In perhaps the most obvious claim of the 2012 F1 season, Fernando Alonso admits that Ferrari needs to raise its game if it is too stave off the threat of Sebastian Vettel over the final six races of the year.
The Scuderia's reliability has given the equally consistent Alonso a cushion at the top of the standings, but it has gradually been eroded by Vettel, who has emerged as the closest rival for the title as the Spaniard's rivals fight amongst themselves. With the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Mark Webber suffering misfortune in their attempts to challenge Alonso, and Kimi Raikkonen yet to take the win that would suggest Lotus can propel him to the crown, most observers believe that the championship is now a two-horse race - and suggestions that Red Bull may now have incorporated a version of double DRS on the RB8 [see separate story
] will only increase the pressure on Ferrari to ensure Alonso keeps his nose in front.
"We need to improve," the Spaniard stressed to journalists after being left trailing by both Vettel and Webber in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix, "In 2010, they were maybe more than one second faster than us and we were leading the championship until Abu Dhabi. Now they are eight-tenths, one second, faster than us, and we are leading the championship, so let's say we are used to this situation - being one second slower than our competitors and fighting for the championship."
Alonso currently enjoys a 29-point advantage over Vettel - slightly more than is awarded for a race win - but Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali has admitted that the Scuderia cannot rely on its rivals self-destructing and allowing the Spaniard to pick up podium finishes, as he has been able to in the past two rounds. Alonso's biggest concerns come from qualifying, where he is often left too far down the grid to do anything about McLaren and Red Bull, despite Ferrari being more competitive on raceday.
"The points are given on Sunday and, on Sunday, we don't feel less strong than other teams," he told Sky Sports F1
, "Normally we improve our pace, and the strategies are normally very good."
Practice and qualifying at Suzuka have shown tyres to be a concern for the entire field, and Alonso is no different to his rivals in admitting that the race is something of an unknown.
"I think it's a concern for everybody," he confirmed "It's not just the softs, but also the hards. It's a demanding circuit for tyres - we saw that last year with three stops in the race and the tyres are more or less similar [this] year, so it's a race that you have to manage well. But, at the same time, we need to push. This is not a circuit where you can back off or think about reducing the pace as the others will overtake you. We'll see what happens on Sunday. It'll depend on temperatures, it'll depend on many things."
Having made it through to the pole position shoot-out, Alonso joined Nico Hulkenberg and the two Sauber drivers in completing just one run on the soft tyres at the end of the final qualifying session but, with yellow flags for Raikkonen's spun Lotus, was not able to set a representative time. Vettel, meanwhile, was fastest of all and - despite a lengthy spell in the stewards room amid accusations that he blocked Alonso in Q3 - will be joined by RBR team-mate Webber on the front row.
“The pace was so strong and evenly-matched during qualifying that more teams than usual went onto the soft tyres during the first session," Pirelli's motorsport director Paul Hembery commented, "The drivers who saved a set of the soft tyres are hoping to gain an advantage in the race, where two stops is likely to be the most widely favoured option. Congratulations to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull whose pace has been quick all weekend [but it was] unfortunate that we had the yellow flag at the end,: otherwise we think we would have had a very close finish to qualifying. However, we have seen an intriguing mix of strategies that is sure to lead to a very fast and tactical race.”
Knowing that he has to limit the damage likely to be done to his advantage in Japan, however, Alonso sparked a more optimistic note when discussing the five-race run-in that follows.
"I think, in the next few races, we will improve the car for sure," he said, "We did not improve too much in the last two or three grands prix, but we have some good plans for the next few races. I'm sure we will have a more competitive approach...."