Alonso claims the Spanish spoils

Fernando-Alonso-Massenet-Monaco-Qualifying-2012Fernando Alonso gave the Spanish crowd something to cheer about with a dominant victory at the Circuit de Catalunya.

The Ferrari driver led home Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa after the 66 lap race was dominated by the wear of the Pirelli tyres that saw a total of 82 pit stops.

The win is Alonso’s second of the season and he is now 17 points behind Sebastian Vettel who continues to lead the championship ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. However by finishing fourth the gap at the top of the standings is now just four points. When asked about his championship hopes Alonso did little to downplay expectations:

“This year we have a package that is still not the fastest but we are working on it,” said the race winner as he surmissed his championship hopes. “Definitely on Sundays it is a competitive team package. We are not the quickest over one lap, we maybe do not set the fastest time in the race, but we have fantastic pitstops, starts, tyre degradation… many ingredients to have a competitive car to fight for the championship.”

The race started with an all Mercedes front row but the silver arrows once again faded in the race with both Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton suffering from excessive tyre wear and having to fight a rear guard action through the race.

While the Mercedes, and the rest of the field, were hobbled by a struggle to conserve their tyres the race winner took a different strategy; he burned through his. Pushing as hard as possible Alonso made a terrific start and moved from fifth to third after driving around the outside of the both Raikkonen and Hamilton at turn three. With Rosberg offering little more than a road block in the opening stint it was impossible for Alonso to move further forward but pitting a lap before Rosberg and Vettel gave Alonso an edge.

With just one lap on fresher rubber the Spaniard used the undercut to overtake Vettel and latched himself onto the rear wing of Rosberg looking for a way past. On lap 12 Alonso used the DRS to drag past Rosberg on the home straight and quickly he set about opening a gap to his rivals.

Vettel knew it was crucial to get in front of Rosberg and overtook him later that lap with Raikkonen following suit. This was just the start of the fall down the order that both Mercedes would suffer.

At the front Alonso was pushing hard and looking to open a lead over his rivals. With the Ferrari driver pushing hard it was quickly clear that he was on a four stop strategy but even though Vettel could not keep pace with the race leader the Red Bull driver was also due to make four stops. It was clear that Fernando had the pace to beat his rivals but it remained to be seen as to whether he would be able to beat Raikkonen who would make one less stop.

The Lotus driver how would be bogged down by the slower Red Bull of Vettel and it took until half distance for the Finn to finally make his way past the reigning world champion. At this point the race was still in the balance, as it would stay until the final third of the race with Raikkonen out front with one stop remaining. The illusion of a close fight to the flag however was quickly dashed with Alonso easily overtaking the Lotus and retaking the lead and easing his way to a comfortable lead. Afterwards Raikkonen said that with the DRS overtaking being so easy for Alonso there was little chance to fight against the move.

Asked for his post race thoughts and whether he felt he could have won the Lotus driver was realistic in saying that the Ferrari was simply the better package:

“Maybe halfway through, when we were leading, but we were on old tyres and he had newer tyres,” said the Finn. “It is too easy to overtake, so no point to really fight again because you cannot hold him behind. I knew if I could somehow stay a bit closer, maybe I had some chance, even if I am already behind them with old tyres. But in the end, they were just too fast.”

Instead of focusing on the Ferrari of Alonso Kimi was more interested in the gap to Massa. The Brazilian was enjoying a strong race and in the final stint Massa was told to push and try and close the gap to second. Ultimately however he could not sustain the tyre life and he had to ease off to the flag, comfortable in the knowledge that Vettel was now comfortably in check.

Massa has had a strong start to the season, matching Alonso in qualifying, but his pace has faded in races. Today armed with a strategy that called for 100% aggression he showed his abilities. However, afterwards the Brazilian was still clearly upset about his grid penalty and how he felt it cost him the chance of finishing second:

“I’m disappointed because of what happened yesterday,” said Massa. “I didn’t cause any issues for him. So I tried to be aggressive, passing people and I tried to undercut people as well by stopping before them. My car was superb for this track”

The triple champion had tried to run a longer third stint than Massa but, just as with Alonso at the first round of stops, Ferrari’s strategy allowed their driver to utilise the undercut and come out comfortably in front once the pit stops had cycled through. It was a difficult day for Red Bull with Mark Webber trailing his teammate home.

Having tried in vain to run a three stop strategy Vettel was forced to fight for the rest of the race but with the Red Bull struggling with tyre wear there was little chance of him making up the ground to his rivals. It was strange to see Vettel admit that settling for fourth was the best that Red Bull could do but the team’s ultimate pace still has given him plenty of reason to believe that they can turn things around before the next Grand Prix in Monaco:

“I think we can be happy with fourth,” he said. “The first three cars were a little too fast for us and in looking after their tyres they did a better job today. They did better today so we need to catch up. We are not going to the pace of the car, we are going to the pace of the tyre. I think we tried to hang on to the three-stop for too long in the race and had to admit towards the end we wouldn’t make it.”

Rosberg fall from pole saw him finish sixth after managing his tyre wear to a three stop strategy but once again the lack of race pace was clear for Mercedes. Afterwards the German was at a loss to answer quite why his team was struggling so much in race trim:

“I didn’t expect it to be that tough,” said Rosberg. “I thought we would be in a better position. It was really difficult out there, but why? Why on one lap are we so fast and on a long run so slow? It’s strange, and it’s not just one axle, it’s front and rear. Both are struggling and there’s no explanation.”

His teammate struggled even more and Hamilton freefalled through the order to a bitterly disappointing 12th at the flag. The Englishman was so concerned with tyre life in the early stages that he couldn’t defend against the attacks of the Williams of Pastor Maldonado.

Speaking afterwards a clearly perplexed Hamilton echoed his teammate’s comments and admitted that he had no answers for the problems that befell him:

“It was an experience that I don’t really want to go through again,” said Hamilton,” said the Mercedes driver. “Today I was doing absolutely everything the same as I did in Bahrain but I had no grip, I couldn’t push, and if I did, the tyre just went off immediately. I’m absolutely lost today. I don’t know what went wrong.”

Force India’s Paul di Resta had another solid race with the Scot moving from tenth on the grid to finish seventh after using a strategy that called for three stints on used rubber. Afterwards the Scot was pleased with his days work:

 “We said before the race that seventh would be a good result and towards the end I was even fighting for sixth,” he said. “So we can take a lot of positives from the weekend because this is a track that has traditionally not suited our car.”

The result also allowed the team to claim important points in the team’s battle with McLaren in the Constructors’ Championship. Force India remain in sixth even though McLaren managed to score points with both drivers in eighth and ninth, for Sergio Perez and Jenson Button respectively.

Daniel Ricciardo was the final points scorer after the Australian ran a solid and trouble free race. The same cannot be said for his Toro Rosso teammate, Jean-Eric Vergne. The Frenchman suffered a tyre blow out and a pitlane collision with Nico Hulkenberg. The damage caused would eventually force his retirement from proceedings.

Afterwards Hulkenberg spoke about the incident:

“We planned for a three stop, but then had to convert to a four stop,” said the German. “But then we had the incident, which ruined the race for us. Obviously the timing wasn’t quite right, but we are a team, so we have to look into it and make sure it does not happen again.”

This blow out was just the latest in a series of Pirelli tyre delaminations and while di Resta’s Friday failure was due to debris on the track it is clear that the company will need to re-evaluate their tyre constructions and compounds in the coming weeks.

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