Alonso throws down the gauntlet

The Spaniard has turned the 2010 season on its head with three wins in the last five races. Only 11 points behind the championship leader, Mark Webber of Red Bull, the Ferrari driver is within striking distance of the World crown. By G. Raghunath.

Five drivers at the top of the table scrapping frantically for the 2010 World Championship with only four races to go. So finally, for the first time in many years, Formula One is talking of real competition.

Now that the prize-fighters have entered the homestretch, sandbagging is at its very best. The 2008 champion, Lewis Hamilton (182 points), who failed to finish in the Singapore Grand Prix — his third DNF in four races — ‘fears' that he may have let slip from his grasp a second Formula One World Championship title.

Meanwhile his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button (177 points) says that though he is capable of defending his World title, he believes Hamilton is still a cinch.

Sebastian Vettel (181 points) is not quite sure what is in store for him in the next four races. “Ferrari has made a step forward in the last couple of races, so they will be strong and don't forget McLaren. There are still a lot of drivers fighting for the title and they are very close to each other, it's tight and a lot of things can still happen,” he says.

Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber, the championship leader with 202 points, is determined to go flat out in the next race (the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, October 10), but insists the momentum is with Fernando Alonso, who won back-to-back races in Italy and Singapore. Alonso is now just 11 points behind Webber.

The Ferrari driver, however, is a bit realistic. Referring to his successive victories at Monza and Marina Bay, Alonso, in an interview to Auto Racing Daily, says: “… after two races I am second in the championship, 11 points behind Mark (Webber), I think. Anything can happen in these four races, any of us can win two or three consecutive races and put you in a very good position or you have one or two retirements and you are completely out of it, you are mathematically out of the championship. So we need to keep concentration, keep the focus and as I said, the chances for all of us are more or less the same. It will depend on how these four races go, hopefully with no mistakes, with very high concentration from all the team and hopefully we keep the same way and keep momentum in Japan as well.”

The unusual situation that Formula One is in now is largely the making of Alonso, who has turned the 2010 season on its head with three wins in the last five races. What a dramatic turnaround it has been for the Spaniard, whose surge began at the German Grand Prix though under suspicious circumstances (Felipe Massa let Alonso through to the chequered flag following a radioed message from the Ferrari pit).

The cynics spontaneously point to Ferrari's obnoxious team orders — banned since Rubens Barrichello was instructed to let Michael Schumacher pass him and take the chequered flag at the Austrian Grand Prix eight summers ago — or its illegal front flexi-wings while refusing to give due credit to Alonso's amazing charge. And the reason for this may partly be because Alonso is not one of the more popular drivers on the circuit.

Right from his days with Renault, when he had accused his team of showing preferential treatment to team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, the Spaniard has been seen as a bad loser.

The catastrophic switch to McLaren and his not too infrequent run-ins with team-mate Hamilton, a rookie then — the face-off between the two only grew worse with each race as Alonso refused to concede that Hamilton was as good as him if not better — caused substantial damage to his reputation.

Alonso's second stint at Renault, seen as a homecoming by the then team principal Flavio Briatore, was at best second-rate. He finished fifth overall with 61 points in 2008 and ninth with a mere 26 points in 2009.

Alonso seemed to perfectly justify his well-trumpeted move to Ferrari this year by winning the season opener, the Bahrain Grand Prix, with dexterity of old. Though he had only two more podium finishes before hitting the overdrive in Germany, his calibre as a frontline driver and the ability to steer Ferrari out of its atypical stupor was never in doubt. His victory in the Singapore Grand Prix, where he smartly held a rampaging Vettel at bay, is a pointer in case. Earlier in Melbourne, he had spun off on the first lap that pushed him to the back of the field.

But a fighter that he is, Alonso showed the world what aggressive driving was all about — he worked up a blistering pace, manoeuvred his car up the field niftily and finished fourth. A race later, in the Chinese Grand Prix, Alonso unleashed another of his magical drives after being penalised for a false start, and from 15th place he ran through the field to finish fourth.

At Monza and Marina Bay, Alonso showed what he could really do with a car that was fast and reliable and with a team that had a good strategy, timed its pit stops better than the rest and handled the tyre changes exceptionally well. And quite interestingly, in terms of points scored in the last five races, the Spaniard was matchless with 93 points, while the championship leader Webber had logged only 74. Vettel, Button and Hamilton have scored 60, 44 and 37 respectively.

Alonso's victory in Ferrari's home Grand Prix stirred up the kind of emotion among the tifosi that wasn't witnessed here since Michael Schumacher last drove for the prancing horse in 2006. The circuit was awash with red as thousands of fans cheered their hero on the podium. And Alonso, who had previously won in Monza in a McLaren, was simply blown away by the reaction.

“In 2007 there were not very nice words because I was in McLaren, fighting Ferrari. But here now it is very different, this welcome and support by everyone is great. I never imagined being at Ferrari would be so good. The integration with the team has been fantastic. The welcome by the team and the Italian fans has been much better than I ever dreamed,” BBC quoted the Spaniard, who spends a lot of time in Maranello these days.

Alonso has said that he is at the peak of his career now, and that he is one hundred percent motivated to go for his third World title. He isn't giving much thought to the fact that he is running on his last engine for the season. (Why should he when he is an expert at nursing engines?) He believes the championship has just begun for him, which is a good sign for both Alonso and Ferrari.

Should Alonso win the World Championship this year, he will cap a memorable 2010 for Spain, which won the football World Cup in July and saw its World No. 1 tennis player, Rafael Nadal, achieve a career Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in September. And significantly, his victory could also pave the way for another legendary partnership in the sport.

ALONSO FACTFILE Date of birth: July 29, 1981 Current team: Ferrari Past teams: Renault, McLaren Races: 155 (154 starts) Championships: Two (2005 & 2006) Total victories: 25 Podiums: 60 Career points: 768 Pole positions: 20 Fastest laps: 17 Race debut: 2001 Australian Grand Prix First win: 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix