x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The thin red line that keeps Fernando Alonso ahead

The Ferrari driver leads the drivers' championship, and he is determined to stay there, Gary Meenaghan reports from Budapest.

Fernando Alonso sits top of the drivers' standings midway through the Formula One season. Drew Gibson / Getty Images
Fernando Alonso sits top of the drivers' standings midway through the Formula One season. Drew Gibson / Getty Images

In Formula One, a sport where races can be won and lost by margins so minuscule they would give Pythagoras a headache, it is hardly surprising numerical symmetry is known to play on the minds of drivers.

Last season, Sebastian Vettel secured the world championship with four races left, but refused to take his foot off the accelerator in Abu Dhabi as he successfully hunted down Nigel Mansell's record of 14 pole positions in a single season. The German went one better two weeks later and broke the record in Brazil.

Now, Fernando Alonso, Ferrari's two-time world champion who sits top of the drivers' standings at the midway stage of the season, has reiterated his intentions of emulating his boyhood hero, Ayrton Senna, by securing three world titles.

"When [I won my second title in] Brazil in 2006, I said it was a dream for me to even think about winning three World Championships in my career, so if it's this year, in two years' time or in six years' time, the third one will be very important for me," he said.

"To have the same as Ayrton had – three World Championships – he was my idol or my reference when I was in go-karts, so three is a pretty good number, of which I always dream. Hopefully it will arrive sooner rather than later."

Alonso and Vettel have enjoyed amiable banter in the past regarding their record-breaking feats. When a 24-year-old Vettel last year dethroned his rival as the youngest two-time world champion, Alonso said: "Now we will see who is the youngest three-time world champion".

Senna was 31 and seven months when he won his third title in 1991, but on Sunday at the Hungaroring, Alonso hopes to take a giant step towards his goal by celebrating his 31st birthday with a 31st career win.

His feat would be all the more impressive when considering the Spaniard and the sport have come a long way since his first race victory, claimed here nine years ago.

"When you win your first grand prix it's just a lot of emotions going on," he said. "A lot of satisfaction, pride in the team, in yourself, your family … You cannot imagine that you will repeat that feeling or that happiness more times or very often.

"So when you keep winning after some years, with some different teams and different regulations that have changed a lot from 2003 – V10 [engines], V8s; Michelin [tyres], Bridgestone, Pirelli; refuelling, no refuelling – it means a lot.

"If I look back, I never imagined to have the luck and the possibility to achieve two world championships and now drive for Ferrari."

Alonso made his debut in 2001 and won the world championship in 2005 and 2006 while with Renault. After an ill-fated spell at McLaren-Mercedes, he moved to Ferrari where he narrowly missed out on a third title in 2010 after losing the championship lead to Vettel on the last day of the season at Yas Marina Circuit.

The elusive third title has continued to remain out with his grasp, yet with a 34-point lead after 10 races, Alonso is in the driver's seat this season.

"I think he will do it," said Kamui Kobayashi, the Japanese driver with Sauber. "Fernando is strongest this season; we can all see he is really strong."

Narain Karthikeyan, the Indian driver with HRT, said: "Fernando is going very well. He has all the support, so he should make it."

Alonso predictably refuses to look too far ahead. "There is not much point to talk about the championship now," he said. "We are in a good position in terms of points that we achieved in the first half of the season, but we are only half way.

"We did 10 races and there remain another 10 important races. Things can change very quickly, so, we need to keep the concentration and try to keep maximising what we have in our hands every weekend: sometimes we know that can be a podium, sometimes maybe it's a fifth position, sometimes a seventh, but we cannot afford to make any mistakes."

This year, the minuscule margins are smaller than ever.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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