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.