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

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F1: Raikkonen slams motivation claims

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Scheckter shuns Alonso for Vettel and Hamilton

Click here to read more about Scheckter shuns Alonso for Vettel and Hamilton

Jody Scheckter rates Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton as the two best drivers in Formula 1, shunning Fernando Alonso with whom he says he has lost respect for. Speaking to MotorSport magazine, the 1979 world champion was asked to name which… More »

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Hamilton saga nearing endgame

Only Lewis Hamilton truly knows where he wants to drive next season – and perhaps not even he does just yet. But the signs are that the saga that has been occupying Formula 1 for months is nearing its endgame.

Hamilton has two competing offers on the table for his future – one to stay at McLaren and one to move to Mercedes.

The word at the Singapore Grand Prix – for what it’s worth – was that he is leaning towards staying where he is; one McLaren insider even suggested that a deal could be inked within days.

At the same time, there may be a complication. There are suggestions that earlier this year Hamilton signed something with Mercedes – a letter of intent, a memorandum of understanding, perhaps – that he would need to get out of before he could commit to McLaren. His current team have heard talk of this, too. Hamilton’s management deny this.

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The conventional wisdom is that Mercedes are offering Hamilton more money and that the deal is sweetened further by greater freedom over personal sponsorship deals. Those are highly restricted at McLaren because of the team’s breadth of marketing tie-ups.

But BBC Sport understands it is not quite as simple as that.

For one thing, some sources say the figures quoted for the Mercedes offer in the media so far – of £60m over three years – are significantly larger than what is actually on the table.

Of course, in theory, as one of the largest car companies in the world, Mercedes can afford to pay almost any figure it wants.

But the board’s commitment to Formula 1 has been in question all year. While it is understood that the company has now reached an agreement with the sport’s commercial rights holders defining the financial terms under which they have committed for the next few years, F1 is not a money-no-object exercise for them.

McLaren believe their offer to Hamilton is broadly similar to Mercedes’, and that in terms of total remuneration he could actually end up earning more money if he stays where is.

How so? Well, it seems the headline salary figures may not differ that much – although I understand Mercedes’ offer is larger.

Mercedes offer greater freedom in terms of new sponsorship deals with which Hamilton can top up his income, and out of which his management group – music industry mogul Simon Fuller’s XIX – would take a cut that some sources say is as great as 50%, a figure XIX say is wildly exaggerated.

McLaren, by contrast, have strict rules around their driver contracts – they do not allow any personal sponsorship deal that clashes with any brand owned by a company on their car.

So deals with mobile, fashion, household products, perfumes, oil and so on are all out. Jenson Button is allowed to have his deal to endorse shampoo because it was signed before McLaren had GlaxoSmithKline as a partner.

McLaren, I’m told, have loosened some of their restrictions in an attempt to give Hamilton more freedom.

And in their favour is that all contracts contain clauses that define bonuses for success; in McLaren’s case for wins and championships. These amount to significant amounts of money and on current form Hamilton would earn more in bonuses with McLaren than with Mercedes.

Financially, it is in XIX’s interests for Hamilton to move to Mercedes – that is where they will earn most money.

But that may not be the case for Hamilton, which of course begs the question of whether the driver and his management group actually have conflicting interests.

While Hamilton has steadfastly refused to discuss his future with the media, he has been consistent in one thing. As he put it at the Italian Grand Prix earlier this month: “I want to win.”

He knows exactly how good he is and it rankles with him that he has so far won only one world title.

In which case, the last few races will have given him pause for thought.

McLaren started this season with the fastest car in F1, the first time they have done that since at least 2008 and arguably 2005.

But Hamilton’s title bid was hampered by a series of early season operational problems that prevented him winning until the seventh race of the season in Canada. Was it during this period that he signed that “something” with Mercedes?

After a slight mid-season wobble through the European and British Grands Prix in late June and early July, though, McLaren have come on strongly.

Upgrades introduced at the German Grand Prix gave them a big step forward, making the McLaren once again the fastest car.

Progress was disguised in Hockenheim by a wet qualifying session, which allowed Alonso to take the pole position from which he controlled the race.

Even then, though, with Hamilton out of the reckoning after an early puncture, Button ran the Spaniard close.

Since then, it has been all McLaren. Hamilton won from pole in Hungary and Italy; Button the same in Belgium. Then in Singapore Hamilton lost an almost certain victory, also from pole, with a gearbox failure.

Meanwhile, Mercedes have floundered. And while rival teams agreed that a big upgrade to the silver cars in Singapore did move them forward a little, Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher only just scraped into the top 10 in qualifying and were anonymous in the race until Schumacher’s embarrassing crash with Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne.

Undoubtedly, Mercedes will have given Hamilton the hard sell.

They’ll have pointed out that they have won the world title more recently than McLaren – in their previous guise of Brawn in 2009.

They’ll have said they are a true works team backed by a huge car company, whereas McLaren are from next year paying for their “customer” Mercedes engines.

They’ll have argued that, in team boss Ross Brawn, Mercedes have the architect of the most dominant dynasty in F1 history – the Ferrari team of the early 2000s – who is determined to do it again. Triple world champion Niki Lauda, who is expected to be given a senior management role at the Mercedes team, has also been involved in trying to persuade Hamilton to join the team.

And they’ll have said Hamilton has relative commercial freedom with them to make as much money as he wants.

What they won’t have said is that the 2009 world title came about in rather exceptional circumstances and that at no other time has the team looked remotely like consistently challenging the best – whether as BAR, Honda or Mercedes.

And they won’t have said that McLaren – for all Hamilton’s frustrations over the cars he has had since 2009 and the mistakes that have been made in 2012 – have a winning record over the past 30 years that is the envy of every team in F1.

Of course, the past does not define the future, but the future is built on the past.

It’s possible that the near future of F1 is one of Mercedes hegemony, but it would be a hell of a gamble to take for a man who professes he just “wants to win”.

If the latest indications about his mind-set are correct, perhaps that is what Hamilton has now realised.

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/andrewbenson/2012/09/hamilton_saga_nearing_endgame.html

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BBC confirms 10 races for 2013

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