SAKHIR // Fernando Alonso, back in a competitive car and back to his competitive best, hailed his illustrious Ferrari team yesterday as the best in the world after he and Felipe Massa secured a one-two finish for the Italian manufacturers at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Spaniard, a two-time world champion with Renault and a former teammate of third-placed Lewis Hamilton at McLaren-Mercedes, said his debut race for Ferrari was "extra special" and will live long in his memory. Alonso, starting third on the grid behind Massa and pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull-Ren-ault, had joked beforehand about the possibility of attacking his teammate on the first turn.
The Ferrari pair, scrutinised for a seemingly frosty relationship, had agreed instead to focus on displacing Vettel and securing a one-two finish. "Third is OK," Alonso had consoled the German with a mischievous grin. Yesterday, in the blazing heat, Ferrari - and Alonso - accomplished their mission. The 28-year-old did, in the end, attack his teammate on the first turn to steal second by going around the outside, but was then faced by an impressive Vettel who held the lead for the majority of the 49-lap race.
But when the 22-year-old experienced problems with his exhaust midway through lap 34, the Spaniard capitalised to take the lead. As Vettel's Red Bull slipped further behind courtesy of Massa's manoeuvring, Alonso established a comfortable lead and by the time the chequered flag appeared, he had created a gap of more than 16 seconds, pleasing the crowd by showboating his way over the finish line with a series of zigzags.
Vettel held on to finish in fourth place, ahead of his compatriots Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher, the Mercedes GP drivers, to complete a largely processional first race of the year, and the first since 1993 with no refuelling. "It's a special day for me," said Alonso. "Any victory means a lot, but especially with Ferrari and it will be difficult to forget. Coming back to the top of the podium is always special and it's even more special with Ferrari, with all the history behind the team and the expectations a driver has driving for them. There is no better way to start the relationship; I am in the best team in the world."
The omens are good for Alonso with 16 of the last 20 world champions having won the first race of the season, but he is looking for his team to continue to look to develop their package. "The key to winning the world championship is developing the car throughout the season," he added. "We have a really good base, but this is just the start. There are things to improve, for sure. There is not a perfect car in the world and we are working hard; now is the time to push."
At times during yesterday's race the Ferrari's tyres appeared to be eroding under the heavy fuel loads and Alonso admitted after the race he had been advised to conserve fuel. Had it not been for Red Bull's demise, Ferrari were not guaranteed glory. "Vettel was very quick, especially on the soft tyres and I could not follow him," said Alonso. "I had some pace in my pocket, but I knew I had to watch my tyres. I was waiting to attack, maybe in the last 10 laps, but then suddenly he had a problem and we had a chance to take him earlier than we had expected."
Jenson Button, the Formula One world champion, was seventh in his McLaren, ahead of Mark Webber, Vettel's Red Bull teammate, who caused drama on the first lap when plumes of smoke came from his engine coming out of the first corner. But it was not the motor expiring, but excess oil being burned off, which caused the smoke and led to Adrian Sutil's Force India-Mercedes and the Renault of Robert Kubica spinning after being blinded.
The points places were com- pleted by Vitantonio Liuzzi's Force India in ninth and Rubens Barrichello's Williams-Cosworth in 10th place. firstname.lastname@example.org