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.

Helio Castroneves: ‘I have nothing to lose’ Sunday in bid for 4th Indy 500 win

All photos: IndyCar
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You might say Helio Castroneves comes into Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a “less is more” philosophy than he’s had in years past:

* No pressure

* No worrying about points

* No worrying about winning a championship

Take away all those things and the very popular Brazilian driver could be in the best position he’s ever been to achieve the biggest goal of his career:

Winning a fourth Indy 500, making him a member of motor racing’s most exclusive club, joining legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to conquer the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times each.

Like his car number, Castroneves has won the Indy 500 three times. He wants to change that number to four times in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Photo: IndyCar.

“For sure, I definitely don’t have much to lose in terms of points, championships, and things like that,” Castroneves told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “I don’t have to think that I don’t have a car to win, I’m not going to risk that much because there are still championship points (to earn if he was still racing full-time in the series).

“Not that I did that before, but if the situation occurs, people just need to know I have nothing to lose this time.”

Castroneves three prior triumphs in the 500 came in his first two years in the field – 2001 and 2002 – and again in 2009. In addition, he has finished twice in the last four editions of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in 2014 and 2017.

Coming so close last year, losing to Takuma Sato by .201 of a second, is something Castroneves hasn’t forgotten about. To come so close to No. 4 has only made him more hungry to get it done on Sunday.

“Yeah, but if it were easy, we would likely have had more than four wins by now,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past, the last four years we were really competitive, we were right there, especially in ’14 and ’17, we were right on it.

“Last year, I thought it was going to be the hardest 500 for me and look what happened: we were battling to the end for a victory,” Castroneves said. “It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about being there at the right place at the right time.

“And this place, Indianapolis, I’ve always said the track winds up choosing who is going to be the winner. Hopefully, with safety and luck, we’ll be part of it and be on the right side.”

Team owner Roger Penske decided after last season to put Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya as the chief drivers of Team Penske’s new two-car effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship sports car series.

When the announcement was first made, many feared that Castroneves had run out of chances to get that elusive No. 4 at Indy.

But Penske sweetened the deal for Helio to go sports car racing by promising he’d field a car for him at Indy. And Penske has proven to be a man of his word, giving Castroneves everything he needs to finally win No. 4.

“I feel we’ve prepared as much as a team, we’re doing everything possible in relation to preparation,” Castroneves said. “The preparation we had in the previous year helps us tremendously to give us an opportunity fighting there for a win, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Castroneves has taken to the new style Indy car with aplomb. During the first week of practice leading up to last weekend’s qualifying, he was consistently one of the fastest drivers in the field.

The 43-year-old even topped the speed charts in the Fast Nine last Saturday before ending up eighth in the following day’s pole qualifying.

As a result, he’ll start Sunday’s race from the middle of Row 3, anchoring Team Penske’s four-man Top 8 starting lineup effort in the 500. When the green flag drops, to his left will be Danica Patrick and to his right will be four-time IndyCar champ and former 500 winner Scott Dixon.

And millions of others right behind him, so to speak.

“I feel the sense that everyone wants it to happen,” he said of winning No. 4. “We’re talking about being part of history here. The last guy to do it was Rick Mears in the ‘90s (1991).

“I mean, how cool would that be if I would be in the position and to see No. 4 in my era. I hear a lot of the fans, even those supporting different drivers, all saying ‘Man, I want to see you win No. 4.’ That just shows how special this place is.

“(The Indy 500) is part of a lot of people’s lives. I just would be very fortunate to hopefully to have this generation see someone do No. 4.”

While he’d rather not think about missing out on a fourth win at Indy for a ninth straight year, Castroneves is using reverse psychology somewhat.

He’s going into Sunday’s biggest race in the world fully believing he will finally win No. 4.

And if he does, forget the idea that he would never come back to race at Indy again.

“Not at all. Why? You’re so close to getting four, and then when you get four, you stop it? It doesn’t make sense.

“I think I still have at least four or five more years, there’s no question about it. As long as Roger (Penske) gives me the opportunity, I’m going to be going for it, for sure.”

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