x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Fernando Alonso keeps targets realistic for Italian Grand Prix

The Spaniard's target for the Monza race is simply to finish ahead of his nearest challenger Sebastian Vettel.

Fernando Alonso leads the world championship going into the Italian Grand Prix.
Fernando Alonso leads the world championship going into the Italian Grand Prix.

MONZA // The congregation at the entrance to the Ferrari garage was so dangerously swollen yesterday that circuit officials had to temporarily suspend the Italian team's autograph session. Yes, he may not be Italian, but there is no doubting Fernando Alonso is the local hero this weekend.

Ferrari's Spanish driver has won the Italian Grand Prix twice, leads the world championship after 12 races, and is acutely aware he has a nation's hopes - as well as his own championship ambitions - resting on his recovering shoulders in Sunday's 53-lap race.

An opening-lap crash involving Romain Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton at the Belgian Grand Prix saw Alonso caught up in the carnage and left him with minor whiplash injuries, stiff shoulders and a pain in his back.

He has, however, been passed 100 per cent fit and his championship campaign must immediately get back on track at what is his team's home race.

Ferrari, having missed out on a home race win to Red Bull Racing last year, have conceded their current car is not strong enough and are working to improve it.

Yet having fitted an entirely new aerodynamics package ahead of the weekend, and with Alonso at the wheel, the Italian marque is allowed to believe and the 31 year old is ready to try to fulfil expectations at a "special" and "emotional" race.

"Well, for sure it's not going to be easy," Alonso, whose lead over Sebastian Vettel at the top of the standings slipped from 40 to 24 points over the course of two hours last Sunday, said.

"In terms of performance, we've not been so quick in the last two or three grands prix. What we need to do is maximise our performance, extract the maximum from the car and hopefully that will give us some chance to be on the podium."

If there is a driver in the field who can extract a car's potential it is certainly Alonso: the two-time world champion's retirement at Spa was the first time he had failed to finish in the points for 24 races, many of which he competed in while driving a Ferrari that seriously lacked a competitive edge.

Such has been the former Renault and McLaren driver's consistency of late that suggestions have been made he could secure a third title without actually winning another race this year as his rivals continue to take points off each other.

Vettel is his nearest challenger, but has not won since Bahrain in April, eight races ago, while his Red Bull Racing teammate Mark Webber has scored only 16 points in the last three races since winning in Britain in July.

"It depends on your opponents and also what they do: if they keep sharing victories, it's possible to win [the title] without any more [race] wins," he said. "But at the moment, we see McLaren very strong, so they can win three or four consecutive races and your gap disappears. We need to focus on who is second in the championship at the moment which, today, is Vettel so this weekend we try to finish in front of him."

McLaren-Mercedes have won the previous two rounds of the championship and yet Hamilton, the team's 27-year-old 2008 world champion whose contract expires at the end of the year, has been strongly linked this week with a move to Mercedes-GP.

Eddie Jordan, a former team principal and now a television analyst, has claimed a deal has already been signed.

When Hamilton was yesterday asked whether he knew where he would be driving next season, the reply was a firm, "No".

Such a switch would seemingly make little sense if the Englishman's sole motivation is, as he says it is, winning titles. Yet he refused to rule it out.

"I want to win," he said, when asked what factors will drive him when the time comes to make a decision. "You always want to win every year you can compete: that is why us drivers exist and why teams exist. It is just making sure you are in the right place to do so. I drive for McLaren, we won the last two races and hopefully we will have another great weekend ahead of us. That is what we need to focus on."

Mercedes played the speculation with an equally straight bat. Ross Brawn, the team principal, said no decision had yet been made on their driver line-up next season.

"When we make our driver decision, you will be the first to hear about it," Brawn said.

"But it is still some way off."

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