Fernando Alonso has acknowledged that Ferrari received a nasty surprise during qualifying for this weekend's F1 2011 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, conceding that whilst he is reasonably satisfied to be starting from fifth on the grid, the deficit to pace-setters Red Bull Racing is a real cause for concern.
Having proven to be there or thereabouts in Friday practice, neither Alonso nor team-mate Felipe Massa were anything like as competitive when it really mattered in qualifying, and from being half a second adrift of Sebastian Vettel in Q1 – and needing to waste a set of his super-soft rubber in order even to produce that lap time – the Spaniard wound up a jaw-dropping 1.4 seconds shy of the pole-sitter come the end of Q3.
Revealing that the Scuderia
adopted a 'conservative' approach and played 'safe' in the knowledge that it could challenge neither Red Bull nor even the vastly-improved McLaren-Mercedes, Alonso blamed a lack of grip on Saturday for the 150° Italia's sudden and unexpected drop-off in performance – and he is now pinning his hopes upon a characteristically unpredictable and topsy-turvy race around the streets of Albert Park on Sunday to keep alive his target of reaching the podium.
“Clearly, we cannot be happy with this result,” the 29-year-old recognised, “but we must not immediately make a drama out of it. We were not super-competitive today and we definitely did not get the most out of the car, and we have to understand the reasons for that.
“We went well yesterday and we had a good feeling for the car, [with] more overall grip and a better balance. Right from this morning, the situation changed, obviously for the worse – both Felipe and I felt it had less grip and the track conditions were a little bit worse, but the other [teams] were better than yesterday. We were missing something today that we need to understand a little bit better.
“There's also the distance from Toro Rosso, Sauber and Renault – in winter testing and yesterday we were around one second in front of them, but today it was only two-or-three tenths, so there was something lacking in our car.
“In Q3, we took a very conservative approach. We knew that if we took a risk maybe we would be fourth, and if we played it very safe we would be fifth or sixth, so it was not the time to take risks ahead of the first race of the championship. Unfortunately, we found ourselves with only one set [of soft tyres] in Q3, but we tried to do our best and I think fifth position is more-or-less what we expected before qualifying.
“The position we are happy with, the distance from pole we are not so happy with – this is what we have to look at and analyse tonight. It's true that the gap was very big but yesterday it looked closer, so I expect that this was not the normal pace from us. In testing and in yesterday's free practice, our performance over a long run was good and we were definitely closer to those who today seem to be a long way off.
“Fifth place on the grid is not too bad and it means I am in a position to fight for a podium finish in a race which is still wide open, if you only think what happened last year, with [Robert] Kubica starting from sixth or seventh and finishing second. McLaren seems to have made a good step forward, but you should not dismiss Mercedes either, who were impressive at the last Barcelona test. We will try to have a good race tomorrow, and at Sepang we will need to be closer to pole, for sure.”