x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Fernando Alonso's patience with Ferrari set to be rewarded

The Spaniard finally appears to have a car his talent deserves at the Italian team, writes Gary Meenaghan.

China was Ferrari and Fernando Alonso's first victory of the season.
China was Ferrari and Fernando Alonso's first victory of the season.

A tired and dying comparison has in recent weeks seen new life breathed into it. Sebastian Vettel had long been labelled an infantile Michael Schumacher, but in Malaysia last month, his Machiavellian maneuvering saw some of their more sinister similarities cemented.

The narrative is obvious - both are ruthless Germans with dominative intentions - but the theory has, like a No 1 hit single, grown boring through repetition; drawing such a parallel is now too popular.

In these pages we prefer something a little more unorthodox - the journalistic equivalent of a long broom-handle putter, if you will.

So here is a new comparison: Schumacher's paddock apparition is not cherubic-faced Vettel, but rather the menacing figure of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso.

At Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix, the 31-year-old Spaniard driving a blood-red car comfortably claimed his 31st race win, a result that saw him equal Nigel Mansell on the all-time win list.

The only drivers who have triumphed more often than Alonso now are his hero, Ayrton Senna (41), Frenchman Alain Prost (51) and Schumacher (91).

Gerhard Berger, a close friend and former teammate of the late three-time world champion Senna, has said in the past that Alonso is "a special driver" who deserves to be ranked alongside the Brazilian so often eulogised as the sport's greatest.

"They are drivers who can win world championships without having the absolute best car," Berger said.

Likewise, Gary Anderson, the BBC's F1 chief technical analyst, yesterday wrote that "Alonso reminds me of Prost in the 1980s. If Prost was anywhere near the front of the grid, you kind of knew he was going to win because he had the tools underneath him to do it. It's the same with Alonso."

Who am I to disagree with a former driver and a chief technical designer? Nobody. So I will not.

Alonso is, in many ways, reminiscent of both Prost and Senna, but by simple logic that means we can also draw comparisons between him and Schumacher, the sport's most successful figure.

Before Schumacher embarked on his unprecedented run of five consecutive world championships between 2000 and 2004, he had won the drivers' title twice, in 1994 and 1995.

For five years, he was not only referred to as a two-time world champion, but also, at 26, the sport's youngest. His record was eventually beaten by Alonso in 2006 and the Spaniard has been labelled a two-time world champion ever since (although not F1's youngest, because Vettel usurped him in 2011).

Schumacher's barren spell coincided with his decision to join Ferrari.

Much like Alonso in 2010, he was initially provided a poor car by the Italian team which should never have been competing for titles.

Yet, like Alonso has for two of his three seasons in Maranello, he dragged it determinedly around each circuit and twice came within a race win of a third title.

Schumacher cut a desperate and frustrated figure in these years. Few who follow the sport will forget the black mark against his controversial 1997 season when he was disqualified and labelled by his own national press as "a kamikaze without honour" as he recklessly tried to win the final race of the year in Spain by colliding with Jacques Villeneuve.

Yet even with the influential Italian media calling for the German to be dismissed, he showed patience to remain with Ferrari and it paid off in 2000 as he began an era of domination that saw him win 48 of 85 races by the end of 2004.

Alonso, who endured three frustrating years with the Italian marque that produced only nine wins from 58 races, is hoping this year will see his own patience start to pay dividends.

If the first three contests of 2013 can offer any true insights, it is that Ferrari look capably quick and that an elusive third drivers' title is in the offing for Alonso, without the need for him to perform miracles.

At the season-opening race in Australia, he had looked impressive, but his performance was compromised by sitting behind his teammate early on.

A week later in Sepang, a broken front wing in a first lap squeeze ended his race prematurely.

On Sunday, Shanghai was the first time the man from Asturias had a chance to show what he could do. And he did just that.

China is a race that in recent seasons has not been one of the Italian manufacturers' favourites: no podiums in the past four years, no wins in the past five and a ninth-place finish for Alonso in 2012.

Yet this year it produced arguably the first race Ferrari have won on pure pace since Singapore 2010. It is little wonder their driver could barely conceal his jubilation post-race.

Ferrari and Alonso, like Ferrari and Schumacher, have taken some seasons to settle, but finally seem to have found a combination that can bring titles.

While it would be foolish to predict an era of dominance awaits, the Prancing Horse should be well positioned as a manufacturer to capitalise from next season's regulations overhaul.

And as Senna, Prost and Schumacher often proved, with a "special driver" at the wheel, nothing can ever be discounted.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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