View from the armchair: Alonso the ringleader of the F1 circus

Tue, 4 April 2006, 08:54

Formula One spends a lot of money trying to cultivate its image as the ultimate in motorsport. Pit garages are as clinically spotless as hospital wards with hardly a dirty oil rag in sight, the cars are sleek and the champagne chilled, and us at home can only look on in envy at the whole shiny, money-drenched monster that is F1.

Yesterday’s Australian Grand Prix can’t have done too much for that image. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good race to watch. It certainly was a “stonker” – as ITV’s James Allen put it – but not for any reason as noble or glorious as the F1 spin merchants would have us believe. It was great to watch because we saw crashes, spins, blown engines, mayhem and chaos. And if we’re honest, how many of us didn’t enjoy it?

It began before the lights had gone out with Juan-Pablo Montoya’s pirhouetting McLaren and ended after the chequered flag had been waved with Jenson Button’s blazing Honda. In between, there were four safety cars as Albert Park turned into a demolition derby in slightly slippery conditions caused by changeable weather over the weekend.

And amid madness and showers of carbon fibre that seemed to afflict just about everyone else, Fernando Alonso emerged completely unscathed to take a victory that never looked in any doubt. The margin to second placed Kimi Raikkonen was only a handful of seconds thanks to all the safety cars, but this was a masterful performance from a man in command of his machinery.

Alonso’s dominance was underlined by the adventures of teammate Giancarlo Fisichella. After doing his part in qualifying to give Renault a strong collective grid position, the Italian then stalled on the grid and then couldn’t produce anything like his teammate’s pace in his attempts to work his way back through the field. Fisichella can reasonably point to factors beyond his control in both cases, but in a sport where even the tiniest detail is important, a driver who is focused, meticulous and dedicated will surely inspire the same qualities around him, and for all his qualities, Fisi is none of those things. Still, after his very public dressing down by his race engineer over the team radio, Fisichella is a wounded animal, and you can bet on him coming out fighting on home soil at Imola in three weeks’ time.

The main challenge to Renault continues to be McLaren (and not Jenson Button, no matter what James Allen says). Raikkonen drove a purposeful race to finish second, but once again he will be cursing his luck after a series of minor niggles throughout the weekend robbed him of the chance of ever really fighting for the win. His body language after the race, however, suggested that even had everything gone perfectly to plan, second place was his best hope. Juan-Pablo Montoya finally showed some of the fight that makes him so dangerous, and looked to be a real threat to his teammate until his afternoon was ended prematurely by an ill-advised excursion over the kerbs.

The same piece of kerbing was responsible for Michael Schumacher’s demise, although in this case in a more spectacular fashion, and teammate Fillipe Massa’s Ferrari didn’t even complete a lap before ending up in pieces. A badly misguided choice in tyres meant we had the rare sight of the seven-time world champion being overtaken by a Scuderia Toro Rosso piloted by Vito Liuzzi. Bizarrely, Schumacher said he had no problem with the advantage STR are gaining with using V10 engines, but it’s surely not long before someone protests.

There were countless other incidents throughout the race, most of them around the safety car periods. Genuine side-by-side racing is rare in F1 these days, but we had it in abundance here. Each time it seemed Button was the man to lose out as his tyres struggled to reach operating temperature, and his miserable afternoon was completed when his Honda engine blew up in spectacular fashion on the very last corner. He may not have done enough to deserve a podium, but it certainly wasn’t fair that the final order shown him finishing behind teammate Rubens Barrichello, who continues to make a good car look ordinary. His excuse of taking time to get used to the car is surely not valid considering we’re already four months and three races into the year.

No such problems for Alonso, however, and you wonder if he’s not already beginning to regret his switch to McLaren next season. He certainly won’t have it better than yesterday, when the only car that ever was in front of him was the safety car. In the meantime, his rivals will regroup ahead of Imola – you can be sure of that – but as long as they keep on tripping over each other, the Alonso-Renault package is the only one with the class and speed to be worthy of the top prize in motorsport.

Martin James

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