Faster tracks ahead could spell trouble for Alonso, writes David Kennedy
Hockenheim, Hungaroring, Hamilton and holidays. It's all happening as we take a breather at the halfway stage in the Formula One season. The teams have retired to various destinations to dwell on what's been and figure out how to improve on what's to come. If that sounds like an elocution lesson from My Fair Lady, you could certainly add Eliza Doolittle's other infamous quote regarding a few drivers, 'Come on, move your bloomin' arse'.
But for the front-runners at least, destiny lies in the hands of their designers and strategists, as it has been a hotbed of incremental adjustments that's given us this patchwork quilt of winners and cameo surprises.
While many of these key personnel will see more bench than beach during August as they try and figure out some miracle remedies, Fernando Alonso's head will rest uneasily upon his pillow despite the fact that he's leading the championship by 40 points from Mark Webber, 42 from Sebastian Vettel and 47 from Lewis Hamilton.
Although Alonso's car has undergone radical changes since the start of the season, it's been several races since anything of note has been changed. He knows he has a tenuous lead and the last thing he wants to feel breathing down his neck is the dragon flames of predators Hamilton or Vettel.
The Spaniard will continue to rely on his skill and consistency and the hope that other interlopers like Lotus, Mercedes, or even Williams, will rise up to dilute the efforts of McLaren and Red Bull. The 225 points that are going a-begging in the second act of this moving theatrical roadshow need to be distributed among many protagonists if Alonso is to bow out with the title.
The Ferrari driver has told his team in no uncertain terms that they have to improve the performance of the car if they have any chance of retaining an edge that has been achieved through hard graft, which will be hard to sustain in the faster circuits that make up the rest of the season.
Hamilton is by contrast optimistic. McLaren has raised its game and the Brit was able to win in Hungaroring from pole position. The last time Lewis achieved a pole-to-victory was in Canada two years ago so it was a timely injection of confidence.
Hamilton is currently negotiating the renewal of his contract. With Jenson Button in the doldrums, he's in a position of strength to get what he wants. One of the stumbling blocks is an unusual one. He's demanding he gets to keep his original trophies and not replicas which McLaren give their drivers. As far as Hamilton sees it, this isn't sporting. He compares his situation to an Olympian who gets to keep the medal that's placed around their neck and he's demanding the same rights to keep the trophy he is handed on the podium. It probably doesn't come very far up on the list of human rights abuses, but you can see his point.
Vettel is no stranger to the top step of the podium but he'll be having withdrawal symptoms after a drought of seven races without a visit there. His team is embroiled in several controversies, the latest follows a request by the FIA to change the cockpit suspension mechanism to ensure it cannot be adjusted by hand.
There's no evidence the team adjusted the suspension other than by the use of a tool -- which is allowed -- but we're getting into the stage of nit-picking as some teams are unhappy about anything that could bring about an unfair advantage.
Red Bull admits the offending ride height manual adjustment is still in situ but insists it hasn't been used. That's a bit like Bill Clinton admitting he smoked pot but didn't inhale. The issue will be resolved but teams will continue to eye each other up with stealth and suspicion. The fact that Red Bull tries something out, uses it to their advantage and are then asked to ditch it, draws criticism that the FIA is closing the door after the horsepower has bolted.
Lotus is knocking on the door of victory and there's a distinct feeling that the 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen or his team-mate Romain Grosjean are poised for a win, particularly when the team introduce their innovative double DRS in Spa, something that should see their race lap time improve. The Finn is favourite to make this win happen.
Kimi finished second to Hamilton for the third time at the Hungaroring, but this season in a Lotus it was impressive going in his comeback year. Grosjean has the backing of a partisan ex- Renault French crew, not least team boss Eric Boullier, which may account for Raikkonen alluding to not to being averse to a return to Ferrari.
And on the subject of who replaces Felipe Massa, which is probably a foregone conclusion since his contract hasn't been renewed, the list is long. Apart from every Italian red-blooded race driver, not to mention every road car driver, or all the kids who dream about driving for the famous marque, there is a short-list of prime contenders. But it depends if Ferrari is looking for someone equal to Alonso's talent or a shadow to help their number one achieve his objectives.
History has shown that the number two slot can be a poisoned chalice. Raikkonen, or Rosberg, wouldn't accept a subsidiary role, but Hulkenberg or Kovalainen probably would be prepared to play second fiddle, up to a point. Of course if Hamilton doesn't get his silver service from McLaren, he may well be looking in the direction of Maranello, though Alonso would probably veto that move based on their ill-fated relationship at McLaren.
They say holidays diminish one's IQ as all those neurons that were previously on high alert become a relaxed mush of useless brain cells. The drivers better keep their break short because the next race is in Belgium on September 2, when the drivers will need to be in peak mental condition. To paraphrase Eliza again, the rain in Spa falls mainly on the tarmac, which will make it even more challenging. But, like Monaco, a win here often defines a future champion so maybe the clue to the eventual title holder will be revealed there. Happy holidays.