What does Fernando Alonso need to do to get a break?

Yesterday’s Chinese Grand Prix was won in casual fashion by Lewis Hamilton, followed home by his team mate Nico Rosberg, who enjoyed a more trying afternoon. If you hadn’t seen the race, who would you guess was third? Daniel Ricciardo perhaps, who has mastered the idiosyncrasies of this year’s cars rather better than his illustrious team mate? Or maybe that Vettel, reasserting his in-team power after the ignominy of being told to let Ricciardo past in Bahrain? (Ah, the irony – he was told to do it again in China!) Possibly you’d plump for a Force India, a Williams, or a resurgent McLaren? Nope. It was Fernando Alonso. He who outperforms everyone around him. What does he need to do to get a break in this sport?

The Chinese Grand Prix 2014 was a typical Fernando Alonso race. Qualifying near enough the front to make sure the pole sitters are within reach; making a characteristically clean start; being assailed by someone or something (in this case it was a hapless Felipe Massa caught in a closing wedge); driving one’s guts out; pitting early to maximise the bonus of the undercut; driving one’s guts out; pitting early again to maximise the undercut once again; driving one’s guts out; surviving a late charge from a young gun on fresher tyres and in invariably superior machinery; trouncing his team mate, but watching on the podium as other drivers, in invariably superior machinery, take the glory.

The bicampeonato of Alonso came in 2005 and 2006, and he resembles Arsenal FC insofar as he has failed to win a meaningful trophy since. He was a great driver then, to break Schumacher’s stranglehold on the sport. But character-building years at McLaren in 2007 and at Renault in 2008-9 moulded him into arguably the finest racer of his generation – a hard-charging speed demon who yet had a Prost-like ability to visualise the context of the race, the strategy, what would be required when. As such his attempts to wrest the championship from the grasp of Vettel were as heroic as they were ultimately futile, particularly in 2010 and 2012, years when many thought on the basis of individual performance he was the more deserving winner. 2013 saw Ferrari slide down the performance scale and Fernando began to take on the look of a man whose mantra was ‘mañana, mañana…’

Now (and it must be soul-destroying) the Red Bull hegemony at the front of the grid, that second-per-lap ability to pull away in the hands of Vettel, that lazy Sunday afternoon breeze to the chequered flag every weekend – has been replaced by a near-identical one in the form of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. The King is dead! Long live the King! Except: the Prince Regent Alonso, the other of the triumvirate whose names will ring down the history of the sport, has been usurped yet again. At the age of 32 he will not have many more chances.

Ferrari can and will change, though will it be in time for our hero? President Luca di Montezemolo brought the long-threatened knives out after Bahrain, the indignity of which he was there to watch first-hand, and Stefano Domenicali was ousted. Jumped or pushed, we wonder – and we suspect that in the Ferrari family one is encouraged to jump by a man with his hand on your back. Marco Matiacci is the new team principal, the manager of the Gestione Sportiva (the Sporting Division) and the reaction around the press rooms and the paddock appears to be one of bafflement. Matiacci was head of Ferrari North America, effectively a massive car dealership and a job whose only transferable skill to F1 seems to be that of fluent English. Di Montezemolo has defended himself – and Alonso knows better than to criticise the marque after an ill-advised comment last season.

So what does the future look like for the Asturian? His contract with Ferrari runs til 2016, and given the nature of the relationships Ferrari drivers tend to have with the Scuderia, I’d say it’s unlikely he will move. If he were to do so, McLaren have been touted as a possible destination, but Ron Dennis would not only have to patch up an apparently irrevocably damaged personal relationship but also provide assurances that his Woking team will be competitive next season with Honda – a big promise to make in the current position. Mercedes is tremendously unlikely unless Hamilton and Rosberg start taking each other out on a regular basis. Red Bull don’t tend to take big names when their in-house programme makes them themselves. So he doesn’t really have many options as it stands.

Is it doom and gloom, then, for Fernando? Is it the case that he will always have won at least half the number of championships as Vettel? Is it the case that Hamilton will be on statistical terms with him? Will he be the third in that triumvirate? No. Statistics will only ever tell half the story. Those of us who have witnessed Fernando Alonso driving, by the track and on the television, will always be able to tell the story. The story that he was superhuman in a racing car; that he performed beyond the limits of his machinery; that he almost never had the best car and yet we always mention his name.

Five things we learned from the Bahrain GP 2014

Last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix was a cracker, won by Lewis Hamilton after a race-long battle with his team mate Nico Rosberg. But what can F1 fans take from the desert as the dust settles after the first skirmish of the season?

1) The sport ain’t in that bad a shape
Naysayers, quieten yourselves. This column, in the company of some illustrious figures, has been critical of the spectacle of F1 2014. In tandem with the lack of piercing whine, some had felt that the racing hadn’t been exactly riveting. Well, Bahrain shut us up. It was an old-fashioned thriller that had it all – inter-team battling, overtaking, skill and daring and even Esteban Gutierrez going on his head. Which is worth the Sky subscription fee alone, right?

2) Hamilton is only a nose ahead of Rosberg now
Unlike Malaysia, where he was a country mile down the road. There have been reports surfacing in the last few days that Rosberg had studied a dossier on Hamilton in the wake of Sepang, in order to better comprehend the trouncing that the Briton meted out to him there. And comprehend he did. Much has been made of Rosberg’s intellect and it was in evidence as his strategy execution was arguably superior in Bahrain. What was given less credit and exposure was his forbearance in the heat of battle in not taking Hamilton out. It’s probably fair to say bringing the cars home intact – as in Paddy Lowe’s exhortation – was Rosberg’s greatest achievement in Sakhir, especially when you consider Hamilton was driving defensively to the outer limit of propriety. Will there be further fireworks? You bet. The parallels with Prost and Senna are there to be tweeted.

3) Ferrari – and McLaren – have work to do
Luca di Montezemolo chose the wrong race to come to if he was looking for a Ferrari resurgence. He and his old mucker Ron Dennis may be taking a more hands-on role in the day-to-day management of their respective squads if things don’t improve quickly. In Ferrari’s case, what’s the point of having two roosters if you can’t build them a functional henhouse? (Stretching the metaphor somewhat, but there you are). Over at McLaren, it’s probably fair to argue that initial confidence in the car resulted in a lack of a catalyst for rapid development, and as such they’ve been left in the pecking order behind Mercedes, Red Bull, Force India and Williams.

4) New (and some old) talent needs recognising
Daniel Ricciardo has been a revelation, not only taking the battle to Vettel but looking every inch his equal. A number of us, Vettel included, didn’t see that coming. Also due hat-tips are Sergio Perez, who beat Nico Hulkenberg fair and square (though we’ll see if that is the case only on tracks Checo likes); Felipe Massa, who’s no longer ham-strung by either Ferrari nor his new team and is showing his speed of old; Daniil Kvyat, who seems to be mature beyond his baby face; and Kamui Kobayashi is trying his damnedest, as ever.

5) Uncertainty over governance does not breed confidence
Another weekend, another rumour about the future governance of the sport – this time that the teams are considering mounting a bid to buy the commercial rights to the sport. If that were true, I can’t see how it would have made sense to disband FOTA, because that surely would be a good vehicle for any such effort. Anyway, all the uncertainty over engine size, engine noise, fan attendance, double points and Bernie’s ongoing legal wrangles make for both an uneasy paddock and restive viewing billions. Ecclestone’s thinly-veiled denial that he is trying to wrest back control of the sport doesn’t help matters. It might be that the teams’ bid wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, but for most people, the history and the racing are the most important things. And if everyone in the F1 circus could remember that, please…?

Drivers could personalise new ‘sound magnifiers’

F1 drivers could have the ability to personalise the sound their engine makes if new ‘sound magnifier’ technology is homologated by the FIA, according to a sensational report this morning.

The technology is being produced in Germany in response to widespread criticism of the noise of the 2014-spec F1 cars and could be included on the cars as soon as the British Grand Prix, according to a report by Ausgezeichnet Paloirfol Bild, a German-language news agency.

Formula One Management (FOM) are thought to be in talks with the German manufacturer to buy 26 prototypes of the device, which works by magnifying and increasing the pitch of the current standard F1 V6 engine. It raises the distinct possibility of drivers and/or teams being able to adapt the sound of their cars to their own tune, as did Renault in 2006 when they made an engine ‘sing’ the British national anthem.

Pastor Maldonado is known to be a fan of mariachi, while Lewis Hamilton is unlikely to be featuring any Pussycat Dolls material at the present time. Sebastian Vettel is reported to be a devotee of hardcore German techno fused with Austrian yodelling, although it is thought unlikely that any team will permit the theme from Wacky Races.