x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Ferrari's decision is the pits for Alonso

Tactical error denies driver his chance to be crowned the youngest three-time champion.

Fernando Alonso, the Ferrari driver, had no luck during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix yesterday as he saw his title chances slip away.
Fernando Alonso, the Ferrari driver, had no luck during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix yesterday as he saw his title chances slip away.

ABU DHABI // With his racing suit stripped to his waist and his undershirt unbuttoned halfway down, the 29-year-old man looked spent and dazed as he strode towards the Ferrari compound.

Cameras followed, heads turned, eyeballs homed in for a fishbowl effect, and a well-wisher barked encouragement.

But Fernando Alonso plodded on, halting only when winning boss Christian Horner stepped out of the Red Bull yard to supply a warm embrace.

Here, after all, walked a driver whose entire, gruelling, hopeful, tantalising, tepid-in-the-summer, surging-in-the-autumn, leading-before-the-last-race season had soured on a single decision.

From here on, Formula One fans might call it That Pit Stop.

"That, at the end, was not the right thing maybe," Alonso would say an hour later, referring to That Pit Stop, "but it's always very easy to say the strategy after the race."

As the aftermath continued in Italian with the Ferrari principal Stefano Domenicali, a Spanish reporter walked up late and asked about That Pit Stop, whereupon Domenicali said, "I've already said it was a big mistake."

As Alonso said in some aching words for Ferrari: "We tried to cover Webber."

He meant that with 246 points to Mark Webber's 238 and eventual champion Sebastian Vettel's 231 going in, Ferrari urgently wished to keep ahead of its nearest threat, Webber, only to find that nearest threat a non-threat in the season's last race.

That meant that after Webber wanted for pace and scraped against the barrier on mischievous Turn 19 and went to the pits on lap 11 for harder tyres, Ferrari sent in Felipe Massa to make sure he would come back out in front of the Red Bull driver. The ploy did not work as Massa came out behind Webber. Ferrari then sent in Alonso for new tyres only for the Spaniard to end up frustrated in traffic through a race that might have anointed him as the youngest three-time champion.

That is how he spent the rest of the day trying futilely to get around Vitaly Petrov and Nico Rosberg. That is how on the 44th lap he wound up hearing on his radio the desperate voice of his race engineer saying, "Use the best of your talent. We know how big it is. Use it."

And that is how he finished seventh and pulled up next to Petrov shaking an absurdly petulant fist.

And the carefree Jenson Button from next door on the grid? He stayed out there, pitted late and finished third on an evening when fourth place from a similar strategy would have meant a title for Alonso.

"For us, we had a choice to make," Alonso said, and "stay out" would be the proper but untaken choice.

And while the crowd cheered the fresh champion Vettel audibly through a gap in the grandstands, Alonso answered questions measuredly from a series of television reporters before making his runner-up's walk for the Ferrari house with all its fondness for red dye.

There, he began a series of palpably heartfelt embraces with crew members. Another draining season had ended, and when Alonso went upstairs and came back down in shorts, he sat for a while on the third step of the stairwell conversing with Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari president. The mood seemed north of despondent while well south of exultant.

"Obviously it's a sad feeling, half an hour after the race," Alonso said, "but there's nothing we can do now. The race didn't go as we wanted."

In some ways his first Ferrari season did, however, so he clung to that, saying it had taken five or six races to acclimatise and that after three so-so seasons for other teams he had revelled in his place in the mix.

"Next year," he said, "I think we start from a more normal position. I think if we fought for the championship racing with the third-quickest car [this year], we will challenge for the championship in the very near future."

Massa then stepped in to answer questions, and even those not fluent in Italian could understand that two of the words in his very first sentence were "pit stop".

cculpepper@thenational.ae