Monday, May 01, 2006

Can Anyone Catch Alonso?

Four races in, and already this season is beginning to look more than a little like the one that preceded it. With three winners from the first four races, it might appear to the casual observer that this has been a close-fought and remarkably open start to the season. The reality though, is that Fernando Alonso's two wins and two second places puts him a long way ahead in the driver's championship, and he's not going to be easy to catch.

Who, then can beat Alonso? In individual races, there are a few candidates. Schumacher and Fisichella have both already shown that they can, given the right circumstances. Both, though, relied on a touch of luck to get the better of the young Spaniard. Would Fisichella have gotten the better of Alonso in Malaysia had not the Renault team fouled up their refuelling of Alonso in qualifying and forced him onto a decidedly suboptimal race strategy? We'll never know, but personally, I rather doubt it. And Schumacher's win the other weekend in Imola? A great drive from the old master in the autumn of his career, even if one now feels we won't see many more days like it, but if Renault had not allowed themselves to be pressured into pitting early, would we have been looking at win number 3 for Alonso?

In short, but for small errors on the part of his team, Alonso might well have won all four of the opening race. And if Fisichella simply isn't truly of the same class as his team mate, and the Schumacher/Brawn/Todt/Byrne axis at Ferrari is past its creative peak, then what of the rest?

Ron Dennis has said in the past that he finds losing physically painful. Unless he's mellowed considerably over the years, then this year must feel like something of a running sore. These past few years it has always seemed that Mclaren begin the season looking like serious contenders (except perhaps in 2003, where they were running a year old car - and yet as it turned out they came closer to claiming the driver's title that year than at any time since 1999). Every time though, it doesn't quite happen for them. At Bahrain, Mclaren, or at least Raikkonen, looked like he had race winning pace, and but for starting at the back of the field, he might have converted it into a good result. Since then, though, they've simply not quite been on the pace. If Ferrari's Imola resurgence proves to be more than a flash in the pan, then it may be they are not even Renault's closest rivals any more.

Worse, underneath the smoothly corporate exterior, things look decidedly wobbly at Woking. A number of high profile engineers and designers have followed Adrian Newey out of the door in recent months (web whisperings would have it that they are not happy with the team's 'matrix management' system, whereby nobody is in charge of any particular project). Whatever gloss the team put on it, this must be having some degree of destabilising effect. Add to that two drivers whose future in the team remains unclear and there is an awful lot of scope for different factions to pull in different directions. They should be glad that Montoya and Raikkonen have at least not yet clashed on the track.

Then there's Honda. They certainly won't be threatening Renault for either the drivers or constructors titles, but can they win a race? They think they can, but from where I'm standing, I'd rate their chances rather more highly if the races were held on a Saturday. One hell of a qualifying package (Jenson Button has barely been off the front row all season), they just don't quite seem to have the pace come race day. The other mystery has been the lack of form shown by Rubens Barrichello. Other than Yuji Ide, no other driver has been so consistently so far away from the pace of their team mate, and Ide at least has the excuse of inexperience. Doubtless sometimes drivers Tactical blunders haven't helped - the pitstop farrago in Imola doutless cost the team points - and rather served to negate any advantage that might have been gained from retiring Button's car yards from the line in Australia. Perhaps if the team can pull a fast one in qualifying at Monaco, and then just make everyone queue up behind them.....

Have Williams already blown their best chance of picking up a surprise win? Nico Rosberg was the sensation of the opening two races - the fastest guy on the track in Bahrain and third on the grid in Malaysia, but a startline clash with Heidfeld at Manama and an engine failure early on Malaysia prevented him from converting this form into any kind of meaningful result. Since then, he's been off the boil a little, but thankfully, Mark Webber has been on it. Had a gearbox failure not put him out of his home race, a podium was certainly in the offing, and given the way the safety car situations played out, a race win might not have been out of the question. However, without the backing of a major motor manufacturer, one can't help but feel that Williams will only go backward as the season progresses, and we may already have seen the best of them. The fact that Cosworth are still having to chase reliability problems, rather than boost performance, is hardly going to help matters. On the bright side, they certainly seem a more settled, cheerful team since they waved goodbye to Mario Thiessen and the men from Munich.....

.....Who themselves aren't doing a bad job with the old Sauber team. Perhaps its a cultural thing - the Swiss German Sauber guys understanding BMW and the all English Cosworth and WIlliams being on the same wavelength. Whatever, BMW have been unexpectedly competitive this year, and, after doing their best to persuade him he wasn't welcome before the season began, they now seem to be extracting decent performances from Jacques Villeneuve too. They won't threaten Renault, Ferrari, Honda or Mclaren for race wins, but they should continue to be regular points scorers.

Toyota, I've already said all I have to say about, and Red Bull seem to be more concerned with their absurd motorhome than with keeping up the momentum from last year (perhaps the delayed effect of sacking the two guys who turned Jaguar around into a sensible race team, just as it was about to be killed off, and replacing them with Gunther Steiner, under whose watch the team floundered so badly in the early noughties. Maybe Adrian Newey can do something in the long term, or maybe not. Toro Rosso, Super Aguri and Midland are not going to threaten anyone in any great hurry, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if Alex Shnaider, who has never really seemed too clear in his own mind why he's in F1, sells out to Alfonso de Orleans, Jean Alesi, or whoever else is knocking at the door wanting in.

All of which leads me to the perhaps dangerously premature conclusion that nobody can beat Renault and Alonso this year.....except perhaps themselves. With their working relationship coming to an end in the autumn, might tempers begin to fray? especially when things don't go to plan? Maybe I'm reading too much into too little, but with Alonso having to 'explain' before the San Marino Grand Prix that his quotes about Renault were taken out of context, might the cracks be beginning to appear.......


Post a Comment

<< Home