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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Alonso takes second straight as Hamilton, Massa falter

Fernando Alonso made it back-to-back wins at the Japanese Grand Prix Sunday, while title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa made a hash of things in a race filled with drama at Fuji.

“I cannot believe it right now but obviously back to back wins is a very nice feeling and the team did a great job to improve the car,” Alonso said. “We are now maybe just behind Ferrari and McLaren and this is completely amazing.”

Hamilton got off to a poor start, beaten by Massa’s Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen off the line, before straightlining the first corner along with half the field and forcing the Finn off in the process.

“I got a pretty good start and got into the first place but then braking into the first corner I was trying to turn in and there was first one McLaren and then a second and I think they both hit me and I had nowhere to go,” Raikkonen explained.

BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica, who played it safe, ducked through into the lead with Alonso in tow, while Hamilton found himself down in sixth, pressuring Massa.

“I decided to go on the inside, I braked really too late and if someone had managed to take the apex I would have for sure hit him but suddenly everybody was straight,” said Kubica. “I locked the front wheel quite a lot but managed to stay on the track, I think I was the only one who did really. Okay, I didn’t take the apex but I was still on the track and managed to pull out first after corner one.”

By lap two, Hamilton made his move, edging ahead of Massa at the hairpin. Unfazed, the Brazilian punted the McLaren man to the back of the field.

Massa would be penalized for his aggressiveness, assessed a drive-through penalty, but there would be no advantage for Hamilton as he too was penalized for forcing Raikkonen off the road at the first corner.

“At the start, I got away well and had passed Alonso and Kovalainen,” said Massa. “Then Hamilton braked over the limit and I found myself sandwiched between one car on the inside and one on the outside and all I could do was brake and stay behind. I think the duel that followed with Hamilton was hard but fair and the drive-through really penalized my race.”

It is all frightfully reminiscent of last season. Young Lewis gave a lot of lip service to being a changed man this year, but the proof needs to be shown on the track. All he had to do was be patient and collect the points available. Instead, he forced the situation and showed the same amateurish behavior which cost him the title in 2007.

He would finish 12th and out of the points, his lead in the championship cut to five.

“Obviously, I’m not happy after a result like today’s - but I’m already getting over it and tomorrow will be another day,” said Hamilton. “There are positives to take from today; I’ve only lost two points to Felipe in the drivers’ championship, so it’s definitely not over. Now I’ll forget today ever happened and move forward; we’ve got two more races to go and my target is still to win both of them."

Massa finished eighth, and was promoted to seventh when Toro Rosso's Sebastien Bourdais was penalised 25 seconds for colliding with him on lap 51.

Massa is not Hamilton's only worry. With his second today, BMW Sauber's Kubica is back in the thick of things, 12 points off the lead.

Kubica led the first stint but couldn’t pull off enough of a gap to the pursuing Alonso, who took the lead when the Pole made his first stop.

“I was not really able to pull away, Fernando was keeping the gap and I was trying everything,” said Kubica. “After the first pit stop he was in front of me.”

Renault short-fueled the Spaniard at his own request to get him out ahead of Kubica. It was then up to Alonso to take advantage.

In the glory years, Renault proved they could do more with less. Less staff, and less budget than the big boys. With the right driver behind the wheel, one who can get more out of a car than perhaps it should be capable of, Renault succeeds.

Alonso is probably the only driver since Schumacher who can do that, and he was game, building an insurmountable 25-second lead over Kubica.

“I asked the team if we can manage to exit the pits in front of Robert because I wanted some free air in the second stint, so they had to give me less fuel to do that but the problem is you need to open a gap in the second stint. Sometimes you can do it, sometimes you can’t but today the car was perfect and I was able to do it,” Alonso explained.

Instead of fighting for the lead, the BMW Sauber man found himself trying to hold off Raikkonen over the closing laps. It was a close thing, but he managed to preserve his edge over the Finn’s damaged Ferrari, and the world champion was content to take third place points.

“I had a graining problem which influenced the last sector where I was very slow and in low speed corners he was pulling much better traction out of low speed corners and then the last stint it was a great battle with Kimi for three or four laps when I again had very big problems with the graining but then the tyres cleaned out. I managed to pull a comfortable gap of two seconds and that’s it,” Kubica said.

On a day when neither McLaren finished in the points, Heikki Kovalainen’s race ending in retirement, Raikkonen’s six points, plus two from Massa, put the Scuderia back on top in the constructors championship.

Nelson Piquet iced the cake for Renault by finishing fourth, besting their closest rival in Toyota’s Jarno Trulli, who finished fifth, giving the French concern a 16 point edge in the constructors for fourth.

Following Trulli were the STRs of Bourdais and Sebastian Vettel, the Frenchman beating his highly-regarded teammate. But for the former Champ Car ace, we are once again reminded if it wasn’t for bad luck he’d have no at all, as he was handed a 25-second penalty post race for the incident with Massa on lap 51.

It seemed a bit of a harsh penalty, as Massa really shut the door on Bourdais as the Toro Rosso driver left the pit exit and collision seemed unavoidable. Bourdais was demoted to twelfth.

Massa recovered from the incident to pass Red Bull’s Mark Webber to finish eighth. Both drivers were bumped up a spot with the penalty, so the Australian earned the final point.

All in all, given the performance of both Massa and Hamilton today, one wonders if either of these guys wants to win this thing. And, just like last year with Raikkonen, a steady, constant driver is waiting in the wings to take advantage and pounce, this year in the form of Kubica.

Massa and Hamilton have just a few says to get their heads screwed on straight as the championship moves to Shanghai for next week’s Chinese Grand Prix.

Until then, it’s another few days for Alonso to savor, and unlike Singapore, you can’t say he was gifted this race by a safety car situation.

“We understood the problems at the beginning of the season and we concentrated on working on those areas of the car and now the results are coming with improvements in the season, so I am very happy and very proud of my team to have the key to improve all the problems we had,” said Alonso. “A great job from everybody in the factory and this is the result, these wins are for everybody.”
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