Lewis Hamilton has repeated his claim that Fernando Alonso is probably the best driver currently racing in F1, and raised expectations of the Spaniard by tipping him as a legitimate title contender in 2012.
The pair have formed something of a mutual admiration society since putting their acrimonious 2007 season at McLaren firmly in the past, and have exchanged matching suggestions that each is the best in the world, despite neither having won the title since Hamilton's 2008 success. Only last November, after the Briton had endured a turbulent campaign on and off the circuit, Alonso labelled him as the greatest talent in the top flight, and Hamilton has now repaid the compliment after watching his former nemesis re-establish sole control of the 2012 standings.
"He is the dark horse and he's driving for the dark horse," the McLaren driver told Sky Sports, "I wouldn't expect anything less. He is a two-time world champion and probably the best driver here."
While there may be other candidates for the title - which last year most drivers, including Hamilton and Alonso, were happy to pin on Sebastian Vettel - the former team-mates, whose bickering and counter-productive relationship at McLaren eventually saw Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen steal the 2007 crown, now appear happy to speak fondly of each other. Heaping praise on a rival is often seen as a psychological tactic to increase pressure in a fight, but it remains to be seen whether either Hamilton or Alonso is ready to crack with only six races to go.
"We are looking to November and it is Hamilton we want to be close to," Alonso remarked at the start of the Monaco weekend, where he finished on the podium and Hamilton came home fifth, "It is impossible to predict how the season will evolve, but I would hardly believe it will stay like this. Still, if I can tip one driver, I would pick him because he's the only one who can make a difference even with a car that is not a winner."
Those comments echo others made in January, where Alonso claimed Hamilton was better than Vettel, despite the German having twice the number of titles to his credit, and November 2011, when he suggested that the Briton was still the man they all aimed for despite the ups and downs of a campaign that saw him beaten in a championship by a team-mate, Jenson Button, for the first time in his racing career.
"Lewis is so fast, aggressive, totally focused - he is interested only in victory," Alonso told Germany's Sport Bild at the start of the year, having warned that it was the McLaren man he expected to see heading winter testing, "Sebastian has not quite reached that level. I know he is a two-time world champion, but he is still slightly below the level of Lewis."
Seeing Hamilton and Alonso getting along has naturally raised suggestions that the pair could, against previous belief, become team-mates in the future. Ferrari has made no secret of its interest in hiring the Briton, and will have a seat available in 2013 when Felipe Massa finally gets the push. With Red Bull boss talking effusively about Monaco race winner Mark Webber since the weekend, one obvious candidate to partner Alonso may just have been removed from the market and, while Sauber's Sergio Perez remains a hot favourite to move to Maranello, Scuderia team boss Stefano Domenicali insists he would shy away from a Hamilton-Alonso pairing.
"Never say never in life," he said a year ago, "I consider Lewis as one of the top three drivers at the moment, the fastest drivers so, in that respect, for sure, I consider him a potential driver for the strongest team. I don't see why I have to say no to that question. People can change and have a different approach, we see so many things going on everywhere in the world. Lewis is a strong driver and, in the future, who knows what can happen."
Hamilton, meanwhile, continues to wait on signing a new deal with McLaren, wanting assurances from the Woking team that not only will he have fewer sponsor commitments and more personal time between races, but also that he will have a competitive car. The last few races may have convinced that Briton that the latter demand is not always possible, while concerns over strategy and pit-work may also have flagged up questions in his mind. All the time, Alonso has sailed into the championship lead with a car that no-one gave a second thought to as a contender following a tough winter.....