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Ferrari F1 driver Fernando Alonso (R) and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel congratulate each other on the podium after the Brazilian F1 Grand Prix at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo November 24, 2013. (NACHO DOCE/REUTERS)
Ferrari F1 driver Fernando Alonso (R) and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel congratulate each other on the podium after the Brazilian F1 Grand Prix at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo November 24, 2013. (NACHO DOCE/REUTERS)

Motorsports

Vettel or Alonso? F1 drivers name their top driver Add to ...

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel may have won his fourth consecutive world championship this year, but even that hasn’t convinced his peers he’s the best driver in Formula One.

Instead, the majority of the grid feels the crown belongs to Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, a two-time F1 world champion who has finished second in points three times in the past four seasons, driving well above his car’s ability for most of his time at the Scuderia.

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The evidence comes from Spanish newspaper AS Daily which polled F1 drivers following the season finale in Brazil a week ago and found that the prevailing opinion had Alonso coming out well ahead as the best in the business.

Of those who stated a preference, nine leaned Alonso’s way when asked who was the best driver on the F1 grid: Jules Bianchi, Esteban Gutiérrez, Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Pastor Maldonado, Paul Di Resta, Nico Rosberg, Sergio Pérez, and even Vettel’s retiring teammate, Mark Webber.

Interestingly, the most definitive support for Alonso as the top man between the two came from his former teammate Lewis Hamilton, whose relationship with the Spaniard was rocky at best when the pair drove together at McLaren in 2007. At the time, Hamilton was an upstart rookie who took the series by storm but never saw eye-to-eye with Alonso when they shared a garage.

But when asked about who was the best, Hamilton went with his former arch-enemy: “I think that if Alonso were with Red Bull, he would win more easily than Vettel.”

Only two drivers sided with Vettel, Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, who are also backed by Red Bull. Ricciardo will be Vettel’s teammate at Red Bull Racing next year. One of those choosing Alonso, Jules Bianchi is a Ferrari Academy Driver who said bluntly after picking Alonso: “I can’t tell you anything else, I work for Ferrari.”

The eight others polled decided that a diplomatic answer was best and refused to make a clear choice.

Politeness aside, there’s a significant case to be made for Alonso, who has taken the title challenge down to the final race of the season twice in the past four years, despite a massive car disadvantage. Simply put, Ferrari has not delivered the goods for the sublime Spaniard while Red Bull’s design team built a rocket ship under its talented young champion Vettel.

In the past four seasons, Alonso has 11 wins and 42 podiums in 77 starts in a car that was third or fourth quickest at best for most of the time.

Alonso has scored all of Ferrari’s mere four pole positions since joining the team in 2010. To put that in perspective, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Rosberg doubled that number this year alone.

Alonso’s strength shows once the green flag flies, where he is a formidable foe who can make a slow car seem much faster than it is.

In the past four seasons, the two-time champion moved up from his grid position in 49 of the 72 starts, not including retirements, while in another seven races he held his ground and finished where he started. That’s a clip of just more than 80 per cent of finishing equal or above his grid position.

On the other hand, Alonso only lost positions in races 14 times during that span. In that same period, Vettel finished in a position lower than he started in 23 grands prix or about 32 per cent of races. He has also equalled or bettered his grid spot 39 times.

The Spaniard’s ability to make a dog look like a racehorse is the sole reason he was able to push the title fight to the last race of the year in 2010, and again last year, in a car that had no business being in the title fight. Vettel claimed those two championships – that should have easily been his – by a grand total of seven points. If it weren’t for a gigantic strategy blunder by the Ferrari squad in the 2010 finale in Abu Dhabi, Alonso would have likely been champion that year.

Comparing Alonso’s results with his Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa shows that Alonso races on a different plane. In the time they’ve been together at Ferrari, Massa has never finished higher than sixth in points and has no poles or wins and just eight total podiums.

Over the four years, Alonso has also outscored Massa by a whopping 533 points, more than doubling Massa’s tally in the same period. . Not even the high flying Vettel has been able to outperform his teammate so dramatically, with the difference between him and Webber at 448 points over the past four years.

While there’s no doubt that Alonso kept Vettel on his toes despite using a car that can’t live up to its driver, it would be nice for fans to see him in a better ride.

The good news is that the rules changes for 2014 might pull Red Bull back a bit and allow the rest to close the gap. Ferrari also hired James Allison to design its challenger for next season. Allison, the man behind the smooth and quick Lotuses of the past several seasons, may just be able to solve the team’s ongoing troubles finding rear downforce.

If Allison and Ferrari can deliver a car worthy of Alonso’s talent, there’s little doubt that the rest of the F1 field, including Vettel, will have to raise their game – or spend 2014 staring at a Ferrari exhaust pipe.

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