Gauging the title fight: Why Fernando Alonso shouldn't be unduly concerned by Ferrari's lack of pace at Singapore
Sky Sports F1's commentary expert Mark Hughes on the state of play in the title race and why Ferrari's lack of pace at Singapore shouldn't unduly concern Fernando Alonso...
Last Updated: 26/09/12 10:34am
He left Singapore with a still-healthy lead of 29 points but that was eight less than he came in with - and with a car that had a significant pace deficit to those of his two closest rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
Fernando Alonso was understandably concerned post-Singapore about his Ferrari's pace relative to McLaren and Red Bull as the championship enters the final quick-fire series of double headers. He left Singapore with a still-healthy lead of 29 points but that was eight less than he came in with - and with a car that had a significant pace deficit to those of his two closest rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
If that performance shortfall to those cars were to be continued through the remaining six races - with potentially four of them finishing ahead of him each time - then that points cushion could conceivably be wiped out.
But whilst Alonso's concern is only natural, there's little from Singapore that suggests the Ferrari's struggle there was anything other than circuit specific. It's true that in terms of outright performance, the McLaren has been the form car since its Hockenheim upgrades, but the Ferrari has been far from overwhelmed by it. During those five races, the Ferrari has been comparably fast at Hockenheim and Monza, with Spa an unknown given Alonso's first lap retirement there. It has struggled for pace only at Hungary and Singapore, the two circuits most punishing of the mechanical understeer balance the F2012 seems ultimately to have.
Add low-speed traction - another Ferrari weakness - into that list of demands, like at Singapore, and the reasons for Alonso's struggles last weekend are clear. They were exacerbated by how the new circuit-specific high downforce rear wing did not work as in simulation, leaving the team relying on the standard wing - which works best at downforce levels less than those demanded by the Marina Bay track.
But through fast, aerodynamically-demanding corners it's been very competitive and there's no reason to suppose it won't remain so. As such, it should be well-suited to Suzuka, Korea and India, maybe not quite at its best at Abu Dhabi but with nothing too worrying about the layouts of Austin or Interlagos. In fact, the car's versatility - its competitiveness relatively immune to changes in track temperature, tyre compounds and rainfall - could well turn out to be the most valuable asset of any car in the coming races.
The McLaren is now fast on any type of circuit, challenged by the Ferrari on some of them, the Red Bull on others, but unquestionably the most reliably quick. But not the most reliable. Hamilton's transmission failure whilst leading on Sunday puts him 52 points behind, needing an average gain on Alonso of over 8.5 points per race. "I intend to win all the remaining races," he said after leaving the track in Singapore which may sound like an optimistic hope given the volatile nature of this season's results.
It's actually not all that unfeasible, given the car's pace, though still ultimately unlikely. If he did so, Alonso would have to be second almost every time to retain his points lead to the end.
The victory that Hamilton's retirement in Singapore gave Vettel vaulted Seb back to second in the points and with the Red Bull's bogey track - Monza - now out of the way. The RB8 carries a lot of downforce, but at high speeds it's quite high-drag. Combine that with the Renault engine's top-end power shortfall and you have the reason for its difficulty at Monza. Last year's car had such a downforce advantage it was even able to dominate there regardless, by arriving onto the straights so much faster than everything else.
Such form went with the 2012 regulation restrictions on blown diffuser and front flexibility, but the RB8 remains a strongly competitive tool, albeit apparently a little more sensitive to track temperatures than either the Ferrari or McLaren. Unless a breakthrough major development goes onto the RB8 it's difficult to see it repeating Vettel's overwhelming speed advantage in Valencia - which was against the pre-updated McLaren. There's little to suggest that it should retain the advantage it showed over Ferrari in Singapore.
Although Kimi Raikkonen remains third in the championship, the Lotus has dropped off the McLaren/Red Bull/Ferrari pace of late. Its last truly competitive outing was in Hungary three races ago. For Japan the team intends to run the rear wing drag-reducing device last trialled at Spa and for the following week in Korea there should be a major aero upgrade. A late surge of winning form from Kimi could cause an upset, and stranger things have happened, but as things stand Alonso remains very much the logical favourite.