Warrior Alonso bides his time

Almost Fernando Alonso’s first act after what must have been the huge blow of seeing Sebastian Vettel slash his world championship lead to just four points at the Japanese Grand Prix, was to quote that country’s great swordfighter and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi.

“If the enemy thinks of the mountains,” Alonso wrote on his Twitter account, “attack by sea; and if he thinks of the sea, attack by the mountains.”

That the Ferrari driver can reach for the words of a 17th century kensei warrior and strategist in a moment of such strain reveals a lot about the manner in which he combines an indomitable fighting spirit with a status as possibly the most cerebral Formula 1 driver of his generation.

But it will take more than relentlessness and clever strategy for Alonso to hold on to a lead for which he has struggled so hard this season, but which has now dwindled to almost nothing.

The 31-year-old, who spun out at Suzuka with a puncture after being tagged by Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus on the run to the first corner, has carried his Ferrari team on his back this year.

Alonso has won three races and taken a series of strong points finishes to establish what was until recently an imposing championship lead in a car that has never once been quick enough to set pole position in the dry.

He did so by driving, in terms of consistency and lack of mistakes, one of the most perfect seasons there has ever been – a feat made all the more impressive because it was done in not the best car.

Fernando Alonso leads Sebastian Vettel in the Championship by four points. Photo: Getty

Yet now, through no fault of his own, Alonso has failed to finish two of the last four races and in that time Vettel has made hay, taking 37 points out of his rival’s lead.

Heading into Japan, it was already beginning to look as if Vettel was going to be hard to resist.

While the Red Bull has been a forbiddingly quick race car all season, the team did not in the first half of the season find it very easy to get the best out of it in qualifying.

But since mid-summer they have found consistency, and started to qualify regularly at the front of the grid as well. At the same time, luck has deserted Ferrari and Alonso.

More than that, Red Bull also appear in recent races to have made a significant step forward in the performance of their car.

Vettel looked very strong in Singapore two weeks ago, trading fastest times with Lewis Hamilton throughout the weekend and taking victory after the Englishman’s McLaren retired from the lead with a gearbox failure. And in Japan the Red Bull looked unbeatable from as early as Saturday final practice session.

How much of this is to do with the new ‘double DRS’ system which came to light in Suzuka is unclear.

Team boss Christian Horner said he thought it was more to do with the characteristics of the track suiting those of the Red Bull car. Perhaps, but the ‘double DRS’ certainly won’t be doing any harm.

Unlike the system that Mercedes have been using since the start of the season, which uses the DRS overtaking aid to ‘stall’ the front wing, Red Bull’s works entirely on the rear wing.

What it means is that they can run the car with more downforce in qualifying without the consequent straight-line speed penalty caused by the extra drag, because the ‘double DRS’ bleeds off the drag.

This does bring a straight-line speed penalty in the race, when DRS use is no longer free. But as long as the car qualifies at the front, this does not matter, as it is quick enough over a lap to stay out of reach of its rivals.

It is not clear how long Red Bull have been working on this system at grand prix weekends, but to the best of BBC Sport’s knowledge, Japan was the first time they had raced it. Coupled with a new front wing design introduced in Singapore, it has turned an already strong package into an intimidating one.

Vettel used it to dominate the race in the fashion he did so many in 2011 on his way to his second-consecutive title. As he so often does in the fastest car when he starts at the front of the grid, he looked invincible.

Alonso, though, is not one to be intimidated easily and will take solace from the fact that Ferrari’s pace compared to Red Bull was not as bad as it might appear at first glance.

Alonso may have qualified only seventh, but he reckoned he was on course for fourth place on the grid before having to slow for caution flags marking Raikkonen’s spun Lotus at Spoon Curve.

And judging by the pace shown by his team-mate Felipe Massa in the race, Alonso would have finished in a sure-fire second place had he got beyond the first corner. He might even have been able to challenge Vettel, given how much faster the Ferrari has been in races than in qualifying this year.

Alonso’s problem for the remainder of the season is that salvaging podiums is no longer enough – he needs to start winning races again. Which means Ferrari need to start improving their car relative to the opposition.

Meanwhile, spice has been added to an already intriguing final five races by a seemingly innocuous incident in qualifying in Japan.

After slowing as he passed Raikkonen’s car, Alonso continued on his flying lap, but when he got to the chicane, he came across Vettel, who blocked him.

Ferrari reckoned this cost Alonso somewhere in the region of 0.1-0.2secs, which would have moved him up a place on the grid. The stewards, though, decided to give Vettel only a reprimand.

They justified this on the basis that they believed Vettel had not known Alonso was there – and they let him off not looking in his mirrors because they felt he had reason to believe no-one would be continuing on a flying lap following the Raikkonen incident.

But some would see that as flawed thinking. Alonso was one of several drivers who had at that point not set a time in the top 10 shoot-out, and all of them were likely to be continuing their laps because whatever time they did set was going to define their grid slot.

Although there is no suggestion Vettel held up Alonso deliberately, the Red Bull driver is a sharp cookie, and almost certainly would have known this.

Even if he did not, his team should have warned him. And on that basis, it can be argued that Vettel’s offence was no less bad than that of Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne, who was given a three-place grid penalty for delaying Williams’s Bruno Senna in similar fashion earlier in qualifying.

Ferrari were distinctly unimpressed by the stewards’ verdict, but Alonso being Alonso, he has not mentioned any of this publicly. Alonso being Alonso, though, he will have lodged it away for the future.

In the meantime, before heading to Korea for another potentially pivotal race next weekend, might he be studying Musashi a little more?

You must “know the times”, Musashi wrote. “Knowing the times means if your ability is high, seeing right into things. If you are thoroughly conversant with strategy, you will recognise the enemy’s intentions and thus have many opportunities to win.

“If you attain and adhere to the wisdom of my strategy, you need never doubt that you will win.”

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/andrewbenson/2012/10/post_4.html

Jaime Alguersuari Philippe Alliot Cliff Allison Fernando Alonso Giovanna Amati

Would Vettel or Alonso be more deserving champion?

On the surface, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso seem very different. Alonso is all dark, brooding intensity; charismatic but distant.

Vettel is much sunnier – chatty, long answers, always ready with a joke and, as the Abu Dhabi podium ceremony proved, a salty English phrase.

Underneath, though, they share more than might at first be apparent. Both are highly intelligent, intensely dedicated to their profession, and totally ruthless in their own way.

Equally, although Alonso’s wit may be less obvious than Vettel’s, it is highly developed, bone dry, effective, and often used to tactical ends.

Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso

Sebastian Vettel (right) leads Fernando Alonso in the Championship going into the penultimate race of the season. Photo: Reuters  

And they are both, of course, utterly fantastic racing drivers.

These two all-time greats head into the final two races of a marathon and topsy-turvey 2012 Formula 1 season separated by a tiny margin. Ten points is the same as a fifth place – or the margin between finishing first and third.

Vettel, on account of being ahead and having comfortably the faster car, is favourite. But within F1 there is a feeling that Alonso would be the more deserving champion, so well has he performed in a car that is not the best.

But is that a fair and accurate point of view? Let’s look at their seasons, and you can make your own judgement.

THE GOOD

Vettel

It seems strange now, in the wake of Red Bull’s recent pulverising form, but at the start of this season the world champions were struggling.

The car always had very good race pace – it was right up with the quickest from Melbourne on – but qualifying was a different matter.

In China, Vettel did not make it into the top 10 shoot-out in qualifying; in Monaco he did – just – but then did not run because he didn’t feel he had the pace to make it worthwhile.

In both races, though, he was competitive, taking a fifth place in China and fourth in Monaco, where he nearly won.

That was the story of the first two-thirds of Vettel’s season. He kept plugging away, delivering the points and keeping himself in contention in the championship.

He took only one win – in Bahrain, from pole – and he should have had another in Valencia, when he was as dominant as he ever was in 2011 only to retire with alternator failure.

Then, when Red Bull finally hit the sweet spot with their car, he delivered four consecutive wins (one of them inherited following Lewis Hamilton’s retirement in Singapore), the last three from the front row of the grid, including two pole positions.

And in Abu Dhabi there was an impressive comeback drive to third after being demoted to the back of the grid, albeit with the help of a significant dose of luck.

Alonso

It is hard to think of a race in which, assuming he got around the first corner, Alonso has not been on world-class form.

In Australia, when Ferrari were really struggling with their car at the start of the season, he fought up from 12th on the grid to finish fifth (including getting up to eighth on the first lap).

His three victories have been among the best all year –in the wet in Malaysia from ninth on the grid; in Valencia from 11th, including some stunning, clinical and brave overtaking manoeuvres; and a superbly controlled defensive drive in Germany, holding off the faster cars of Vettel and Jenson Button for the entire race, by going flat out only where he needed to, lap after lap after lap.

Then, to pick out some other highlights, there was beating the Red Bulls to pole in the wet at both Silverstone and Hockenheim; his rise from 10th on the grid to third in Monza, including a courageous pass on Vettel a couple of laps after being forced on to the grass at nearly 200mph; and splitting the Red Bulls to finish second in India.

THE BAD

Vettel

Impressive Vettel has been this year, flawless he has not.

In Malaysia, he cost himself a fourth place by sweeping too early across the front of Narain Karthikeyan’s HRT while lapping it. There was a hint of frustration and a sense of entitlement about the move – as there was in his post-race comments in which he called Karthikeyan an “idiot”.

In Spain, he was penalised for ignoring yellow caution flags.

In Hockenheim he overtook Jenson Button’s McLaren off the circuit, earning himself a demotion from second to fifth place, despite the drivers being warned only a month or so before that they could not benefit by going off the track.

In Monza, he earned a drive-through penalty for pushing Alonso on to the grass at nearly 200mph, in presumed retaliation for a similar move the Spaniard had pulled on Vettel in the same place the previous year. Again, this was despite the drivers being warned that they had to leave room for a rival who had any part of his car alongside any part of theirs.

In qualifying in Japan, he got away with blocking Alonso at the chicane, despite Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne being penalised for doing the same thing to Williams’s Bruno Senna earlier in the session.

And in India he appeared to break guidelines about having all four wheels off the track at one of the chicanes on his only top-10 qualifying lap, but kept his time because the only available footage was from outside the car, and showed only the front wheels. So the FIA had to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Alonso

Er… Has Alonso made any errors at all this year?

Well, he did cost himself a couple of points in China when he ran off the road attempting to pass Williams’s Pastor Maldonado around the outside of Turn Seven – a move that Vettel did pull off against Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen.

He spun in a downpour in second qualifying at Silverstone, just before the session was red-flagged because it was too dangerous.

And some argue that, defending a championship lead, he should not have put himself in the position he did at the start in Japan, where his rear wheel was tagged by Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus on the run to the first corner, putting Alonso out of the race.

The claim is that Alonso had everything to lose and that, while he did nothing wrong, trying to intimidate Raikkonen into backing off, and squeezing him twice, was too big a risk.

The opposing view of that incident is that Raikkonen, who was behind Alonso, had a better view of the situation and should have realised he wasn’t going anywhere from where he was and backed off.

THE MISFORTUNE

Vettel has lost points from two alternator failures, one in Valencia when he was leading and one in Italy when he was running sixth. And third became fourth in Canada when a planned one-stop strategy had to he aborted. That’s 36 points lost.

Alonso was taken out twice at the start – once definitely not his fault (Belgium, when Romain Grosjean’s flying Lotus narrowly missed his head); and once arguably not (Japan).

He lost a possible win in Monaco because Ferrari didn’t realise that if they left him out a bit longer before his pit stop he could have overtaken leader Mark Webber and second-placed Nico Rosberg as well as third-placed Lewis Hamilton.

He should have finished second in Canada and probably won in Silverstone – rather than being fifth and second – but for errant tyre strategies, and he would have been on the front row and finished at least second in Monza had his rear anti-roll bar not failed in qualifying.

That’s 60-odd points lost.

A POST SCRIPT

While we’re analysing Vettel and Alonso, spare a thought for Lewis Hamilton.

The McLaren driver finally lost any mathematical chance of the title after his retirement from the lead in Abu Dhabi. He is 90 points behind Vettel.

Hamilton has said that he has driven at his absolute best this season, and it’s hard to disagree – he has not made a single mistake worth the name.

But his year has been a story of operational and technical failures by his team.

At least three wins have been lost (Spain, Singapore and Abu Dhabi), as well as a series of other big points finishes, as detailed by BBC Radio 5 live commentator James Allen in his blog.

Without that misfortune, Hamilton would be right up with Vettel and Alonso, if not ahead of them.

So, if you’re thinking about ‘deserving’ world champions, if such a thing exists, spare a thought for him too.

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/andrewbenson/2012/11/benson.html

Martin Brundle Gianmaria Bruni Jimmy Bryan Clemar Bucci Ronnie Bucknum

Warrior Alonso bides his time

Almost Fernando Alonso’s first act after what must have been the huge blow of seeing Sebastian Vettel slash his world championship lead to just four points at the Japanese Grand Prix, was to quote that country’s great swordfighter and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi.

“If the enemy thinks of the mountains,” Alonso wrote on his Twitter account, “attack by sea; and if he thinks of the sea, attack by the mountains.”

That the Ferrari driver can reach for the words of a 17th century kensei warrior and strategist in a moment of such strain reveals a lot about the manner in which he combines an indomitable fighting spirit with a status as possibly the most cerebral Formula 1 driver of his generation.

But it will take more than relentlessness and clever strategy for Alonso to hold on to a lead for which he has struggled so hard this season, but which has now dwindled to almost nothing.

The 31-year-old, who spun out at Suzuka with a puncture after being tagged by Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus on the run to the first corner, has carried his Ferrari team on his back this year.

Alonso has won three races and taken a series of strong points finishes to establish what was until recently an imposing championship lead in a car that has never once been quick enough to set pole position in the dry.

He did so by driving, in terms of consistency and lack of mistakes, one of the most perfect seasons there has ever been – a feat made all the more impressive because it was done in not the best car.

Fernando Alonso leads Sebastian Vettel in the Championship by four points. Photo: Getty

Yet now, through no fault of his own, Alonso has failed to finish two of the last four races and in that time Vettel has made hay, taking 37 points out of his rival’s lead.

Heading into Japan, it was already beginning to look as if Vettel was going to be hard to resist.

While the Red Bull has been a forbiddingly quick race car all season, the team did not in the first half of the season find it very easy to get the best out of it in qualifying.

But since mid-summer they have found consistency, and started to qualify regularly at the front of the grid as well. At the same time, luck has deserted Ferrari and Alonso.

More than that, Red Bull also appear in recent races to have made a significant step forward in the performance of their car.

Vettel looked very strong in Singapore two weeks ago, trading fastest times with Lewis Hamilton throughout the weekend and taking victory after the Englishman’s McLaren retired from the lead with a gearbox failure. And in Japan the Red Bull looked unbeatable from as early as Saturday final practice session.

How much of this is to do with the new ‘double DRS’ system which came to light in Suzuka is unclear.

Team boss Christian Horner said he thought it was more to do with the characteristics of the track suiting those of the Red Bull car. Perhaps, but the ‘double DRS’ certainly won’t be doing any harm.

Unlike the system that Mercedes have been using since the start of the season, which uses the DRS overtaking aid to ‘stall’ the front wing, Red Bull’s works entirely on the rear wing.

What it means is that they can run the car with more downforce in qualifying without the consequent straight-line speed penalty caused by the extra drag, because the ‘double DRS’ bleeds off the drag.

This does bring a straight-line speed penalty in the race, when DRS use is no longer free. But as long as the car qualifies at the front, this does not matter, as it is quick enough over a lap to stay out of reach of its rivals.

It is not clear how long Red Bull have been working on this system at grand prix weekends, but to the best of BBC Sport’s knowledge, Japan was the first time they had raced it. Coupled with a new front wing design introduced in Singapore, it has turned an already strong package into an intimidating one.

Vettel used it to dominate the race in the fashion he did so many in 2011 on his way to his second-consecutive title. As he so often does in the fastest car when he starts at the front of the grid, he looked invincible.

Alonso, though, is not one to be intimidated easily and will take solace from the fact that Ferrari’s pace compared to Red Bull was not as bad as it might appear at first glance.

Alonso may have qualified only seventh, but he reckoned he was on course for fourth place on the grid before having to slow for caution flags marking Raikkonen’s spun Lotus at Spoon Curve.

And judging by the pace shown by his team-mate Felipe Massa in the race, Alonso would have finished in a sure-fire second place had he got beyond the first corner. He might even have been able to challenge Vettel, given how much faster the Ferrari has been in races than in qualifying this year.

Alonso’s problem for the remainder of the season is that salvaging podiums is no longer enough – he needs to start winning races again. Which means Ferrari need to start improving their car relative to the opposition.

Meanwhile, spice has been added to an already intriguing final five races by a seemingly innocuous incident in qualifying in Japan.

After slowing as he passed Raikkonen’s car, Alonso continued on his flying lap, but when he got to the chicane, he came across Vettel, who blocked him.

Ferrari reckoned this cost Alonso somewhere in the region of 0.1-0.2secs, which would have moved him up a place on the grid. The stewards, though, decided to give Vettel only a reprimand.

They justified this on the basis that they believed Vettel had not known Alonso was there – and they let him off not looking in his mirrors because they felt he had reason to believe no-one would be continuing on a flying lap following the Raikkonen incident.

But some would see that as flawed thinking. Alonso was one of several drivers who had at that point not set a time in the top 10 shoot-out, and all of them were likely to be continuing their laps because whatever time they did set was going to define their grid slot.

Although there is no suggestion Vettel held up Alonso deliberately, the Red Bull driver is a sharp cookie, and almost certainly would have known this.

Even if he did not, his team should have warned him. And on that basis, it can be argued that Vettel’s offence was no less bad than that of Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne, who was given a three-place grid penalty for delaying Williams’s Bruno Senna in similar fashion earlier in qualifying.

Ferrari were distinctly unimpressed by the stewards’ verdict, but Alonso being Alonso, he has not mentioned any of this publicly. Alonso being Alonso, though, he will have lodged it away for the future.

In the meantime, before heading to Korea for another potentially pivotal race next weekend, might he be studying Musashi a little more?

You must “know the times”, Musashi wrote. “Knowing the times means if your ability is high, seeing right into things. If you are thoroughly conversant with strategy, you will recognise the enemy’s intentions and thus have many opportunities to win.

“If you attain and adhere to the wisdom of my strategy, you need never doubt that you will win.”

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/andrewbenson/2012/10/post_4.html

Gianmaria Bruni Jimmy Bryan Clemar Bucci Ronnie Bucknum Ivor Bueb