Fernando Alonso sits on top of the drivers’ standings this morning after his third place finish in the Monaco Grand Prix.
But it is more than surprising that Alonso is in this position, given how poor the Ferrari car was in pre-season testing and the early season races. So how has it happened? Consistency has certainly been the key for Alonso who, along with Hamilton is the only driver to have scored points in every race so far. But there’s more to it than that. The tyres play their part in this story, inevitably, the misfortunes of others have their part to play too.
Alonso’s lowest scoring race was China, where he finished only 9th, but he’s been on the podium three times, one of them a win in Malaysia and where no better result has been possible, he’s managed to pick up a fifth and a seventh place.
In contrast his rivals have been more erratic: Webber and Vettel have both had a non points finish, Button has had three non finishes. Hamilton has scored in every race, with three third places early on, but then pit stop and operational issues hit him in the last three races as well as a lack of pace on race day.
Key factors in their favour are that Ferrari has consistently the best starts and the best pit stops of any team at the moment. Alonso has made up many places at the start: 13 places in the first five races and another one on Sunday in Monaco, Massa has made up 23 in total. They’ve had to do this because the Ferrari hasn’t qualified very well; going into the Monaco GP on Sunday Alonso was averaging only 8th on the supergrid, which aggregates all the drivers’ qualifying times – behind the Red Bulls, McLarens, Mercedes and Grosjean.
This is the key area where Ferrari need to improve in the second half of the season, as the leading teams will get on top of the tyre issues and we’ll start to see a more consistent picture in races. To consolidate his position Ferrari need to give Alonso a car that will qualify more strongly.
“If you are fighting for pole position, and even on pole position, then the race is totally different,” said team boss Stefano Domenicali after the race. “This is something we need to keep focusing on to make sure things are going in the right direction. In terms of the pure performance of the car, we had a very difficult start. We have a situation where we are not happy and where we want to improve the car because we have seen other cars at the moment have pole positions, and we do not. So that has to be a target for the team.”
Alonso revealed how he has been approaching each weekend, “We wanted to be ahead of Hamilton and Vettel this weekend and we did it,” he said post race. “In this championship, at every race you have to concentrate on different drivers and next time we’ll need to keep ahead of Webber. We’re on top of the table; if you’d said that to me after Melbourne, I’d never have believed it. We have to keep improving the car because we are not yet the fastest. The next two weeks will be very important.”
Ferrari has clearly improved the car a lot in traction out of low speed corners, which helped in Barcelona and Monaco and will help out of the chicanes and hairpins of Montreal. However another key weak point is straight line speed and this is not straight forward to fix.
Ferrari has a major update coming for Montreal, and their history in recent years shows that they’ve often taken a significant upturn around June. The 2010 campaign, for example, started slowly but from Canada onwards Alonso won races and was in the championship hunt.
This time round he’s already ahead on points and, if Ferrari repeat their progress of 2010, he must be considered the favourite for the title.
While the other top teams are putting on updates to find more speed and then having to take them off again because the priority is to set the car up first to extract the best from the tyres, Ferrari seems to have a good way with the tyres, particularly at the end of the stints; Alonso again made up a place, on Hamilton, in Monaco thanks to pace at the end of the stint.
It was noticeable also that of the front runners, who were struggling to get the new soft tyres warmed up after the pit stop on Sunday, Alonso’s tyres were working several laps earlier than Webber and Rosberg. He acknowledged this after the race.
Expert observers at the weekend noted that Alonso had the right technique for driving the Pirelli supersofts, which can get easily damaged by spinning the wheels on corner exit. Alonso seemed to have appreciated that and was getting the cars straight before hitting the throttle, thus looking after them better.
Hindsight shows that he could have jumped Webber and Rosberg at the pit stop by staying out a couple of laps longer on his supersofts. And then with his superior tyre warm up, he would have driven away from them in the lead in the second part of the race for what would have been a dominant win.
But as he said afterwards, no-one would have predicted those tyre warm up issues, so Ferrari cannot consider it a mistake or a win that got away.
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