. What Bernie wants, Bernie usually gets, and bar a few missing paint jobs and the belated seat installation, Korea duly delivered.
The second great beneficiary of F1’s visit to its newest circuit was Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard further bolstered his late charge towards the drivers’ championship with a near faultless display in tricky conditions, whilst the majority of his rivals for the title fell by the wayside.
Pre-race championship leader Mark Webber was the first to go, the affable Aussie dropping his Red Bull after running wide on to the damp artificial grass outside Turn 12, before clipping a wall and collecting the unfortunate Nico Rosberg as he rolled back across the track. Last year’s champion Jenson Button was dawdling in the lower mid-field, eventually finishing a lowly twelfth. Button’s team-mate Lewis Hamilton was in an equally accommodating mood towards Alonso, overshooting into Turn 1 and allowing his rival back past him (having previously got past him in the pit stops). And then came the real icing on the cake for Alonso – Sebastian Vettel’s engine going up in smoke with barely ten laps remaining.
Alonso now sits atop the drivers’ table following four wins and two further podiums in the last seven rounds. The Korean race has all-but mathematically eliminated Button from the title race as he admitted afterwards, whilst Vettel sits a full race win (twenty-five points) off Alonso’s score. His closest rival, Webber, is eleven points back, whilst he has a relatively comfortable buffer to Hamilton in third too. Indeed, although Lewis seemed quite content just to be finishing back at the sharp end following three DNFs and a disappointing fifth place in his previous five races, had he not erred and allowed Alonso past him, he would have won the race and be just seven points off the lead as opposed to the deficit of twenty-one that he currently has. A real missed opportunity, Lewis.
Such errors have come to characterise Hamilton’s latest charge towards the world title. When you add in similar critical misjudgements (the pit lane at China) and mistakes (selecting neutral in Brazil) in his 2007 campaign you could argue that a pattern is emerging. Regardless, whilst Hamilton has frittered away great opportunities to claim a second championship this season – the mistake that allowed Alonso past in Korea, and collisions with Webber in Singapore and Massa in Italy – the real beneficiary has been Alonso, whose measured consistency and natural talent has seen his 2010 title challenge gather significant momentum towards the season’s conclusion.
In a style befitting of a two-time title winner and a driver with ten seasons of F1 experience, Alonso has delivered results at the crunch time and is driving like a champion, which is of course in contrast to some of his less experienced rivals. The impetuosity of youth that surrounds Hamilton’s approach can be applied equally to Vettel, whose own errors have totalled up in a costly manner this season, most notably in his collisions with Button at Spa and with team-mate Webber in Turkey, and worryingly in his failure to convert seven of his nine pole positions into race victories.
Button of course has eleven seasons of F1 experience and a title to his name, but doubts still surround the British driver as to just how dependent he was on having the best car to achieve his 2009 championship. With one podium from the last eight races, Button’s contention for 2010 honours can clearly be seen to have drifted off as this season has progressed.
Webber is of course equally experienced, but without a title to his name it remains to be seen just how the pressure might tell on him. His error in Korea was unexpected, for this season he has rarely put a foot wrong, but faced with a team seemingly reluctant to put their full weight behind him, a team-mate that has been consistently faster than him in the latter half of the season (qualifying has gone 7-2 in Vettel’s favour since Canada), and an on-form two-time champion in Alonso, who knows how Webber will handle the final couple of rounds. The Aussie might well relish no longer being the chased now that he has relinquished the lead to Alonso, but any further errors such as the one in Korea and Webber’s title challenge will be over in a far from satisfactory manner.
One of the biggest factors favouring Alonso is that his Ferrari team have supported him as de facto #1 driver. Team-mate Felipe Massa has been playing second fiddle to the Spaniard, offering data and trialling various set-ups to help Alonso in his quest for the title. This is of course in contrast to McLaren-Mercedes and Red Bull Racing where both teams have – at least outwardly – repeatedly refused to give preferential treatment to either of their drivers. Whilst this is undoubtedly commendable, especially in the light of Alonso’s controversial Hockenheim victory, it puts their drivers at a slight disadvantage in comparison to the Ferrari man. This is perhaps most glaringly illustrated by the following fact: should Red Bull allow Vettel to win the final two races ahead of Webber in second with Alonso finishing third, Alonso would win the title. The good news for Webber is that team principal Christian Horner has at least admitted that, should it be required, potentially swapping his drivers’ positions is at least ‘something that [Red Bull] will look at pretty closely between now and Brazil.’
However, whilst Red Bull might be able to control their drivers, they have not been able to control the reliability of their vehicles. Vettel’s engine failure in Korea was the most vivid explication of this, with Red Bull known to be wary of the durability of their Renault engines; but they have also suffered with brake problems in Spain for Vettel as well as a loss of ‘torque drive between the front left axle and wheel’ in Australia, whilst Webber also had gearbox issues in Canada. McLaren have suffered their share of mechanical failures this season too – Button had overheating issues at Monaco, whilst Hamilton has had a wheel rim failure in Spain and gearbox troubles in both Hungary and Japan. Meanwhile, Ferrari’s Alonso has been relatively unhampered, with just the one failure in Malaysia. Altogether, Fernando’s Ferrari has proved far more reliable than his competitors’ cars, which should be seen as a positive for his title aspirations going into the final two rounds.
The most remarkable aspect of Alonso’s performance this season is that it has come in a car supposedly inferior to his competitors. McLaren have the benefit of Mercedes engines – the quickest on the grid, whilst the Red Bull team are regarded as having the quickest car, especially through the corners, resulting in fourteen poles from seventeen races. Ferrari Team Principle Stefano Domenicali reflected on the single-lap dominance the Red Bull cars have shown, commenting: ‘So they have a fantastic car […] but for me the most important thing is that, despite this fantastic car, we are there, fighting.’
Not just fighting, Stefano, but winning. Alonso is top of the pile going to Interlagos, despite the supposed superiority of the Red Bulls, something he puts down to consistency: ‘there are four or five contenders still, so as we repeat many times, consistently being on the podium is the key to win the championship.’ And if it is consistent podiums Alonso is after then he probably cannot wait to get to Brazil, where he has claimed five podiums from his last seven races there. Granted, Alonso might never have won in Brazil, but then again neither has Vettel, Hamilton or Button.
Alonso has twice come out victorious from title battles before, is undeniably in great form, and has the whole of his Ferrari team behind him. Meanwhile the other drivers’ title contenders are suffering with reliability, team strategy issues, and are either youthfully exuberant and less experienced or yet to win a title having fully experienced and coped with all the pressures it throws at the driver.
Having registered his ‘first wet race win’ in Korea last weekend, Alonso is peaking at the right moment, is leading the championship, and is consistently getting the job done – unlike several of his rivals – and consequently has to be considered the favourite for the 2010 drivers’ crown. Although, Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo is quite right to point out that ‘we have not actually won anything yet’, and as Murray Walker was so fond of saying, ‘anything can happen in Formula One, and it usually does.’ So SportingBlogs won’t be counting those chickens just yet…