x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

False dawn for Alonso and Ferrari at Spanish Grand Prix

Five things we learnt from Barcelona: The Spaniard threatened to win his home race with a great start, but his car proved not to be up to the job.

A great start saw Fernando Alonso lead the early stages of Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, but his Ferrari’s lack of pace eventually told as he fell down the order to finish fifth, a lap down.
A great start saw Fernando Alonso lead the early stages of Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, but his Ferrari’s lack of pace eventually told as he fell down the order to finish fifth, a lap down.

The Spaniard threatened to win his home race with a great start, but his car proved not to be up to the job, writes Gary Meenaghan

Alonso flatters to deceive

Ferrari's Fernando Alonso enjoyed what he called "the perfect lap" in qualifying and could not have asked for a better start to his home race when he leapfrogged Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and the pole-sitter Mark Webber to take the lead by the first turn.

When he sped past the grandstand moments later, the crowd erupted. Yet, as the race wore on, the Spaniard's performance deflated like a punctured tyre.

First he was passed by Vettel in the pits to lose the lead, and momentum soon left him too as he proceeded to slip further down the field, eventually finishing fifth. Ferrari simply did not have the race pace to keep up - a fact proved by Vettel and Hamilton on the final lap as they lapped him.

Jenson Button did not hold back. "I don't think his pace was very good in the race and basically he stayed in front because people couldn't overtake," he said of Alonso.

Tyres make the difference

Before the Spanish Grand Prix started, much of the talk was whether the new regulations would transform one of the calendar's most processional races into a thrilling, action-packed contest.

In Turkey two weeks earlier, the Drag Reduction System (DRS) produced overtaking manoeuvres aplenty - primarily because the FIA misjudged the zone in which the drivers could utilise their adjustable rear wings.

This weekend there was hope the DRS would continue to impact the excitement of the sport, but without making passing appear artificial. As it turned out, the DRS had very little effect.

Fortunately, however, the new "hard" tyre that Pirelli introduced provided teams with new strategical challenges and resulted in most drivers adopting a four-stop strategy.

As Vettel said, while trying to pass Alonso, "we couldn't really get close enough to get into the DRS zone, so we got no advantage and [couldn't] pass him. But we got him in the pits".

Vettel shows his worth

Vettel is the world champion and leads this year's drivers standings, but the Red Bull Racing driver has his critics. Having never won a race by way of a genuine on-track overtaking manoeuvre, cynics continue to question whether Vettel is simply a good driver in a great car.

His performance at Circuit de Catalunya should go some way to change perceptions.

The 23-year-old German enjoyed arguably the best win of his career after employing a perfect strategy then defending his position at the front expertly while under intense pressure from Lewis Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes. With both cars on similar tyres and showing similar pace, the duel came down to whether Vettel had the concentration and skill to hold off his rival's charge. He did, and when Hamilton later revealed his McLaren would have been able to build a gap had he managed to pass, Vettel's performance became even more impressive.

Button's fighting recovery

When Button, starting fifth, stuttered off the grid and found himself 10th by the third turn, it looked like a day to forget for the Englishman.

However, the 2009 world champion showed every inch of his driving talent to fight his way back up the field and finish third. Martin Whitmarsh, his team principal at McLaren Mercedes called it "the mark of a true champion" and it was certainly his best performance this season.

After enduring some comically bad pit-stops of late, it was perhaps not surprising following his poor start that Button quickly opted to deploy a three-stop strategy. It had not worked in Turkey when his tyres lost their grip near the end of the race, but this weekend it worked wonderfully.

"All weekend we've been saying that the prime [hard] is a tough tyre and it's a long way off the option [soft] tyre, so for me to do a three stop was a no-brainer, really," he said, "And it worked out pretty well in the end."

Improvement at Team Lotus

Drivers regularly talk of the minuscule margins between success and failure in Formula One and Team Lotus's Heikki Kovalainen produced a prime example this weekend. The Finn helped his fledgling team to their best qualifying session in dry conditions on Saturday, finishing 15th ahead of both Force India drivers.

In the race, the former McLaren driver continued to impress, holding off the charge of some of the more established teams despite having sustained damage to his front wing. However, as leader Vettel came past and his tyres starting to show signs of degradation, Kovalainen lost control and spun off. He later, via Twitter, vented his anger at not pitting earlier.

His teammate, Jarno Trulli, with a cracked exhaust, was able to finish, showing that Lotus's quest to close the gap on Force India and join the middle order is on course.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae