ABU DHABI // Surrounded by luxury and extravagance, Fernando Alonso and his championship hopes sit in ruins as Ferrari struggled to match their Red Bull Racing rivals on the opening day of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The 31-year-old Spaniard had hoped upgrades to his car would see him close the gap to the top of the drivers’ standings, but he proved only seventh fastest, 0.83 seconds behind Sebastian Vettel, who has won the past four races and leads the championship by 13 points.
It is foolhardy to read too much into practice-lap times and neither is it an unassailable difference, but with five cars between Alonso and the standings leader, his task of closing the gap would be made vastly more difficult.
Vettel knows that with only three races remaining, two wins will gift him a third straight title. In a display of ruthlessness, the two-time champion said he was “not entirely happy”, urging the team to improve the car overnight.
Ferrari had tried exactly that hours earlier, using one of their four curfew exceptions early yesterday morning as they desperately tried to close the gap on the championship leaders. The FIA, the sport’s governing body, confirmed the Italian manufacturers had staff within the confines of the track during the curfew hours, which this weekend are between 4am and 10am.
In July, Alonso held a 44-point advantage over Vettel. However, Red Bull’s reigning world champion has found his pace at the perfect time, turning the Spaniard’s lead on its head to claim advantage.
“I think we can be pretty happy overall,” Vettel said, after finishing 0.168 seconds faster than McLaren-Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton. “I got a very good lap in on the soft tyres, but in general pace the McLarens were in front of us. Obviously, we push as hard as we can. We got enough running today, but we’re not entirely happy yet with the car. I think we can improve it and we must do so in order to make sure we qualify as high up as we can.”
The sight of a pair of McLarens between Alonso and Vettel is no surprise. In India last week, Alonso started fifth, behind the two Red Bulls and both Hamilton and teammate Jenson Button. He made light work of passing them in the race and Ferrari are looking, once again, to be relying on race pace, only this week Lotus seem to have improved, also.
“We’re trying as hard as we can to improve the qualifying performance,” said Pat Fry, the Ferrari technical officer. “We have updates, but we have to go through them. Some of them seem to be positive, but we must carefully evaluate their performance and then decide which to use in qualifying and the race. As we saw last week, the race pace is quite reasonable, but we have to improve our performance over a single lap if we want to start from the front row on the grid.”
Alonso, who has cut a confident figure since losing the championship lead in Korea last month, maintained everything is going to plan. “The day ended like any other Friday, during which we got through everything on our programme,” he said.
Hamilton was fastest in the day’s first session and believes he can fight Vettel in the race. He is hoping, however, that his team also can spring a surprise in today’s qualifying and halt a run of four pole positions for Red Bull.
Vettel has started on the front row at all three grands prix to be held in the UAE capital and the only man other than the reigning champion to win here is Hamilton. “It’s not in our hands what the others are doing,” Vettel said. “We have to make sure we get the best grid spot we can, and then we see whether it’s enough to beat the rest.”
The third and final practice session before Saturday evening's qualifying is at 2pm tomorrow.
1 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 1.41.751
2 Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) 1.41.919
3 Jenson Button (McLaren) 1.42.412
4 Mark Webber (Red Bull) 1.42.466
5 Romain Grosjean (Lotus) 1.42.500
6 Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) 1.42.532
7 Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 1.42.587
8 Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 1.42.823