Victory by 0.070 seconds?

In chaos, there is opportunity, goes the saying and no where was this better demonstrated than in Sunday s Japanese Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton was the man to keep his cool while torrential weather conditions, whipped up by Mount Fuji, wrecked havoc with those around him, most notably Fernando Alonso who aquaplaned off the track on lap 42 gifting Hamilton a 12 point championship lead. The weekend will no doubt be remembered for Sunday s chaotic race and the way it rocked the drivers championship. But in my view it was qualifying that marked the real turning point, not least because it revealed yet another shift in balance between Alonso and Hamilton.

Qualifying the key

The performance gap between the two championship rivals has yo-yoed around all season, often barely existing it all, but it was certainly advantage Alonso coming into the race after dominant showings in Italy and Belgium. A number of commentators, myself included, were already starting to gift the championship to the Spaniard. So credit must go to Hamilton for the way he turned things around under increasing pressure from Alonso. His pole lap was definitely something special if you also consider that he was carrying an extra lap of fuel than his rival.

What a crucial pole position it turned out to be. The decision to start the race behind the safety car played beautifully into the hands of the pole sitter. Imagine if Alonso had taken the top spot, we could have been looking at a completely different result on Sunday. It would have been Hamilton holding three seconds back because of the spray. It would have been Hamilton emerging after his first pit-stop behind a queue of cars in ninth. And it would have been Hamilton under pressure to make up ground not Alonso.

All hypothetical I know, but I do think with hindsight that Hamilton s pole position which incidentally, was only his by 0.070 seconds was absolutely crucial to the outcome of the race. In a small quirk of fate, it may have just won him the championship.

Will he stay or will he go?

Alonso will be having a serious think about his future following Sunday s Grand Prix. Speculation is rife and there is some talk of him returning to Renault in 2008. Personally, I think it all comes down to the result of the drivers championship.

If Alonso were to win the championship, and this is still a very real possibility despite Hamilton s advantage, I think he would jump ship. There would be a sense of job done and it would be an opportunity to leave a team he is so obviously uncomfortable with whilst saving face. Should Hamilton triumph, there is part of me that thinks Alonso, the determined racer he is, would want a second go at his rival on equal terms. Only in the same machinery could Alonso truly prove to Hamilton and the world that he is quicker.

Christopher Hayes

Alonso favourite for championship

Given the intensity of the drama off the track over the past fortnight you d be forgiven for feeling a bit deflated after witnessing the action on it. The Italian and Belgian Grand Prix just about captured the interest of the sport s regular viewers but would have no doubt done little to satisfy the needs of new followers lured in by the intrigue of Mclarengate.

Alonso and Raikkonen, in cars beautifully suited to the respective circuits, took it in turns to outclass the opposition most notably championship leader Lewis Hamilton and quashed any real racing between the big four.

But dull the races may have been, insignificant they most certainly were not.

Indeed, if Alonso should go on to triumph in this years drivers championship, the last two races at Monza and Spa-Francorchamps will be remembered as decisive turning points in the Spaniard s campaign. Despite all the pressures surrounding his alleged involvement in the spy scandal, he delivered qualifying and race performances that literally blew Hamilton away.

The young Englishman simply didn t have an answer for his team-mate s pace; and it showed. Some commentators have put this down to tightening up in the latter stages of the championship. Others have attributed it to Hamilton s inexperience in the technical development of the car citing stories of Alonso refusing to share his setup data. And there is also the ridiculous suggestion that Alonso s mechanics are in some way more motivated than Hamilton s by virtue of being on the Spaniard s pay roll.

But not enough credit has gone to Alonso in my view who has very quietly and quite out of nowhere discovered at least a two-three tenth of a second advantage over his team-mate. This is a huge gain if you think back to Hungary and Turkey.

Yet somewhere along the way, amidst the turmoil of events in the paddock and obscured by the lack of on track action, two stunning drives in which Alonso has driven the wheels off his Mclaren have allowed themselves to be overshadowed. The first, at Monza, rewarded Alonso with a much deserved victory, the second, at Spa and in the context of absolute supremacy from Ferrari, delivered a podium and psychological blow to Hamilton.

Hamilton s frustration has really started to show off the track and was encapsulated this week in his very public outburst at Alonso s blocking tactics at the start of the Belgium Grand Prix. You would have to say that it is slightly hypocritical of Hamilton to criticise Alonso given his own extremely aggressive move off the start line at the Italian Grand Prix by far one of the highlights of the race. In any case the outburst lies in stark contrast to the rather solemn demeanour following similar frustration earlier in the season at Monaco. How quickly the relationship between these two has changed.

So as the F1 circus gears up for the final rounds of the championship, the balance of power lies very much with Alonso. Just as you would back a man who had climbed Everest before to triumph a second time over a man who had not, so Alonso must be favourite to clinch the championship. And let s not forget that he has on his CV a feat no other driver will ever claim for himself: he has outraced and outfoxed a one Michael Schumacher to the title.

Christopher Hayes