Monday, 7 January 2013

Cool, canny Alonso seems to have all the answers

The remarkable story of Fernando Alonso and Ferrari's incredible season continued at the German Grand Prix as the Spaniard became the first man to win three races in 2012 and moved into an imposing lead in the world championship.

Those three victories have all been very different, but equally impressive. And each has demonstrated specific aspects of the formidable army of Alonso's talents.

In Malaysia in the second race of the season, at a time when the Ferrari was not competitive in the dry, he grabbed the opportunity provided by rain to take a most unexpected first win.

In Valencia last month, it was Alonso's opportunism and clinical overtaking abilities that were to the fore.

Fernando Alonso tops the podium in Hockenheim

Other drivers may wonder how to stop Alonso's relentless drive to a third title. Photo: Getty

And in Germany on Sunday his victory was founded on his relentlessness, canniness and virtual imperviousness to pressure.

Ferrari, lest we forget, started the season with a car that was the best part of a second and a half off the pace. Their progress since then has been hugely impressive.

But vastly improved though the car is, it was not, as Alonso himself, his team boss Stefano Domenicali and Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel all pointed out after the race on Sunday, the fastest car in Germany.

Vettel's Red Bull - which finished second but was demoted to fifth for passing Jenson Button by going off the track - and the McLaren appeared to have a slight pace advantage over the Ferrari, given their ability to stay within a second of it for lap after lap.

But Alonso cleverly managed his race so he was always just out of reach of them when it mattered.

He pushed hard in the first sector every lap so he was always far enough ahead at the start of the DRS overtaking zone to ensure his pursuers were not quite close enough to try to pass him into the Turn 6 hairpin.

After that, he could afford to back off through the middle sector of the lap, taking the stress out of his tyres, before doing it all over again the next time around.

Managing the delicate Pirelli tyres in this way also meant he could push that bit harder in the laps immediately preceding his two pit stops and ensure he kept his lead through them.

Equally, he showed the presence of mind to realise when Lewis Hamilton unlapped himself on Vettel shortly before the second stops that if he could, unlike the Red Bull driver, keep Hamilton behind, it would give him a crucial advantage at the stop.

It was not quite "67 qualifying laps", as Domenicali described it after the race, but it was certainly a masterful demonstration of control and intelligence.

And there was no arguing with another of the Italian's post-race verdicts. "(Alonso) is at the peak of his personal performance, no doubt about it," Domenicali said.

It was the 30th victory of Alonso's career, and he is now only one behind Nigel Mansell in the all-time winners' list. The way he is driving, he will surely move ahead of the Englishman into fourth place behind Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna before the end of the year.

At the halfway point of the season, Alonso now looks down on his pursuers in the championship from the lofty vantage point of a 34-point advantage.

That is not, as Red Bull team principal Christian Horner correctly pointed out in Germany, "insurmountable" with 10 races still to go and 250 points up for grabs. But catching him when he is driving as well as this will take some doing.

Alonso is clearly enjoying the situation, and is taking opportunities to rub his rivals' noses in it a little.

He is not the only driver to have been wound up by the index-finger salute Vettel employed every time he took one of his 11 wins and 15 pole positions on the way to the title last year.

So it was amusing to see Alonso do the same thing after he had beaten the German to pole position at Vettel's home race on Saturday.

The exchange between Alonso, Button and Vettel as they climbed out of their cars immediately after the race was also illuminating.

After standing on his Ferrari's nose to milk the applause, Alonso turned to Button and said: "You couldn't beat me?" He then pointed to Vettel and said: "He couldn't either."

All part of the game, but a little reminder to both men of what a formidable job Alonso is doing this season.

The race underlined how close the performance is between the top three teams this year.

Red Bull had a shaky start to the season by their standards - although to nowhere near the extent of Ferrari - but have had on balance the fastest car in the dry since the Bahrain Grand Prix back in April.

And while McLaren have had a shaky couple of races in Valencia and Silverstone, they showed potential race-winning pace in Germany following the introduction of a major upgrade.

Despite a car damaged when he suffered an early puncture on debris left from a first-corner shunt ironically involving Alonso's team-mate Felipe Massa, Hamilton was able to run with the leaders before his retirement with gearbox damage.

And Button impressively fought his way up to second place from sixth on the grid, closing a five-second gap on Alonso and Vettel once he was into third place.

This has not been Button's greatest season, as he would be the first to admit.

Germany was the first race at which he has outqualified Hamilton in 2012 and even that may well have been down to the different tyre strategies they ran in qualifying.

Nevertheless, he remains a world-class grand prix driver and Germany proved the folly of those who had written him off after his recent struggles.

And despite Alonso's lead in the championship, the season is finely poised.

Germany was a low-key race for Mark Webber, who was unhappy with his car on the harder of the two tyres but remains second in the championship. And Red Bull's two drivers clearly have the equipment to make life difficult for Alonso.

The McLaren drivers are determined to make something of their season still and Lotus are quick enough to cause the three big teams some serious concern.

Mercedes, meanwhile, have a bit of work to do to turn around their tendency to qualify reasonably well and then go backwards in the race.

"It's going to be a great, great season," said McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh on Sunday. "It already has been a great season."

And the next instalment is already less than seven days away in Hungary next weekend.


Andrea Chiesa Ettore Chimeri Louis Chiron Joie Chitwood Bob Christie Johnny Claes

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