Thursday, June 9, 2011

Alonso gives Red Bull pause for thought

The 2011 Formula 1 season is not yet a quarter done but it is already difficult to see past Sebastian Vettel ending a second consecutive season as the world champion.

A third victory in four races has given the Red Bull driver a 34-point lead in the standings and the man in second place, Lewis Hamilton, could finish only fourth in Sunday's Turkish Grand Prix.

There is no doubt that the German is now in total control of this season. The word "domination" is being bandied around and it is easy to see why but, in each of the four races so far, the performance gap between Vettel and his pursuers has not been as great as the stark results suggest.

Just as in his wins in Australia and Malaysia, Vettel's afternoon at Istanbul Park was made easier by delays suffered by his rivals.

This time, Nico Rosberg, who started third on the grid behind Vettel and team-mate Mark Webber, was the man responsible for allowing his fellow German to make a break. That ensured he could ease into cruise control as early as lap five, when Webber was finally able to pass the fast-starting Mercedes.

The key to all of Vettel's victories has been his searing pace in qualifying. Turkey was his fourth pole position in a row this season - his seventh in the last eight races if you count the end of last year - and it was one of his most impressive so far.

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Vettel had no dry running on Friday following a hefty crash caused by pushing too hard on intermediate tyres at Turn Eight in the wet conditions on Friday morning. Yet the following day he put his car on pole by nearly half a second from Webber.

Even in the wild and whacky races of 2011, pole position is proving a vital weapon for Vettel. It is allowing him to steer clear of the craziness behind him, and allowing him to run at his own pace, putting him in control of races from very early on.

Would Webber or Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who finished second and third, have been able to challenge him on Sunday had it not been for Rosberg? Neither man sounded very confident of that after the race.

Webber said it would have been "difficult to beat Sebastian today", while Alonso - the race's big surprise - described Vettel as a "99% favourite".

However, Alonso added that "this 1% (is what) we had lost in the first five laps with Nico because more or less the seven seconds distance to Sebastian was consistent all through the race. Without those five seconds, maybe we could have raced in the pit stop and forced something".

And that's the point. Vettel, as he said himself, is not unbeatable. But his life is being made easier by the frenetic battle behind him, which he is surveying from above for now.

Heading into the Turkey race, few would have predicted that it would be Alonso taking the fight to the Red Bulls - and certainly not the man himself.

The Spaniard arrived in Istanbul talking about Ferrari having taken a "small step". But new front and rear wings and brake ducts added up to a lot more than that.

Alonso has qualified fifth for all four races so far this season, but he and Ferrari reduced their deficit to Vettel from 1.4secs in China three weeks ago to 0.8secs in Turkey. And in the race he went toe-to-toe with Webber and very nearly came out on top.

Alonso drove a superb race, taking advantage of Hamilton's lap one error to slip into fourth place, following Webber past Rosberg and then slugging it out with the Red Bulls for the rest of the afternoon.

He was, then, the deserved winner of our new BBC F1 driver of the day vote, in which he took 18.5% of the support, just ahead of Vettel (17.9%) and Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi, who fought from the back of the grid to 10th place (17.2%).

It was a remarkable turnaround by Ferrari and there is more to come from them after some soul-searching and intense analysis at Maranello following their disappointing start to the season.

It immediately revived memories of last year. Leaving the British Grand Prix last July, nearly two clear wins off the championship lead on points, Alonso famously declared that he was more confident than ever that he could win the championship. And had it not been for some bungled Ferrari strategy in the final race of the season, he would have done.

Alonso might be 52 points - more than two wins - behind Vettel right now, but he has 15 races, or possibly 16 depending on what happens to Bahrain, to recover it and it would be a fool who wrote off now such a formidable fighter. After last year's experience, Red Bull certainly won't be making that mistake.

"Ferrari," said team principal Christian Horner, "they're back. They pushed us very hard today with Fernando."

Alonso felt confident enough after his third place in Turkey to talk about winning races. For now, though, the only person to do so this year apart from Vettel is Hamilton, for whose McLaren team Sunday was a chastening experience after their driver's breathtaking win in China.

That error on the first lap, running wide at Turn Four challenging Webber, put him on the back foot and a fumbled pit stop, caused by a sticking wheel nut, dropped him down still further. In typical style, Hamilton stuck with the task and he fought back to finish fourth.

Jenson Button was sixth after he and the team erroneously chose a three-stop strategy when four was the way to go.

Team boss Martin Whitmarsh rightly described it as a "fairly average day at the office" but Hamilton talked about battling for second without his problems, and there is no reason to suppose McLaren have lost the ability they have showed in the first three races to keep pace with Red Bull.

The next phase of the season, then, promises to be fascinating, with Mercedes, too, in the mix - even if Rosberg's race pace did not match his superb qualifying performance.

For his team-mate, though, the future looks less bright. Sunday was another difficult day in Michael Schumacher's ill-starred comeback.

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Trounced by Rosberg in qualifying, when he was - just like for much of last year - guilty of over-driving, Schumacher had another poor race, wrecking any hopes of a recovery by completely misjudging his defence against Renault's Vitaly Petrov in the early laps and ripping off his own front wing.

"I don't know why he doesn't know when to give up," David Coulthard said in the commentary. "On the track or in his career?" replied Martin Brundle, sharp as ever.

BBC pundit Eddie Jordan's post-race analogy with an aging and punch-drunk Muhammad Ali when he fought Larry Holmes in 1980 was perhaps a touch harsh, but you could see where he was coming from.

Fascinatingly, Schumacher's mask slipped a little for the first time since making his comeback. He had always insisted that he was enjoying himself, and that the pace and touch would come back. On Sunday, though, he admitted "the big joy is not there right now".

I've known Schumacher for a long time, and he looked and sounded like a man beginning, as Coulthard put it, "to ask himself some questions".

Perhaps it was the immediate post-race emotion talking, perhaps not. But, not for the first time, many in F1 will be asking whether his second career will last the three years for which he signed up.


Willi Heeks Nick Heidfeld Theo Helfrich Mack Hellings Brian Henton Johnny Herbert Al Herman

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