Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso saw his championship lead cut from 29 points to just four points on Sunday and for the second time in three seasons is confronted with the prospect of losing a title he had in his grasp.
And the signs are that, with Red Bull on the up, with technical development hitting its peak and more to come in Korea, Ferrari has to find a way to win at least another race this season or the title will be gone. It is going to be very hard as the Red Bull is now approaching the level of superiority it enjoyed last season.
Vettel set the fastest lap on the penultimate lap on Sunday, a second faster than the opposition, leaving a psychological message to them that he had been cruising all afternoon and that Red Bull had something in hand.
Consistency is what has got Alonso to where he is, not raw pace, but now it is a battle of raw pace. The contenders have thinned out and its Alonso versus Vettel for the title, Red Bull riding a wave of confidence, Ferrari’s Pat Fry rushing back to Maranello for a 24 hour mission to encourage, cajole and push his back room team to find an extra few tenths in qualifying.
Alonso spoke on Sunday of driving essentially the same car for the last six or seven races; new parts have come but in many cases they have not worked. Ferrari has already announced that it is going to shut down its newly enlarged wind tunnel for correlation checks, indicating that all is not well.
Nevertheless, although it was a second slower than the Red Bull in Japan, on race day the Ferrari was the second fastest car, with Massa able to outpace the McLarens of Button and Hamilton. The main problem is qualifying, that’s where others have made bigger gains and where Ferrari risks losing out, as the pattern of this season is that the front row is the place to start if you want to win races.
Nine of the 15 races this year have been won from pole position and all of them, bar Singapore, since Germany in July. Of the rest, three have been won from second on the grid and one from third – so just two races have been won from further back, by guess who? They were Alonso’s wins in the chaotic races of Malaysia and Valencia.
Alonso’s retirement at the first corner of the race on Sunday, was down to him not finding the trouble-free way around a first corner which is just 9 metres wide with cars either side of him. Most of the modern tracks are twice as wide as that, so Suzuka is known to be a Bermuda Triangle at the start for the unlucky or unwary. In Spa he was a victim of Grosjean’s flying Lotus.
Vettel has also had two retirements due to alternator failures, which will remain a niggling doubt until the end of the season, even if there is confidence at Renault that the problem is solved.
Before Japan Ferrari could count on Alonso scoring podiums and Vettel and the McLarens taking wins off each other to the end of the season. Now they need a silver bullet of raw pace – and fast,
“From here on we have to win at least one more race, or the championship is gone,”said team boss Stefano Domenicali on Sunday. “Now consistency isn’t enough, the situation is very different, we have to finish ahead of Vettel one way or another.
“The key point is to understand why we are struggling so much in qualifying because the difference between that and the race pace is marked. We have to solve this not just for the remaining five races but for 2013 too, otherwise we’ll find ourselves following again.”
From Alonso’s point of view, he has to shoulder some responsibility for Sunday’s retirement, in an other wise blame free season. If Vettel is indeed headed to Ferrari from 2014, as some commentators in Italy still insist, then the plan surely was for Alonso to clinch the all important third world title before then, ideally this year.
Next year now looks quite different with Hamilton at Mercedes, which is unlikely to challenge for the title in year one from the base they are starting from. McLaren will be led by Button with Perez alongside and being consistent will be a challenge for them.
So the likelihood is that 2013 will also be Alonso vs Vettel – the Spaniard looking for that third title which equals his hero Senna and Vettel looking at possibly challenging for his fourth in a row….
..Unless Ferrari gives Alonso some speed in the next eight weeks.