Alonso’s doing it again – another year outperforming teammate, equipment

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Excuse the familiarity if you’ve heard this statement before – a Ferrari is not at the head of the Formula One field, but yet Fernando Alonso is bringing it to heights it probably shouldn’t be.

The Spaniard has made a habit in recent years of outperforming the equipment at his disposal. Sunday in Shanghai, a race where Alonso won in 2013, was the just the latest example.

The 2014 Ferrari F14 T has gotten off to a bit of a slow start and coupled with the recent management shakeup, Stefano Domenicali resigning and new man Marco Mattiacci coming in, the pressure was on for an improved weekend in the last flyaway round of the season before the European season commences.

Upgrades are always going to be limited in the first few events before teams return home to their mostly European bases in earnest. Still, after the Bahrain disaster, Ferrari introduced a new front axle and brake duct assembly in Shanghai that bleeds airflow from the brake cooling duct through a duct in the centre of the axle. It’s a system that makes brake cooling a bit more efficient while also reducing drag – braking is key at a couple points of the Shanghai International Circuit, notably on the long back straight into the penultimate corner on the circuit, the tight hairpin.

This may not have been the only key to Ferrari’s improved form in Shanghai, but it certainly didn’t hurt. As it was, Alonso got on with the job anyway and drove another near flawless race.

He survived a bit of contact from former teammate Felipe Massa after both drivers performed an excellent getaway from Row 3, moved ahead of the Red Bulls after a round of pit stops and although he was up to second and eventually hauled in by the substantially quicker Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, he held onto third for his and the team’s first podium finish of the year.

With a car that at the moment you’d have to say is maybe third or fourth best, at best, in the field, this was no small accomplishment.

Alonso currently stands third in the World Championship with 41 points. Meanwhile Kimi Raikkonen’s lackluster start to the season continues, as he languishes in 12th on just 11 after an eighth place Sunday, some 50 seconds behind his teammate.

In four races, Alonso has outqualified the Finn three of four races and finished ahead in all four. In both Melbourne and Shanghai, Alonso has started a season-best fifth while neither time Raikkonen has advanced out of Q2, and started 11th. Raikkonen matched Alonso with fifth on the grid in Bahrain but fell to 10th in the race.

It’s been especially impressive to see Alonso – long regarded as one of F1’s best starters and racers, if not the out-and-out fastest on a single lap – up the ante in qualifying to hold such an early edge on Raikkonen, who was expected to be the Spaniard’s stiffest internal competition since then-rookie Lewis Hamilton in the 2007 season.

Alonso’s held an authoritative edge over teammates Nelson Piquet Jr., Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa since that ill-fated single season at McLaren, and is now giving Raikkonen the business through four races.

This is as good a start as realistically could have been possible for Alonso, and if Ferrari makes further upgrades from the European races, the two-time World Champion could finally return to his winning ways.

At the very least, he’ll continue to punch above the car’s weight.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.