Double world champion Fernando Alonso has conceded that there is no secret to where Ferrari's underperforming car is losing out to its arch-rivals from Red Bull Racing and McLaren-Mercedes in F1 2011 – it is simply a lack of pure speed – but after qualifying fifth for this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, the Spaniard professed himself 'extremely happy with the result' and confident of fighting for a podium finish come race day.
Having entered the new campaign bullish about its prospects of avenging its title near-miss in F1 2010, Ferrari has unexpectedly endured a torrid time of things thus far, with the F150° Italia evincing nothing of the raw pace that it had seemed to display during pre-season testing.
A fortnight ago in Melbourne, Alonso was a full 1.4 seconds adrift of pole position in fifth on the grid for the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix, and he took the chequered flag more than half-a-minute behind race-winner Sebastian Vettel in a distant fourth place. Whilst – despite high hopes – little appears to have changed over the intervening two weeks on the basis of qualifying in Kuala Lumpur, the 29-year-old is convinced that the necessary improvements can be made and that the current deficit can be overcome.
“I'm extremely happy with the result today,” he underlined. “Yesterday, we suffered a little bit with the pace and the balance of the car. We made a lot of changes overnight, and the car felt much better today. We made another big change before qualifying and the car improved again, and I feel much more comfortable now driving the car in these conditions [and with] this set-up. I feel this fifth place is a positive result; we were expecting more problems in qualifying, or a worse position.
“Unfortunately, we were not quick enough in Australia and we are not here in Malaysia either, at least not enough to fight for pole position. What we lack in comparison to Red Bull and McLaren is speed – we have not been fast, and we expect no miracles. China is in five days, so I expect a difficult weekend there as well.
“From what we have seen, there are two teams who have worked better than us over the winter and clearly we have to make some progress in terms of performance – we must improve for the coming races. We need to make a step of some quality [and] we need to be aggressive in our development to make up lost ground.
“At the same time, we have to stay calm and concentrated and, in the meantime, bring home as many points as possible every weekend, exploiting every opportunity that comes our way. At the moment, this is what we have and over one-lap pace, we are not quick enough, but so much can happen and maybe tomorrow with the weather conditions, things can change in the race.
“It's difficult to make predictions for the race – yesterday we saw very high tyre degradation, so we can expect three to four stops – but we need to maximise and take any opportunity that is given to us, and I think if we finish, we will be on the podium. We'll see tomorrow what the final position is. The championship is very long, and last year we saw how the situation can change continuously from one race to the next. I'm very optimistic.”
Seventh-placed team-mate Felipe Massa was four tenths of a second slower than Alonso in qualifying around the Sepang International Circuit, and the Brazilian agreed that Ferrari has much work to do and that the pair are likely to be have to run 'a defensive race' on Sunday, acknowledging that Red Bull and McLaren are in a different league at present.
“It was definitely not an easy qualifying, especially looking at the times the top four were able to do,” reflected the Paulista, who has twice claimed pole position in Malaysia although never converted it into even a podium finish. “The gap between us to them is very big. We fought with the others but clearly, compared to the best, we will be running a defensive race tomorrow.
“From a strategy point-of-view, if it's dry we can expect three or four stops. If it really rains, then anything could happen and we will have to be ready for any eventuality. Today, the best result we could hope for was fifth. I was not able to do that, partly because I did not do a perfect lap, but at least I will start from the clean side of the track. We know we lack aerodynamic downforce; we are working on it, but only when we have made some progress will we be able to fight for the top places.”