In one of the year’s most dramatic weekends of sport, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso emphasises his global stature
And so Fernando has won another. Those of us who predicted he would win the 2012 World Drivers’ Championship, even as the F2012 was furrowing brows and giving early-season pace away to the McLarens, Red Bulls, Lotus-Renaults and Mercedes, are in no way surprised. Ferrari were always going to regroup; and there’s no-one better than Fernando when it comes to maximizing the good qualities of a car, minimizing its bad ones and stringing together a race weekend. Spin on Fridays, win on Sundays. The wonder, looking back, is that anyone didn’t think that a tight year like this would go Fernando’s way.
Hockenheim was standard Fernando fare: changeable conditions and rain (defying the highly-rated weather forecasters) on Friday and Saturday afternoon. No problem. Push the car hard on both inters and wets, find the grip wide of the conventional racing line, stay quiet, smile the smile, wear the shades and take the pole – take two poles, as it happened, because his last two laps were good enough for P1. Said timing was perfect, too: quickest of all before the rain fell on Saturday morning, Fernando in the afternoon took advantage of the tracks left by other cars, the more so as time wore on. He was out there, hunting for a lap, even as the chequered flag was unfurling.
The blue skies of a sparkling Sunday brought new tests. Remember the dry-weather pace of Saturday morning. Win the start. Pull out a DRS-free lead. Manage the tyres. Manage the back-markers!
He did all of that. In perhaps the truest test we’ve had yet of the F2012’s current status, he was able to handle all aspects of Seb Vettel’s Red Bull (with margin to spare). He could even enjoy a nice little cameo, courtesy of his old mate, Lewis Hamilton. Delayed by an early-lap puncture, Lewis rejoined just behind Fernando and Seb on the road (but a lap down in reality) before proceeding to show his pace, using DRS to pass Seb without issue into the hairpin. Incensed, Seb half-heartedly fought back, confused, I think, about whether he was “racing” Lewis or letting him go; that is what his waved arms seemed to suggest, at any rate. Fernando, in front, could only smile inwardly as his gap to Seb began to grow. (It was difficult to see what Seb’s problem was: if a guy like Lewis Hamilton isn’t allowed to unlap himself and race to the flag, then what was the 1967 Italian GP all about?)*
It was when Jenson Button jumped Vettel in the second pit stop (in part thanks to the time Seb had spent faffing around with Lewis, in part to McLaren’s amazing 2.3sec tyre change) that Fernando’s job description changed. Suddenly he had a silver car in his mirrors, all over him, potentially butting into his DRS zone.
Suddenly Fernando, the great Manager of Races, had to become a Racing Driver, pure and simple. Pit stop strategies had been played out. Radio messages from the pit wall about KERS or diff settings became superfluous, mere smokescreens. Somewhere, somehow, he needed to dig deep, to find an advantage.
It came on the only sections of Hockenheim worthy of the description “decent corners”: the last two right-handers of the lap and then Turn One – the quick right-hander followed by a shortish straight. If Fernando could be perfect here for lap after closing lap then maybe he could generate enough space to protect himself from DRS detection out of the hairpin. The McLaren would be better in and out of the slow stuff on the other parts of the lap; no question about that. The Ferrari is still no MP4-27 or RB7 – not when it comes to grip vs balance vs traction. On the quicker corners, though, Fernando could impart some magic.
And so it began.
Avoid the mirrors out of the second hairpin and into the third one. Use all the road and perhaps a fraction more. And then settle into those last two right-handers. Run a little wide in the middle if necessary. Fernando could manipulate the weight transfer, there, between the two corners, with a subtle nudge to create torque twist. Minimise load for a clean run out of the last corner. Into Turn One: again create that weight shift with an early turn-in, thus minimizing the amount of steering required mid-corner and leaving him free to adjust brake and throttle according to bumps, or the exit kerbs. Behind, Jenson would be doing what he always does superbly well – turning in late, line-locking the McLaren into a soft apex/early power application zone, hitting a high minimum speed – but then paying a penalty with more load on exit. The Ferrari, “lighter” from mid-corner to exit, would gain advantage as Fernando straightened out. In freeze-frame it was all too clear: Fernando was turning-in to One perhaps three kerb stripes earlier than Jenson’s McLaren.
Fernando’s replication was thereafter breathtaking. Small errors were adjusted with such delicacy that they became “events” rather than mistakes; they made no dents in the sector times. He looked from the outside to be “silky-smooth”; his combined hand- and footwork made it so – but there was no excess there, no edge. All of the movement was exactly apportioned; all of it happened in anticipation of what would next unfold. To the outside world, the Ferrari was a slot car.
He would try to be 0.6 – 0.7sec ahead before that DRS detection point. He could feel the gap in his bones. And there was traffic! There were the red cars – the Marussias – and then some others. Wait, wait, DRS them – and then time the pass in an attempt to delay Jenson. Not easy, but another lap gone.
Jenson was often there as they hit the brakes. Fernando was obliged to run centre-right into the second hairpin. Ease out of the brakes, apply initial steering, delay slightly, feel the grip, apply the substance of the lock – then accelerate hard but without jink. No way Jenson would try him out on the outside into the next right. No-one tries that outside stuff with Fernando…
He held that gap for two laps and then three – for three and then five. And then an unexpected thing happened. More and more, as the race wound down, Fernando could pick up a couple of tenths through those last three corners. Jenson’s tyres were beginning to fade, just as Lewis’s had in Valencia. Seb Vettel began to distract Jenson. Fernando could once again breathe.
Fernando dipped down to the pit wall as the flag waved. Three wins – and this one had come after a clear straight shoot-out with Red Bull and McLaren. He’d taken the pole and he’d won the race. Thankyou. Thankyou.
It was good to see Jenson and McLaren back up there, for all that. This is his sort of circuit – nice and sheltered, some dinky slow corners, none of those Valencia-style ch-of-ds that can be so tedious – and the McLaren, dressed in new side pods, in both the dry and on intermediates (but not wets, oddly), always competitive. Seb Vettel, by contrast, was unable to do anything about Fernando in the early laps (despite those who predicted RBR walkaway domination after Valencia) or about JB until right at the end, when the McLaren’s Pirellis finally faded. Seb’s driving looked strangely ragged this day, in front of his home crowd (and Mark Webber, penalized by a gearbox change, was also surprisingly low-key). Jenson protected the inside after being DRS’d but Seb passed him on the outside-exit of the hairpin, up on the kerbs. Seb argued that he would have run into the back of the McLaren if he hadn’t darted to the outside kerb but the key thing here, in judging whether or not this was an illegal drag race, is the phrase in article 20.2 of the Sporting Regs which says, “a driver may not deliberately leave the track without justifiable reason.” I suspect that the stewards (who included Derek Warwick) would have asked Herr Vettel: “Ah. And you couldn’t have just backed off….?”
Kimi Raikkonen had one of his better days of the year so far, racing aggressively in the early stages to finish a convincing fourth for Lotus-Renault (if there is such a thing as a “convincing fourth”; the P3 Kimi inherited thanks to Seb’s penalty actually makes much better reading); and both Sauber drivers – Kamui particularly – drove well to finish fourth (ahead of Seb on penalty time) and sixth, beating Michael Schumacher’s three-stop, P3-starting Mercedes in the process. Nico Hulkenberg also looked very good for Sahara Force India, particularly in wet qualifying, but faded in the dry eventually to finish ninth; and Scuderia Toro Rosso had their best race in a long while. In the context of 2012 that doesn’t say much but full credit is due to Franz Tost and the boys nonetheless for making solid progress. The Caterhams, too, were tantalizingly close to the mid-field, their recent updates clearly buying them some ground.
One race to go, then, before the summer break – and still Fernando sets the gold standard. On a weekend when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France; when Hashim Amla, in an astonishing example of self-control for spiritual reasons drank no fluids nor consumed food whilst scoring 311 not out for South Africa at a sun-baked Oval in London; and when another great South African, Ernie Els, won The Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes, Fernando in Germany was able to stand right up there with the best of them. F1 has its own, very brilliant, Class Act.
*At Monza, in 1967, Jim Clark famously unlapped himself after an early-race pit stop. He then drove flat out in his Lotus 49, re-taking the lead of the Italian GP in the closing stages. Jim ran short of fuel on the last lap, handing victory to John Surtees, but the die for posterity had been cast.