It’s been the same story almost all year.
Fernando Alonso arrived in Singapore for the Formula One race late last week expecting a rough ride, and instead saw things fall his way nicely. After qualifying fifth, it was clear his car didn’t have the right stuff for the tight street circuit, but Alonso still left Singapore with a podium finish and a solid 29-point lead in the championship standings in his pocket.
It wasn’t the 37-point margin Alonso had before the race, but the double world champion (2005 and 2006) still remains more than one full race win ahead of his nearest rival, Singapore winner Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull, with six grand prix to go in 2012. Drivers get 25 points for victories.
Despite the reduced gap to his closest pursuer, it could have been much worse.
“Arriving third in our difficult weekend is for sure a fantastic result in terms of points,” Alonso said.
“Of the four or five contenders, we lost points with one – with the other three we increased our advantage, so obviously, as I said, when we are not quick enough to win, more points against three of our opponents, I think it’s positive.”
While Vettel took a eight-point bite out of his overall advantage, Alonso finished ahead of the three other championship contenders, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Räikkönen of Lotus, and Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber.
Alonso currently leads with 194 points, followed by reigning double world champion Vettel with 165. Räikkönen is third at 149 with Hamilton (142) and Webber (132) rounding out the top five.
Taking points when his rivals fail to score has been Alonso’s strength in 2012, with the Ferrari driver failing to bring home at least one marker just once this year. In 14 starts so far this year, he has three wins and eight podium finishes. The single non-points finish this year happened three weeks ago in the Belgian Grand Prix where Alonso was collected in a first corner accident that destroyed his car.
While Alonso has only failed to score once, his closest rivals have not been as consistent. Hamilton has gone home without points four times this season, while both Vettel and Webber have done so three times. Like Alonso, 2007 world champion Räikkönen has only failed to score once, but he is also the only driver in the top-7 not to have won at least one race.
The battle behind him has also been a great help to the Ferrari driver, as Jenson Button, who finished second for McLaren in Singapore, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Vettel, and Webber continued to take points away from each other while Alonso kept scoring consistently.
The past two races illustrate the kind of one step forward, one step back results by his competitors that have kept Alonso ahead in points since he won June’s European Grand Prix on the streets of Valencia, Spain.
Hamilton took the maximum 25 points with a win two weeks ago at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza while Vettel retired and went home empty-handed. On Sunday, the result from two weeks ago was exactly reversed in Singapore.
And what does Alonso think about losing points to rivals who alternate between wins and retirements? “It’s OK is they keep doing it like this,” he said.
Easily, the biggest loser on Sunday was Hamilton, who went into the race second overall in points and looked to be cruising to an easy win from pole when his gearbox gave up on Lap 22 and he retired. It was a costly breakdown for the 2008 world champion, who is now 52 points behind Alonso.
It was a heartbreaking end for Hamilton who may have been the title favourite had his car not let him down. A win would have put him just 24 points behind Alonso with Vettel nine behind him in third, assuming the same finishing order. And with the McLaren looking like the fastest car at the moment, Hamilton would have been the favourite to take title No. 2.
Always the fighter, Hamilton vowed to not give up, although he said after Singapore that he needs to win the six remaining races to have a shot at the championship.
But in reality it’s likely the championship will come down to the same two drivers who fought until the final race in 2010, which ultimately delivered Vettel’s first title.
Whether the Red Bull driver can pull it off again is anybody’s guess.
“There are a lot of races left and it’s a bit difficult to predict what’s going to happen,” Vettel said.
“We have to make sure that we finish the races first of all. I think the pace is there, even if we are not quick enough to win then it is good enough to collect a lot of points. And we have to make sure we do that.”
As he has been most of the year, Alonso will likely be a moving target who makes the most of any opportunity that arises. It has worked well so far despite driving a Ferrari that cannot match the pace of the McLarens or Red Bulls on most weekends.
The next stop in two weeks at Suzuka Circuit for the Japanese Grand Prix may be Alonso’s best shot at a fourth win in 2012, although McLaren also promises to be strong. Of the remaining five, the U.S. Grand Prix (Nov. 18) at the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tex., is a wildcard.
But the rest should be a 50-50 split with Red Bull likely tough to beat in India (Oct, 18) and Brazil (Nov. 25 ), whereas the McLaren will probably be quickest in Korea (Oct. 14) and Abu Dhabi (Nov. 4).
And that has Alonso sounding a bit worried his luck may run out.
“We definitely can’t go on like this – it can’t always be the case that my closest rival retires, as has happened in the last two races,” Alonso said.
“Probably this (Singapore) has been the most difficult circuit for us. We will find partially similar characteristics in Korea and Abu Dhabi, but I hope that by the time we get there, we will have found a way of improving the car.”
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