"Ferrari is the most consistent team"
Fernando Alonso looks forward to his second Formula 1 season at the Italian team with his sights on going one better than in 2010
The Formula 1 season begins on Sunday in Australia, complete with a host of changes to the rules and five champions on the starting grid. One of them is Spanish driver Fernando Alonso, who will be looking to make up for losing the 2010 world championship title in the very last race of the season.
The Ferrari driver believes that the coming year will see his team battling it out with four or five others, pointing to Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes, Renault and "maybe Williams."
Somewhat surprisingly, the 29-year-old says that the seven-time world champion, Michael Schumacher, will be the strongest man on the track this year, despite the fact that he failed to shine in 2010 on his return to the sport.
"If things go bad at Ferrari, you still have a chance of being in the top three"
"This year we would be happy to perform less well, but to win the championship"
"I would like to take a few qualities from all of my competitors"
"My bosses found it hard to accept the fact that I wanted a white car"
Although pre-season testing sessions have not suggested that Schumacher will be behind the wheel of a competitive Mercedes, Alonso thinks that a few upgrades to this year's car could bring Schumacher to the fore as a strong title contender. He believes that the driver is not to be underestimated.
But it won't be until all the team cars go head-to-head at the first round of the season, the Australian Grand Prix, that all becomes clear. So far, reigning champion Red Bull seems to be the strongest, while Ferrari comes in a close second. Initial testing has proved positive for Ferrari. Both of the team's drivers, Alonso and Brazilian Felipe Massa, have shown great form and pace at the pre-season sessions.
Alonso recently said that the best car on the grid will win the 2011 Formula 1 title, despite the fact that Pirelli's new tire compounds, the new Drag Reduction System (DRS), the returning Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) and old-fashioned pit-stop strategies are regarded by many as the key factors.
But the new FIA regulations for 2011, brought in to try to improve drivers' chances of overtaking, have been criticized during pre-season testing, and a lot of drivers have suggested that the changes made to the sport are meaningless. Drivers and officials generally believe that the DRS system - which makes use of a moveable wing that is designed to reduce drag and therefore help overtaking - will be useless because the new Pirelli tires degrade so quickly, canceling out any advantage. The same is being said about KERS - an energy recovery system that gives drivers an extra boost of power - prompting some drivers to complain that they will be carrying extra weight in the car with no benefit. The FIA has promised to revise the regulations if they prove to be problematic in the first few races.
Question. Which team made the bigger impact on you, Renault or McLaren?
Answer. I learned pretty much everything I know at Renault. I was able to compete at the highest level, at World Championship level, fighting for victory: that was all new for me. You try to learn, to improve, but then the day arrives when you have the chance to go for the big prize, and then suddenly everything is new. That's when the pressure kicks in. I lived through all that at Renault. The year at McLaren was very rewarding at a technical level. I learned a new approach to driving, a new philosophy if you like, a new way of working. I met new engineers after so many years at Renault, and a new way of driving, a new concept of what a car is about.
Q. Ten years ago you made your debut in Formula 1 at Minardi. Back then you said: "At Ferrari the tricky part is not ending up on the podium." If you could go back in time, what would you say to yourself?
A. I would say that I was right. Ferrari is always up there with the winners, at the highest level. It is the most consistent team. No other team can offer you so many guarantees at the beginning of the year. With Ferrari you know that however bad things go, there is still a very good chance that you will be in the top three, or that you will win a lot of races. And that is clearer now than it was a decade ago. Between 1998 and 2008, Ferrari was the benchmark, and the team that everybody copied. It was the leader.
Q. And has being in the Ferrari team met your expectations?
A. No. I had a very different idea. I was very excited about joining, and had been looking forward to it for a long time, so my expectations were very high. As an outsider, the only thing you know is that this is a great team, that it has fans around the world, that there is a legend attached to it, and that it has a long and glorious history. And when I joined, things were even better than I expected. The team looks after the drivers, they make sure that everything is right, and they make you feel like you are part of a big family. At the same time, everybody is an equal. Everybody plays their part. The communication is fantastic, and things are very open. There is a lot more contact between us all than in other teams, where somebody who is right next to you prefers to say what they have to say in an email rather than come out with it to your face.
Q. But in the past you have had your problems with Ferrari. Is there any bad feeling on the part of team members?
A. Not directly, but obviously there are one or two people who like to remind you of the past. For example, at the Christmas dinner, we were talking about the 2005 and 2006 seasons, which I won with Renault. Some people were laughing about Monza in 2006, when I had car problems and Michael Schumacher took the race. I told them that they should remember their technical problems in Japan, in the last but one race of that season.
Q. In 2010 you had won three races and five podiums in as many races. You were more optimistic than the team about your chances of taking the world championship.
A. I think that they were also very optimistic about my chances, but they preferred to keep quiet. They know from experience that anything the team says at an official level has far-reaching repercussions. I am more inclined to say what I feel at the time. The car had improved significantly from Silverstone and Valencia, and we really started to move. Things got much better, and I believed that we were really in with a chance. I also knew that we had a disadvantage, but that if we could put together a run of wins then we would really be up there vying for the championship. I suppose I was more open about it than the team, but they also believed we had strong possibilities.
Q. You didn't win the title, but you ended your first season happy with what you achieved at Ferrari. How do you feel now?
A. There are times when you have a good feeling but you don't get the result you want, and there are other times when you don't feel so confident but you get a good result. It is always better to win, but there is a lot of truth to the saying that playing well is also important. If you compare Ferrari to a soccer team, you could say that we came second in the league, but that we played very well. We were happy with our performance overall. That said, this year we would be happy to perform less well, but to win.
Q. You've said that you're very happy that Pat Fry has joined the team as chief engineer.
A. We worked together at McLaren, but I knew him years before that. He is a highly respected engineer. When he joined Ferrari in January, he brought a lot of new ideas with him, he has breathed new life into the team. He has been in the sport for more than 15 years. When a decision has to be made, he is as solid as a rock - nothing takes him by surprise. He is always on top of the situation. He is exactly what we needed.
Q. Did you play a role in him being signed?
A. No, I had nothing to do with it. I was told about it the day before it was announced to the media.
Q. Has he been taken on to prevent the same kind of mistakes that held Ferrari back last year?
A. He will have to cover a lot of ground and look after a lot of different aspects. All engineers have a specific role in the team's strategy, but Pat will also play a big role in developing the car. He will have to program every detail of what the pit-stop mechanics will have to do to the car.
Q. During a race, are you completely aware of what is going on around you?
A. Yes, more or less.
Q. And were you aware of what was going on in Abu Dhabi?
Q. You insist that the decision to enter the pit stop immediately after Mark Webber, which ended your chance of winning, was agreed by the team. Some commentators have alleged that you are only saying that to protect the team.
A. We all share the responsibility. The driver's job is to drive the car. That is obvious. But there are also moments when we feel that the car is losing power, or that the tires are not in the right condition, and we ask the pit-stop team to see what the competition is up to, or if now is the right time to make a stop. But the driver also has a role to play in that decision. But it is the team that decides, because they have a lot better idea of what is going on than you do, and most of the time they make the right decision.
Q. What went through your mind when, during the last race of the season, your chief engineer told you over the radio to "use your experience and training to get out of this one"?
A. I did what I was told. I knew that the car in front was not going to be making any more stops. They tell you once, twice, and they tell you again. At that moment I didn't react, but I was aware that I was up the creek without a paddle.
Q. What would you highlight about the new car?
A. Right now the only thing that I am concerned about is reliability; that nothing goes wrong. After a couple of races, I hope to be able to say that it is very fast, but at the moment, I still don't really know.
Q. Ferrari has always been on the cutting edge of technical progress, but now it seems that other teams, such as McLaren and Red Bull, are the ones coming up with new ideas. Are you concerned?
A. No, because we haven't even started the season yet. This year the regulations are tougher than ever, and they are trying to sort out all the holes in the rule book. I think things are going to be more tightly controlled. I don't really think that anybody can come up with anything that will give their team a definitive edge.
Q. Does Ferrari have anything up its sleeve?
A. All the teams are trying to find ways round the rules.
Q. And McLaren?
A. It's a much better team than it seems to be. The winter testing sessions haven't really seen any team emerge with a clear advantage. From what they are saying, it sounds like they were hoping for a little more. Perhaps they are at much the same level as the top teams, and they were hoping to come out ahead. When we get to Australia, we'll see. McLaren isn't going to be fighting for 10th place, that's for sure. They'll be close to the podium.
Q. Does having two drivers with such different styles in a team, as is the case with Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, make it more difficult to design a car?
A. I don't think so. Formula 1 is only really about aerodynamics. For example, if they put a new wing on a car and the wind tunnel says that this will make it a tenth of a second faster, then that advantage is as valid for Alonso, Massa, Hamilton, Button, and everybody else, regardless of their driving style. Tires are maybe the only thing that force you to change the way you drive.
Q. What have you had to change about the way you drive after changing from Bridgestone to Pirelli tires?
A. The Pirelli's don't allow you to brake as sharply. Before, I would reach the end of the straight and brake with all my might. If I do that now, the most likely response is for the brakes to lock, especially the rears, as though I had pulled the handbrake on sharply. It's trickier. You have to use the brakes more carefully. They also affect road holding. Before, when I came out of a bend and hit the accelerator, I would do so aggressively, but this year I also have to watch the gas consumption. I can only put my foot down once I'm in third or fourth gear. It makes you much more aware of what's going on.
Q. How important are the changes to the rules this season and what impact will they have on who wins?
A. As usual in F1, the quickest or best car will win the championship in the end. KERS and DRS are important: these may be factors that will win one or two races. Good pit strategy will be helpful in one or two races, but over the course of 19 to 20 races, the fastest and the most reliable car will win. Many teams have said that the crews will be very busy this year and there is a margin for races to be won or lost in the pits. Red Bull's team principal, Christian Horner, said recently that his team has often won races with their best pit-stops, but talking about this season, he said that the cars will be in the pits more than twice, so it makes it even for every team.
Q. You were the driver who ended Schumacher's domination of the sport. Do you feel that current world champion Sebastian Vettel is coming after you now?
A. New champions are always the subject of a lot of talk. In the case of Button, there were people who said that if he stayed with Brawn, he could win several consecutive titles. When Hamilton won, the talk was that he was going to be the champion for the next decade, and here he is starting a third season like the rest of us. The important thing is to be consistent. I have fought right to the last race in four of the last six world championships. I am with Ferrari and that gives me the best chance to do so again. The other drivers may have two or three good years, but they always trip up. With Ferrari, it's much more consistent.
Q. Hamilton says that he envies your "pure speed." What does he mean?
A. I think he is referring to timed laps. Pure speed is when you prepare the car for its best lap time, with the minimum amount of fuel and with new tires, and you really give it everything.
Q. Are there any qualities in your rivals that you don't possess?
A. I would like to take a little from all of them. For example, I would like to have Trulli's speed. When he has a properly set up car, no one can touch him.
Q. What did your bosses say when you told them that you wanted a white Ferrari?
A. They found it hard to accept. They tried convincing me otherwise, by showing me a lot of models with different tones of red and yellow, but they couldn't change my mind.
Q. When you're not driving a Formula 1 car, you fly a light aircraft or take a ride on your Harley. Your mother must love all that...
A. Most days my mom has no idea where I am. In any case, I'm not doing anything dangerous.
Q. You say you like to keep a low profile. Doesn't all the media attention at Ferrari overwhelm you sometimes?
A. When I am out and about on my own, or with friends, I prefer it if people don't notice me. But when I race or take part in a promotional event, then I am proud to wear Ferrari red.
Q. How would you like to be remembered?
A. As tireless in my work, and as a winner. And if possible, I'd like to take a couple more championships.