x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Alonso is back in the title hunt after Monza win

The Spaniard had to secure Ferrari's first win on home soil since 2006 the hard way after a sluggish start.

Fernando Alonso celebrates his maiden win in the Italian Grand Prix in front of Ferrari's home fans yesterday.
Fernando Alonso celebrates his maiden win in the Italian Grand Prix in front of Ferrari's home fans yesterday.

MONZA, ITALY // During qualifying he had spoken about the need to be calm, but that was not an option in the race. Fernando Alonso won his first Italian Grand Prix as a Ferrari driver yesterday and had to do it the hard way. Jenson Button (McLaren-Mercedes) beat Alonso off the line, and the Spaniard responded with a brutal, but vain, defensive chop. The two cars touched lightly as they negotiated the subsequent right-left complex, and Alonso lost just enough momentum to allow teammate Felipe Massa to draw alongside. The Ferraris were still almost as one when they reached the second chicane, but Alonso had the advantageous inside line.

Just behind, points leader Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) tried to usurp Massa, too, but succeeded only in driving straight into the Ferrari's side pod. The impact broke the McLaren's front-right suspension, something of which Hamilton appeared unaware until he slithered irretrievably into the gravel at the following corner. It was the first serious error he has made all year. "I'm sure," said Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, "that Lewis will realise it wasn't the right thing to do when he watches a slo-mo replay on TV, but he's an aggressive racing driver who has to make split-second decisions and I wouldn't want to change that."

The incidents behind enabled Button to build a small lead on the opening lap, but Alonso was soon back on his tail - and glorious to watch. The Ferrari's body language was exquisite through the 190kph Parabolica corner that leads on to the main straight. "I thought I could perhaps pass him if I got a better exit from Parabolica," Alonso said, "but Jenson was driving superbly and didn't make any mistakes."

In the end the race was decided during the mandatory tyre changes. Button pitted on lap 35 and Alonso followed suit one lap later: both stops were quick, but the Ferraris was fractionally faster and the two cars were almost side by side as Alonso rejoined. The Spaniard had the inside line at the turn, however, and that was enough to cement the pass. On a clear track the Ferrari was marginally faster and the new leader was able to edge away during the balance of the race.

"We had to make our pit stop when we did," Whitmarsh said, "because some of the cars behind had switched to the harder tyre and at that stage of the race it appeared to be the faster option. It appeared to be the right moment to change and I'm sure our tactics were right. Unfortunately, though, so were Ferrari's." The Monza crowd went suitably bananas as Alonso crossed the line; he compared the crowd reaction to the one that followed his only Spanish GP victory, in 2006.

"I think we made the right decisions at the right times today," he said. "It's a very special feeling and quite hard to put into words." Button conceded he was a little disappointed with the result, although he is now back in the thick of the title fight. "Mentally, that was a very tough race, because I never knew quite how far behind Fernando was," he said. "It's hard to judge when the mirrors are shaking so much. Ultimately, I feel the race was lost just after our tyre stop. I didn't have much grip on my out lap and that probably made the difference."

Massa remained third all afternoon, while Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull-Renault) capitalised on an unusual strategy to take fourth, ahead of Nico Rosberg (Mercedes GP) and teammate Mark Webber. Sixth place was enough to restore Webber's championship lead, but the leading quintet are now separated by only 24 points - less than one race victory - with five grands prix to go. There has never been a season quite like it.

sports@thenational.ae