x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The uphill task facing Fernando Alonso

Rarely does the driver without the fastest car on the track win the championship, and, Graham Caygill writes, the Spanish driver is unlikely to be able to manage the feat

Fernando Alonso's Ferrari is not as fast as the Red Bull Sebastian Vettel drives.
Fernando Alonso's Ferrari is not as fast as the Red Bull Sebastian Vettel drives.

Fernando Alonso touched on the scale of the task facing him in Abu Dhabi on Sunday when he acknowledged in India last weekend that it was not simply him against Sebastian Vettel in the fight to win the drivers' championship.

The Spaniard had said on Saturday that he was also competing against the skill of Adrian Newey, the chief technical officer of Red Bull Racing, whose design expertise has transformed the RB8, the car Vettel is driving, from merely being good, to being formidable.

Vettel has won the last four races and when the five red lights go out at 5pm to start the 55-lap race at Yas Marina Circuit he will start with a 13-point lead over Alonso in the drivers' championship. And given his recent form the German is the strong favourite to make it five in a row and move a step closer to a third successive world title.

Alonso knows he has to beat a faster car, with a driver at the top of his game, and somehow score 14 more points than Vettel in the remaining three races of the season, beginning in Abu Dhabi.

That is tough challenge when you consider in the last four races the Ferrari man has scored only 48 points to Vettel's 100.

Unfortunately for Alonso's history is against him. It is rare in Formula One's past for a driver in a car that is not the fastest in the field to end up being champion.

There is only so much a driver can do when up against superior machinery.

If he does not have the equipment it is hard to compete for victories and titles - such is life in F1.

In recent times only Michael Schumacher, in 1995 with Benetton, and Alain Prost, in 1986 with McLaren, have won championships in cars that were arguably not consistently the quickest in the field over the year.

The Red Bull cars designed by Newey have been the most powerful force over the past three seasons, notching up 34 wins since 2009 and a third successive constructors' title for the team is expected to be wrapped up in Abu Dhabi.

Regardless of whether he can cause an upset and stop Vettel it has been a sensational effort from Alonso to even be in serious contention for the title, given his Ferrari has often been only the third or fourth quickest on the track. There had been no doubts before this year that he was a great driver, having already won two championships with Renault, back in 2005 and 2006, and been a challenger in 2007 and 2010, but his reputation has soared to new levels this season.

In the opening race in Australia back in March, Alonso was 12th on the grid with a time more than 1.5 seconds off the pace, and over the season, he has yet to make the front row in a dry qualifying session where a car's pace is most exposed.

He did start second in Spain in May, but that was because Lewis Hamilton, who had taken pole position, was demoted to the back of the grid.

So given the fact the car is not that fast, at least in the dry, how has Alonso become a championship contender?

Essentially by taking every opportunity that has come his way, making no mistakes, using his superb car control to the maximum, the fact the Ferrari races better than it qualifies, and being consistent in a year of great variables because of the fast degrading Pirelli tyres.

Of the 17 races so far this season, Alonso has finished 15 of them. He was the innocent victim of a first corner crash in Belgium in September and then suffered a race-ending puncture at the first corner in Japan earlier this month.

The Spaniard had led the championship from July until earlier this month when he was overhauled by Vettel, and the hunted has now become the hunter.

He minimised the damage of Vettel's fifth win of the season in India on Sunday by putting in a stunning drive to take second place.

Yes, he was fortunate that Mark Webber, Vettel's teammate, suffered technical problems that slowed him in the second half of the race, but Alonso had driven his Ferrari to its limits to ensure he stayed within five seconds of the Australian, describing each circuit of the track as a "qualifying lap" as he pushed hard.

He was able to capitalise on Webber's difficulties and by taking the runner-up spot he lost just seven points, rather than 10, to Vettel.

Alonso could have been forgiven for giving up and settling for third, given the fact he was up against two drivers in superior machines as the Red Bulls pulled away in the opening laps.

But that is not his way. He kept trying and was rewarded.

A great test of how good a driver is wet conditions. It challenges a driver's skill. They can no longer push their car to the limit, therefore some of the speed advantage of their package is lost, and the skill and talent from within the cockpit becomes even more important.

Malaysia, in March, has been the only wet race this season, and Alonso came through from 11th, while both qualifying sessions that took place in the rain, in Britain and Germany, ended with Alonso on pole.

In a season of unpredictability, the one constant element, until Red Bull found their form, was that Alonso would always make the best of his equipment.

To put Alonso's efforts into some form of context, he has scored 227 points. His teammate Felipe Massa is ninth in the standings, having mustered just 89, and that figure is only that high because of a recent improvement in fortunes that has seen him score 38 points in the last three races.

Ferrari's F2012 is not a bad car, but it is not a particularly good one either. The fact Alonso has won three times in it and scored 10 podiums has helped the team punch above their weight against the Red Bulls and McLarens.

Realistically, unless Vettel has a reliability issue in one of the final three races or makes a mistake, Alonso's efforts will probably be in vain, but they should not be ignored or forgotten.

So, get ready to enjoy watching a genius at work this weekend as Alonso takes on the might of Red Bull. He is the underdog, but you can be sure he will not give up without a fight.


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