Fernando Alonso doesn't expect a title favourite to emerge until the summer break
But Hamilton emerging as a surprise contender for the 2013 title
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 15/04/13 1:58pm
The Spaniard became the third victor in as many races at the start of the season on Sunday as he sprinted past Lewis Hamilton on the opening laps before building a commanding lead to win the Chinese GP by ten seconds from the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen.
Just twelve points cover Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and World Championship leader Sebastian Vettel at the top of the standings, with the balance of power between the four frontrunning teams - Ferrari, Lotus, Mercedes and reigning champions Red Bull - so far see-sawing on a session-by-session, race-by-race basis.
No wonder, then, that Alonso is refusing to identify a title favourite just yet.
"I think it's a little bit too early to say," cautioned the two-times champion. "We need to wait until maybe after the summer break or something like that to clearly see the real contenders. Hopefully we are in that group after the summer.
"Hopefully Felipe [Massa] can be in that group as well, that will mean that the car is going well, and I think at the moment Lotus, Red Bull and Mercedes are in the same position as us, let's say. I don't see anyone has a clear advantage."
Understanding the complex but brittle Pirelli tyres will be top of every team's agenda as the F1 bandwagon prepares to embark for round four of the season in Bahrain, but Alonso, still bristling with irritation about his retirement in Malaysia, is more aware than anyone that luck, sport's most fickle protagonist, will have its own critical part to play.
"Let's wait and see what the updates of every car brings to the pace, and we will see how luck plays," he suggested.#
"It happened to Nico [Rosberg] in Australia where he didn't finish with car problems, it happened to us in Malaysia. You never know whether the front wing will remain there and finish the race or if the front wing will go underneath your car and you don't finish the race. This can happen to anyone and this will also dictate who are contenders as well, so the luck factor is there."
The surprise, perhaps, is that Hamilton has already emerged as another leading contender in the title battle during what was supposed to be a year spent languishing on a steep learning curve. Instead, after two consecutive podium finishes, the new Mercedes recruit is threatening to make a mockery of the incredulity which greeted his departure from McLaren.
With the troublesome MP4-28 still way off the pace at Shanghai despite a raft of new upgrades, Hamilton's decision to defect has now assumed the dimensions of an inspired gamble, although it may be too soon to rank the Mercedes W04 alongside the Red Bull, Lotus' tyre-protecting E21 and Alonso's F138. Having blitzed the field on Saturday to claim his first pole position in Mercedes colours in only his third outing for the team, Hamilton's found his car to be no match for either the Ferrari or Raikkonen's E21 in race trim and ended the weekend with mixed emotions.
"I'm very happy with third but the overall pace was just not there," Hamilton acknowledged after sneaking over the line just in front of Vettel's fast-closing Red Bull. "There's definitely a couple of areas that we can focus on the car but we've got to bring some more updates and keep on improving.
"We have to remember that as we are progressing, everyone else will be progressing at the same time too. We've got to do double steps and who knows how long it may take us because it's difficult to know how much pace we need. In qualifying, we are there, but in race conditions we are not."
Bahrain, though, may be a different matter. The stop-start, traction-heavy Sakhir circuit is expected to suit the characteristics of the Lotus and the Red Bull, but in a season which has seen at least nine different leaders in every race, predictions are best consumed with a pinch of salt and delivered in retrospect.