Fernando Alonso says it is hard to make any assumptions about the opening round of the 2014 F1 world championship as the entire grid comes to terms with the new breed of car.
While a pecking order slowly began to take shape through practice and qualifying at the Australian Grand Prix, the Spaniard insisted that reliability was still so fragile across the entire grid that no-one could begin to predict a certain result.
In a far cry from the end of the 2013 campaign, when Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull dominated the final nine races, new power units and aero regulations have combined to make the early 2014 headlines, with technical gremlins hampering each of the eleven teams to various degrees through testing and continuing into the early stages of the opening round.
Although Ferrari was expected to sit towards the sharper end of the timesheets, rain in Melbourne qualifying threw another curve ball at the field, shuffling the grid even when reliability improved. Alonso eventually wound up fifth fastest, having abandoned his final lap when an improvement looked unlikely, but would not be drawn on whether he could make further progress on Sunday.
“We are starting fifth, so we just need to make two positions to achieve that goal,” he said when asked if a podium was possible in Australia, “It's a bit easier than starting further behind, but you can't take finishing the race for granted as we were doing in the last couple of years. Then, if you started fifth, looking at the podium was quite okay but, this year, in particular this first race, our first priority is finishing.
“If that sounds pessimistic, I am sure it is the same for all the drivers - even the guy on pole position cannot be 100 per cent sure he will finish the race.
“We will just try and do everything possible from our side - make no mistakes, take care of every detail - and make sure we cross the line. I am sure a podium can arrive if we are competitive but, if we are not competitive for whatever reason - if we go slow in the race, or struggle with the tyres, or the fuel or whatever - there will be three people in front of you. Our priority, as I said, is to finish the race.”
While observers revelled in the twitchy handling of the new F1 breed, Alonso admitted that he had not enjoyed the day quite as much, having had to fly blind for much of qualifying.
“Today was not fun,” he insisted, “It was the first time in wet conditions in these 2014 cars, with zero practice, so not fun at all. When we made changes we thought we needed, [the car] was a little bit more difficult to drive, to get everything right.
“Also I didn't know any times in Q3. When I switched off the car in parc ferme, I knew I was fifth - just in that moment. For the rest of Q3, I was without a lot of information on the steering wheel.”
Acknowledging that Ferrari would get on top of its early-season problems in time, the two-time world champion also refused to blame the F14-T's 'fly by wire' braking system for the 1.6secs gap to polesitter Lewis Hamilton.
“[The brakes were] working more or less okay for me, but we still need to play around with the system, especially with the different conditions or even low and high fuel loads,” he revealed.
“The braking is not the [reason] why we are losing time to Mercedes. Today we were 1,6secs behind, but that is because we are a step behind them in performance. We are not losing that time under braking, or because the braking system is not working.
“I think we need to work to make the braking more consistent when we change the configuration of the car. We need to improve a little bit the speed of the car in general - the traction, the top speed, as we are a little bit down on them here at the finish line and the speed trap. But we have some areas where we can see the competitors we are racing because, in testing, you never know what the others are doing. This weekend is finally giving us some data we can compare and we will study that, but it looks like a little bit of everything to look at for the next couple of races.
“This year, is very different because of the technical regulations. Last year, we started the season with a car at 95 per cent of total performance and found five per cent over the rest of the year. This time, everybody is starting at 60 per cent because the cars are too new for everybody and many things can improve for everybody, not only for us. We just need to work harder, work better.”