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Malaysian Grand Prix 2013: stage is set for Fernando Alonso to turn up heat for Ferrari

March 22nd, 2013 Sports

Malaysian Grand Prix 2013: stage is set for Fernando Alonso to turn up heat for Ferrari

Ready to ignite: Fernando Alonso aims turn up tke heat in Kuala Lumpur Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Fernando Alonso’s father once gently told him: “If you race for Ferrari,
people will forget the championships. They will remember you as a Ferrari

It is doubtful, in his fourth season for the Scuderia and not garlanded with a
world championship crown since 2006, whether Formula One’s great aesthete
from Asturias espouses this sentiment any longer. For this complex figure,
the quest for a third world title has become one of restless frustration,
softened only by a reacquaintance with his favourite tropical surrounds in

While Sepang, hewn out of the dense jungle that encircles Kuala Lumpur
airport, might be a difficult circuit to love, Alonso has found it to be a
familiar setting for his most improbable deeds.

In this, his 200th race weekend, he can nostalgically recall the occasion in
2003 that he put Renault on pole as a tender 21-year-old.

The Spaniard also draws inspiration from the disarray of 12 months ago, when
he seized a record-equalling third Malaysian Grand Prix triumph from ninth
on the grid in monsoon conditions. His supremacy in this corner of
rainforest is such that he has led for 582 miles in 11 races here to date –
the equivalent of three grands prix from start to finish.

“Sepang is one of my favourite circuits, because you never forget your first
pole or first podium in F1, and both events happened here,” Alonso explains.
“It is a circuit I love to drive – technical and interesting.”

In fact, this is a brutally unforgiving layout, from its blend of long,
flowing corners and saturating humidity, so it is apt that it should play so
directly to the strengths of a man broadly regarded as the finest all-round
driver of his generation.

If Alonso possesses a signature gift, it is his remorselessness, and nowhere
does his capacity for reeling off lap after lap at the ragged edge of
control acquire a higher value than in the 95-degree Malaysian heat.

His homeland of Asturias, to which he returned last year after brief tax
exile, has held a reputation for fearsome warriors since the time of the
Muslim conquests, and in his racing style he fits the archetype exactly.
Described by former foe Lewis Hamilton as “the best driver out here”, he
wrings every last drop out of his Ferrari’s performance.

Part of the explanation lies in his phenomenal fitness levels, which allow him
to weather 90 minutes of 200mph-plus driving in south-east Asian
temperatures with few outward signs of discomfort.

“For us in the car it does not feel too much hotter,” Alonso shrugs, pressed
on whether the sapping conditions could prove a decisive factor in
tomorrow’s race. “You don’t feel the heat too much. In fact, it’s more of a
problem when you stop in the garage because of all the heat soak in the car.”

But Alonso’s other crucial attribute is his sheer bloody-mindedness. Last year
he began the season in a flawed Ferrari that struggled even to be the
fifth-fastest car, and yet after eight races he was leading the title chase.
Without a strategic error by his team in the concluding race in Brazil, a
third world title would have been his rather than Sebastian Vettel’s.

Alonso claims not to be consumed by angst that he has been in contention at
the final grand prix in two of the past three seasons, failing to prevail
both times, saying merely: “I have the titles I deserve.”

His father’s logic, that it is the experience of representing Ferrari as
opposed to the roll of honour, holds some resonance when one considers the
innate charisma that renders him the kind of leader and ambassador that the
men in Maranello crave.

On grid-walks his is the one car almost impossible to approach, given how his
Spanish ancestry and rabid Italian support-base create a force field of
Latin stage presence.

But Ferrari crave a first driver’s title since 2007 every bit as ardently as
Alonso does, and the time has seldom been more pressing for him to deliver.

A return to the halcyon years of Michael Schumacher, who embodied the
pre-eminence of the prancing horse with five straight championships, can
scarcely arrive soon enough.

“Schumacher is the driver who pushed me the most,” he says, reflecting upon
his brace of titles for Renault in 2005 and 2006. “He is the one whom I most
admired, whom I tried to copy when I watched him live or saw footage of the
races. Things are different now: it is more about how each car performs on
every turn and not so much about who is behind the wheel.”

You can detect a faint note of resentment in his words. Alonso is as convinced
as his admirers that if this were a straight contest to discover the most
accomplished driver, he would win by a distance.

Unfortunately for him, the campaign of 2013 promises to hinge not so much upon
his daredevil overtaking, or his tenacious taming of an imperfect car, as
the intricacies of race strategy.

While Kimi Raikkonen’s raw pace was evident in Australia last weekend, Alonso
intuits that the Finn’s win sprang from the fact that Lotus assumed a
two-stop strategy versus Ferrari’s three. Malaysia is the place, if history
is a gauge, for him to make his naked skill be the difference.