Now, this prancing horse will have to gallop

All-round drivers of the calibre of Fernando Alonso are hard to come by in modern-day F1 racing. It is not always that a driver’s performance — whether he has won, finished on the podium or off it — receives such compelling attention. By G.Raghunath.

The task before Fernando Alonso now is as challenging as Hercules’ Third Labour. Commanded by King Eurystheus to capture the golden-horned Ceryneian Hind, which could lope quicker than an arrow released from a bow, Hercules desperately went in pursuit of the antler through foreign lands for a year before pinioning it with his hydra-headed arrow.

Like Hercules, Alonso needs to relentlessly pursue and hunt down the out-running Sebastian Vettel in the remaining six races (in Korea, Japan, India, Abu Dhabi, USA and Brazil) — and also hope for the championship leader to drop big points along the way — if he has to lay his hands on a third world title that has been eluding the Spaniard for quite some seasons now.

Going by where he is currently placed in the championship race — a whopping 60 points behind Vettel in second place — and the staggering form of Vettel and Red Bull, it seems very likely that he would have to wait for some more time before joining the distinguished band of drivers (Jack Brabham, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel) who have won more than two world championships.

After finishing second behind Vettel for the third successive race in Singapore on September 22, Alonso acknowledged that he would need loads of luck now to turn the tide in his favour. “We have to be realistic because with only six races to — and the gap is increasing every weekend — we need to be honest with ourselves,” he said. “We need lots of luck, not just in the next race in Korea, but in Japan, India, Abu Dhabi... We need luck every weekend if we are one second off the pace.”

The Ferrari driver’s sense of hopelessness comes out very clearly here, a despondency arising from the fact that he just does not have the car with which to bring down a mighty Vettel in a mighty Red Bull. And just as palpable was his frustration during an interaction with the Italian media on his 32nd birthday (July 29, 2013) — the day he finished fifth in the Hungarian Grand Prix — when he was asked what gift he would like to have. Alonso replied without batting an eyelid: “La macchina degli altri”, which translated loosely means ‘other guy’s car’.

That the focus this year — just as it was last year and perhaps a few other seasons too after he had won his last world crown in 2006 — is as much on Alonso’s frenetic push for a third world title as on Vettel’s another incredible run corroborates the Spaniard’s stature as a driver of pristine talent and one of the greatest of the modern era.

Alonso barely missed becoming a triple world champion in 2007 when he joined McLaren. In a season marred by ‘Stepneygate’ (a former Ferrari employee Nigel Stepney was alleged to have passed on vital technical information to McLaren) and the open confrontation between the McLaren drivers, Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen pulled off a remarkable victory in the final race in Brazil to lift the world title, much to the chagrin of the Woking-based outfit. Going into the final round at Interlagos, Alonso needed to finish not lower than second to win the title. But with the two McLaren drivers refusing to resolve their differences and the atmosphere in the garage absolutely vitiated as a result, it wasn’t surprising that an outsider not only gate-crashed their party but also thumbed his nose at them.

Alonso ran Vettel close in 2010 and 2012 but fizzled out in the homestretch, as it were. With a brilliant surge, triggered by a victory in the German Grand Prix, Alonso went into the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi leading Vettel by a cool 15 points (246 to 231). However, Ferrari’s decision to pit Alonso early at the Yas Marina Circuit blew up on their face, as the Spaniard got stuck behind Vitaly Petrov (Renault) for several crucial laps and could manage only a seventh-place finish.

Last year, Alonso had the mortification of seeing his 42-point lead over Vettel being rolled back after the summer break, partly because of a strong second-half performance by Vettel/Red Bull and partly due to Alonso’s own horrendous luck. (The Ferrari driver had to retire in two races: in Belgium, Romain Grosjean of Lotus put him out with a collision into the first corner and in Japan he had to return to the garage with a puncture following a run-in with Kimi Raikkonen, also of Lotus).

One critical factor germane to Alonso’s misery has been the technical deficiency or, what they call in the F1 parlance, the packing of the Ferrari. In the famous words of Stefano Domenicali, the principal of the Maranello outfit, “A car that is not a car.”

While Alonso has been complaining that the F138 is off the pace, at least by a second, when compared with the Red Bull, there have been reports of murmurs in the Ferrari garage that both he and Felipe Massa have failed to draw the maximum out of their cars, especially in qualifying.

Qualifying close to Vettel and then attacking him in the first few laps of a race, no doubt, is a simple and straight-forward strategy to baulk the effortlessly coursing German. And quite significantly, Alonso’s only two victories so far this season — the Chinese Grand Prix and the Spanish Grand Prix — have come from the second row of the grid. But against a car of amazing pace and impeccable handling and one that opens up a lead of nearly 30 seconds over its immediate challenger within the first 15 laps of a race, there’s very little that one can hope to achieve.

Yet, race after race Alonso has persevered, drawing deep into his reserves, into his experience to finish in front. As in Singapore where he started seventh but pulled off an amazing start to finish second. The Ferrari driver’s six podium finishes apart from the two victories so far this season augment the belief that all-round drivers of the calibre of Alonso are as rare as hen’s teeth.

It is not always in Formula One that a driver’s performance — whether he has won, finished on the podium or off it — receives such compelling attention.