Pure racing instinct
Mark Hughes says Fernando Alonso will need to keep pulling Valencia-style performances out of the bag given Red Bull's step forward.
Last Updated: 27/06/12 3:40pm
The brilliance of Fernando Alonso's Valencia victory has just underlined in red the general perfection of his performances this year, something that might have given him the platform with which to fend off the championship challenges of Lewis Hamilton and the Red Bull drivers.
Alonso became the season's first double winner on Sunday and together with the non-finishes of Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, it places him firmly in the driving seat of the Championship. But the raw performance displayed by Vettel's heavily upgraded Red Bull before it retired makes for an ominous warning of the onslaught that might be about to come.
In which case, Alonso's continued operation at the very edge of feasibility is going to be heavily relied upon. Ferrari continues to be operationally solid - great pit stops (Alonso's, at any rate!) but with several lost strategic opportunities - rather than brilliant. It's also on a fruitful development path with a car that began the season heavily flawed. But the inspiration is coming very much from the man in cockpit number five. Expecting both the perfection and the inspiration to continue for the duration of the season places a lot upon his shoulders, but they're broad and that talent is so robust.
Alonso admitted after the race that he'd been prepared to risk a lot in the opening moments from his 11th place start, and it did look that way as he made a move at turn two that Jenson Button later said required him to lift to avoid taking them both into the wall. But that apparently high-risk moment was an illuminating illustration of just what makes Alonso such a relentlessly effective performer. Yes, he placed himself in a position that required the co-operation of a rival to avoid disaster, but it was surely done in the knowledge of who that rival was and how he would react - i.e. Button could be trusted to do the sensible thing at the critical moment. It was the sort of judgement call that Hamilton failed to make in his incident with Pastor Maldonado, blemishing what to date has been a perfect seasonal performance from Lewis that matched Alonso's.
Throughout his long career Alonso has made selected high-risk moves and probability says that only around half of them should not end in disaster. But they rarely, if ever, do. Even in the red zone of battle, Alonso seems able to hold onto the bigger picture and the risk is always calculated and targeted. Staying on the outside and on the gas as the field scrabbled into the second turn bought him a couple more places and that eighth place at the end of the opening lap opened out the possibilities of his day far more effectively than just staying cautious in 11th would have done.
It was not luck that those audaciously big moves that helped make his day didn't end in disaster, but pure racing instinct, driven by huge desire but tempered by a shrewd feel for when and how to stretch the elastic a little. He's in the full bloom of that talent now, the years of experience and the dynamics of his standing within Ferrari adding only adding to the steely inner certainty and ferocious competitiveness that's always been there.
He did benefit from some luck, and not only the retirement of Vettel. It was lucky that the three cars immediately ahead of him as the first pit stops approached - those of Kobayashi, Raikkonen and Maldonado - ALL had problems in those stops, allowing him to emerge from the pitlane ahead of them. It was lucky that the safety car wiped out the 11s by which he'd been trailing Grosjean, lucky that Hamilton suffered his pit stop delay at the crucial time. But, just as in Malaysia - his other win this year - it was the ferocity of his grip of opportunity when it came that marked him out.
Once the afterglow of what had been a truly fabulous performance subsided though, might Fernando have pondered that Vettel's Red Bull had been on pole by 0.5s and was so far ahead in the race he was able to make his first pit stop without even losing the lead? The RB8 has been massively re-engineered over the last two races - with new rear suspension, brakes and wheel hubs in Montreal to make possible the reworked rear bodywork in Valencia, all combining to give a substantial aerodynamic improvement. The indications from both the long runs of Valencia practice and indeed the race itself were that the car's previous heavy tyre usage were things of the past. If Valencia was representative and not just another peculiarity of the delicate tyre/track temperature equation, then Red Bull might just be about to take up where it left off in 2011. In which case, Alonso's only chance is going to depend upon him stretching that run of perfection to the very end. Don't bet against it.