After losing the Formula One drivers’ championship by a scant three points on Sunday, a fitting theme song for Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso following the disappointing end to 2012 would have been “Blame Canada.”
The Canadian Grand Prix may be a distant memory, but the points that Ferrari squandered on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve with a poor strategy could have brought Alonso the 2012 title.
The Ferrari driver finished second in Sunday’s season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, but it wasn’t enough to wrestle the 2012 title from the hands of Sebastian Vettel. The Red Bull driver’s sixth place secured his third consecutive championship by three markers, 281-278. Drivers get 25 points for wins.
“Where did we lose those three points?” team boss Stefano Domenicali asked pensively after the race.
The lyrics of “Blame Canada” point to the obvious answer: “It seems that everything’s gone wrong since Canada came along.” The song from the animated film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut blamed a Canadian film for corrupting the children of the fictional Colorado town.
Even with the retirements due to collisions at the start of the Belgian and Japanese Grands Prix that Domenicali pointed to as the possible culprits, Alonso likely still would have been the three-time champion crowned on Sunday had the team not made a huge strategic blunder in the closing stages of June’s Canadian Grand Prix.
Now let’s be clear that even had Alonso pulled off a miracle in Sao Paulo and won the title, he never should have been in that situation in the first place. Strapped into the third or fourth quickest car on most weekends, the two-time world champion was easily the driver of the year. Only his massive talent and exceptional race craft dragged his speed-challenged Ferrari up the leaderboard and took the title fight to the last race.
Unfortunately for Alonso, Ferrari made one huge tactical blunder in 2012 that played a key role its driver being runner up to Vettel for the second time in three seasons.
Fans might recall Alonso going from first to fifth in the final six laps in Montreal after his team decided to stay with its one-stop pit strategy even though the evidence on track indicated a change. Needless to say, the team failed Alonso miserably.
In Canada, Alonso fought Lewis Hamilton most of the way and trailed the McLaren by about three seconds when the leader headed into the pits for new rubber with 20 laps to go. Alonso inherited the lead with Ferrari sticking to its one-stop strategy and betting that Hamilton would not be able to catch the scarlet car on its worn tires in the remaining laps.
The team was wrong, and Hamilton quickly showed he had the pace on the new rubber to reel in Alonso and retake the lead. To make matters worse, Felipe Massa was struggling at that point to keep his Ferrari up to speed on tires as old as his teammate’s, which was a clear indication that Alonso would be hard pressed to put up competitive lap times as the race reached its final stages.
Massa ended up pitting with 10 laps to go and once the Ferrari mechanics in the pitlane looked at his worn tires, they should have brought Alonso in knowing he would not be able to hold off the cars chasing him. Instead, Alonso stayed out and was passed by Lotus’ Romain Grosjean with four laps to go and Sauber’s Sergio Pérez three laps later.
Vettel stopped with six laps to go and proceeded to put in a series of sizzling times on his new tires, overtaking Alonso on the last lap for fourth. Vettel’s final lap was also the quickest recorded in the race.
After the race it was clear that the worst Alonso likely would have finished was second had Ferrari reacted to Hamilton getting new tires and pitted to cover the McLaren driver’s stop. Where Vettel would have ended up is anyone’s guess, but second for Alonso and third for the Red Bull driver in Montreal would have meant a five-point swing in the Ferrari man’s favour and the championship would have been his on Sunday by two points. The lap charts appear to show this would have played even if out Alonso waited to pit until a lap or two after Masa made his final stop.
In a second scenario, had the team clued in and realized that Alonso would not be able to hold off the hard-charging McLaren, Lotus and Sauber cars and called him into the pits at the same time Vettel made his second stop, a different champion may have also been crowned on Sunday.
If Alonso pitted when Hamilton got around Vettel with seven laps to go as the Red Bull driver did, the Ferrari would have exited fourth ahead of his rival with both on the same, almost new tires. If Vettel didn’t stop and tried Ferrari’s gambit, the actual race result proved that there’s no doubt Alonso would have re-passed the Red Bull for fourth.
While a later stop may have not left enough time to catch Grosjean’s Lotus, an Alonso who pitted with seven laps to go probably would have still finished third because the lap charts show the Ferrari would have been able to get a tire swap done and get back on track either right alongside Pérez or directly behind the Sauber. With new rubber that would have been much quicker than the Sauber’s worn tires, Alonso should have been able to catch and pass the eventual third place finisher.
It must also be noted that Sauber uses Ferrari engines and that deal may have come into play with Alonso sniffing Pérez’s exhaust.
Many observers felt Pérez was given a coded message in the season’s second grand prix in Malaysia when he was catching leader Alonso late in the race and looked to be heading for a win. When he got within a second of the Ferrari, his team told him: “Be careful, Checo, we need this position,” which many interpreted to mean “do not pass our engine supplier.”
Since Vettel actually pitted and was not able to get past Pérez before the end, it can be assumed he would have still finished behind the Sauber driver while Alonso likely would have overtaken him.
The seven-point difference in Alonso’s favour in that scenario would have had Vettel only six ahead of the Ferrari going into Sunday’s finale, rather than 13. Had that been the case, Alonso would have emerged from the fray in Brazil four points ahead.
Agonizingly, even if Ferrari had simply taken a hard look at Massa’s slowing times and old tires when he pitted with 10 laps to go and then brought Alonso in just to protect the fourth place he eventually lost to Vettel on the final lap, he still would have taken the title on Sunday over the Red Bull driver by a single point.
Had Alonso pitted and Vettel’s passed Pérez for third, the Red Bull driver would still be champion by one point.
But the fact remains that Alonso would likely have been champion in three of the four possibilities with him stopping.
In the end, the decision not to pit for new tires late in Montreal can be seen as not only costing Alonso an easy podium finish, but it also robbing him of the 2012 driver’s title.
It also shows how drivers are exactly right when they say every point scored in every race counts.
So, when he looks back on a 2012 title lost, Alonso can blame Canada.
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