F1: Alonso sets up 'epic' title fight
"An epic world championship. Probably the best in history." That was the considered opinion of Martin Whitmarsh following yesterday's Italian Grand Prix and it might have sounded just a tad hyperbolic were it not for the fact that McLaren's team principal had every reason to feel dejected.
His leading driver, Lewis Hamilton, had thrown away his championship advantage with some reckless driving on the first lap which caused him to retire; his second driver, Jenson Button, had finished runner-up in a race he could have won thanks to a combination of McLaren's decision to bring him in too early and a pit stop that was too slow by comparison with Ferrari.
And behind Whitmarsh, a pulsating sea of red was rubbing his nose in it, rejoicing in Ferrari's first win here since Michael Schumacher's in 2006.
Still, Whitmarsh could not fail but acknowledge the extraordinary state of affairs in which we find ourselves. As the European season draws to a close and we head for exotic pastures and the final five races of the season, just 24 points separate Mark Webber in first and his Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel in fifth. That is less than the prize on offer for a race win.
Fernando Alonso's deserved victory yesterday, in which he hustled and harried Button to such an extent that the latter admitted the experience had been akin to mental torture before capitalising when the Englishman pitted, will not please those of righteous disposition.
Many within the sport are still incensed at Ferrari's escape last Wednesday with nothing more than a £65,000 fine after manipulating the result of July's Germany Grand Prix.
Just how significant could the decision not to strip Alonso of his Hockenheim winnings prove? Of the five title contenders, he is the only one not simultaneously battling his own team-mate.
Alonso had no need of Felipe Massa's help here. Despite seeing his pole advantage evaporate when Button made a fine start, Alonso enjoyed the faster car and stuck close to the reigning world champion for 36 of the 53 laps.
Button had opted for a higher downforce setting, which gave him better cornering speed but less pace on the straights and when he was called in for a switch to hard tyres, Alonso pounced, putting in one more blistering lap before stopping himself. Their pit-stop times make for interesting reading: 4.2 seconds for Button. 3.4sec for Alonso. That difference was to prove decisive.
The Ferrari re-emerged neck and neck with the McLaren but crucially held the inside corner into Turn One. Thereafter, Alonso never looked back.
"I don't think we quite had the pace today compared to Ferrari," Button said. "But it was all going pretty well. And then we decided to pit one lap earlier than Fernando. It was possibly a mistake."
It was nothing compared to that made by his team-mate. Hamilton had got off to a good start from fifth and was jostling with Massa when he got too eager at Turn 4 and locked wheels with Massa, damaging his steering and exiting the track at the Variante della Roggia.
Storming into the McLaren motor home still wearing his helmet, it was a while before he could compose himself to speak to reporters.
"The championship is not over," he said. "But it is mistakes like I made today that lose world championships."
Hamilton's pain is Alonso's gain. It may be Webber who leads the title race after finishing in sixth place, but the Spaniard has the momentum following his second win in four races.
"I never imagined it would feel so good," he said. "It was a superb drive by Jenson but the team did a fantastic job -- I made the overtake in the garage."
We return to Singapore a week on Sunday. The experts say the next few tracks should suit Red Bull. Mind you, this circuit was supposed to be McLaren's and Ferrari dominated.
That's the thing about this season. We may not have a classic rivalry of Ayrton Senna v Alain Prost proportions, but what we do have is an intriguing and unpredictable five-way fight for the title. And that is not hyperbole. (© Daily Telegraph, London)