Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Magic Alonso, abject Massa and Ferrari's Sepang dilemma.

Look there! Massa in the gravel! Massa in the gravel! There he is, the Brazilian’s terrible weekend continues,” piped out Antonio Lobato, lead commentator for antena3, Spain’s new F1 broadcaster.

But it was the other Ferrari beached in the gravel.

For several seconds there was a pause of near disbelief as the realisation dawned on Lobato and co-commentator Marc Gene: the red, yellow and blue helmet inside the car belonged to Fernando Alonso.

El Nano” or “Magic” Alonso, two of Lobato’s favourite epithets for the Ferrari driver, bely Alonso’s near-mythical status in Spain.

His elementary driving error at turn one, where his Ferrari speared off track after he clipped the grass under braking, rendered the commentators speechless. Only Karthikeyan landing his woeful HRT on pole would have provoked more of a shock.

But error or no error, Ferrari are in turmoil. Their new F2012 is less prancing horse, more wounded thoroughbred. Its underlying flaws, already evident from testing, were if anything more pronounced in Melbourne.

Throughout free practice both drivers grappled with unpredictable handling. The mix of entry understeer followed by exit oversteer and lairy slides as the cars struggled for traction, may have produced spectacular slow-mo, but the car’s deficiencies were plain to see, particularly in the hands of Massa, who finished with a hapless spin at turn 9.

On Sunday Alonso atoned for his qualifying misdemeanour, driving a dogged race to fifth and restoring some pride to the Scuderia. But the result owed more to circumstance and Alonso's talent.

Benefiting from a slice of luck at the start as he jinked inside the carnage at turn one, he extracted every ounce of performance from the recalcitrant car. To the delight of the Spanish commentators, his race pace was consistent and respectable, though hardly nibbling at the heels of the McLarens or Red Bulls.

It could have been much worse. Melbourne, largely bereft of high-speed directional changes, places a premium on braking and mechanical grip, helping to mask the Ferrari's aerodynamic flaws.

The high-speed sweepers of Sepang next weekend could reveal the extent of Ferrari's problem far more clearly. A driver can only transcend the car to a certain point – even for someone of Alonso's calibre if the basic aerodynamic grip is missing on an aero-focused circuit it's impossible to be truly competitive, at least in the dry.

If Ferrari will struggle in Sepang, one wonders how Felipe Massa will cope.

In Australia Massa looked out of his depth in an F1 car and unable to remotely challenge his teammate all weekend. He was still over second away from Alonso’s Q2 time, even after the spin. In the race, whilst Alonso was holding off Pastor Maldonado’s faster Williams for fifth, Massa was languishing outside of the points, at one stage battling Petrov’s Caterham and lapping, fuel-corrected, at least half a second slower than his team-mate most laps.

What has happened to the Massa that took the fight to Kimi Raikkonen three years ago?

Massa has never been the same driver since his accident. Did he lose a few tenths after his horrific injury? Is being the team's clear number two an insurmountable mental hammerblow? It's impossible to know. But more Melbourne-style performances and the impressive Sergio Perez will doubtless be lining up to take his place.

Lobato and Gene may have mistaken Alonso's beached Ferrari for Massa's. But given the pair's current form, it was utterly understandable. 

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