All of a sudden, the complexion of the championship has changed. Just a few races ago, Fernando Alonso was one of the outsiders in the championship. As has been widely noted, when he declared himself capable of winning the championship at Silverstone a few races ago, his remarks were met with scepticism. He was, after all, a relatively distant fifth; 47 points away from the lead.
Now, after a Monza masterclass and a Singapore showcase, the Fernando-Ferrari package looks formidable. Alonso has the momentum, and has shot up into second place in the championship.
This isn’t just back-to-back wins. This is back-to-back wins on two circuits that are polar opposites of each other. Monza is a true low-downforce, high speed challenge. That was supposed to favour McLaren. Singapore is a circuit where teams apparently run with more downforce than they do in Monaco. That was supposed to favour Red Bull. Instead, Fernando Alonso was majestic in his Ferrari at both of these radically different circuits.
Much has been made of the fact that Alonso can also fully rely on the support of his team mate Felipe Massa, while both rival teams have both their drivers battling each other as well. But Alonso does not even need this support. Massa played no role in Alonso’s victory at Monza, and he wasn’t even in a position to assist in Singapore. Alonso is supreme — and that is what is making him the main contender now.
It is all the more amazing when you consider just how many mistakes Alonso was making earlier on in the season. It really was a case of unfulfilled potential at the midway point. There was the first corner incident at Melbourne. The jump start in China. The hugely costly practice crash at Monaco. Getting bogged down behind Petrov in Turkey. Botched overtaking attempts on Kubica and Liuzzi at Silverstone.
Ferrari were not having a great time either. The car has not always been competitive. Not so long ago Alonso was making negative comments about the pace of development at Ferrari, noting that it was much more relentless when he was at McLaren. Then there was the distraction of the team orders fiasco and the fallout that ensued. Yet now, Alonso is in the pound seats for the Championship.
Red Bull’s challenge
Red Bull have, all in all, looked like the strongest team all season. And although much has been made of their calamities, they have generally done a good job. More is made of their inability to convert front row starts into wins than is necessary. When there are 23 cars behind you, it is easy peasy for one or two of them to usurp you.
What is more notable is that Red Bull have had so many front row starts when the others just haven’t. And while the victories may have been a bit more evenly shared out, Red Bull have still be consistently up there, challenging all the way through the season while both Ferrari and McLaren have had peaks and troughs. Moreover, it has been abundantly clear that Red Bull have been innovating heavily throughout the season.
The fact is that Red Bull currently lead both championships. And while they have lost a bit of momentum recently, they are still the team that have the least to do in the remaining four (or three) races.
Has the tide turned against Red Bull? In one sense, no. Monza was always going to be their weakest circuit of the year — yet they still managed to finish 4th and 6th in the race. Not great, but not too bad either.
Red Bull’s biggest problem is not that they have lost momentum. They are still a formidable force, whether or not they have had to compromise on flexible wings and floors. No; Red Bull’s biggest problem is completely out of their hands.
McLaren on the back foot
Red Bull have to deal with the fact that essentially McLaren have faded into the background of the championship race. This means that the rewards are being split three ways rather than five. If Red Bull have a problem, it is Alonso who capitalises — full stop. Earlier in the season, it could have been either Alonso, Hamilton or Button. Not now that McLaren have essentially faded from view.
Spa and Monza were crunch races for McLaren, as the last two circuits in the calendar that truly suited their car. Neither race was perfect. Spa was not too worrying — Hamilton took a dominant win in arguably his most majestic display to date. Button was running well until his accident with Vettel.
But Monza must have rung alarm bells. Seemingly distracted by the decision over whether to run the F-duct, McLaren lost their grasp. Hamilton was rattled after his set-up disadvantaged him during qualifying. The team had to rely on Jenson Button to do the business at the front.
The problem is that Button has not looked like he has had the fire in his belly since some point in the season — maybe around Turkey? Button started the season with two victories in the first four races, but has not looked like winning since then.
Monza was a good chance. But in reality, it was clear all race long that Alonso has the superior pace, and there was nothing Button could do to avoid ceding the lead.
Hamilton, meanwhile, knocked himself out on lap one by getting involved in a needless accident — a scenario that was repeated in Singapore. While Alonso has been dominant and mesmerising, Hamilton has returned to his clumsy ways, misjudging a move for two races in a row. He has thrown away a shedload of points.
You have to question Hamilton’s mental state as we approach the end of the season. He was supposed to have shaken off these clumsy errors, but now he has only himself to blame for finding himself on the back foot.
Most worrying of all from McLaren’s standpoint is the fact that it doesn’t look like they know what to do to turn the tide. Since the failed upgrade package of Silverstone, McLaren have not been on great form.
It looks like Ferrari have won the development battle. The failure of experimental gearbox parts on Massa’s car in Singapore demonstrates that they are pushing very hard towards the end of the season. No wonder that all of his rivals now view Fernando Alonso as their number one threat.