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Fernando Alonso – The Butterfly Effect

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Fernando Alonso’s time at Ferrari is characterized by a few things – consistent, good results in cars that were never really capable of winning titles, relentless close quarters racing and some of his own and the team’s most emotional victories to date.

There was never for a second any doubt in any serious fans mind that this is a driver who would be adding a third title to his collection before long – so why has half a decade at Ferrari proven so fruitless for Fernando, in terms of results at least.

Things looked good Fernando on his debut for The Scuderia, becoming the sixth driver to win on debut for Ferrari at the season opener in Bahrain.

The nature of the win, however, was to be a foreshadowing of how he’d collect a large percentage of most of his wins at Ferrari – it only came as Vettel suffered an engine failure. 2010 was a chaotic season, and one of the most competitive fights for a title we’d been blessed with for a good few seasons in F1.

At the season Finale in Abu Dhabi we had four drivers still capable of claiming the crown. After a questionable pit strategy left Fernando behind Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov, his attempts to pass became more and more desperate as the race went on. Petrov never wavered under Fernando’s constant assault, putting in a mature drive and denying Fernando progress he needed to make to outscore Vettel, who had scampered off in the lead of the race to claim the title.

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No championship titles, a car that was never the class of the field, but Fernando’s consistency took the fight to the wire – things seemed to bode well for the future of Fernando and Ferrari…

Wrong

2011 was a shocker for the team with only one win in Britain as the result of Red Bull making a mistake during one of Vettel’s pit-stops. F1 had swapped tyre suppliers to spice up the racing (After the most engrossing season in a long time, I was confused too), and the Ferrari was competitive on the softer compounds, but when the harder compounds went on the car became visibly far off balance. Fernando was able to fight for podiums when conditions allowed it, but when harder tyre compounds were allocated for the race it was clearly a struggle to take a good haul of points home. This mattered little, as Red Bull had nailed it with the RB7, which Sebastian Vettel was in complete harmony with – on only two occasions did the Red Bull driver finish off the podium. That season, with that car, Sebastian seemed unassailable.

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Things worsened for Ferrari at the start of 2012 – the car had a raft of handling issues in qualifying trim at the season opener in Australia. From the onboard cameras you could see the under-steer was chronic, the nose just would not turn in – and to top it off there was an issue with the airflow re-attaching to the wing as the DRS flap shut under braking. There was a delay in this process, which meant that the drivers were braking with minimal rear downforce when they needed it most, the back end would get light, the front tyres would be overloaded, this would induce further under-steer at the front whilst also generating snap over-steer at the back on entry and as the drivers tried to wrestle the car into the corner with too much entry speed from the reduced braking force and the light rear end, and also on exit as the heavy front end finally bit in and gripped AFTER the apex – Usually I’d say I was jealous of anyone I was watching drive a Formula 1 car for money, but I think I’d have passed on the F2012 in it’s early season spec.

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Alonso could only wrestle the car to 12th on the grid – at this stage anyone saying the man would only lose the title to Vettel by 3 points at the end of the season would have been slapped around the back of the head and told they knew nothing. The race, however showed hope for Ferrari. The car still under-steered like a yacht and had sub-par traction on throttle, but the issue with airflow re-attachment after DRS use was marginalized with the device only being operational during the race at designated zones, when you were within a second of the car ahead, as opposed to being used all the time during qualifying. Fernando went from 12th to 5th on the road – a good result given how hopeless things looked after Qualifying.

The second race of the season in Malaysia was a gift to Ferrari from the racing Gods. Rain during the race meant there was even less use of DRS, negating their issues with the device even further. This in conjunction with a masterclass in wet weather driving from Fernando saw his faultless drive rewarded with a miracle win for Ferrari when they needed it most – the man he would be dueling for with the title at the season closer meanwhile was 11th after a clumsy pass on a back-marker. The belief in Fernando as a driver was never higher, and this win clearly bolstered Ferrari’s fighting spirit. The issues with the DRS were soon dealt with, and work to improve rear traction on throttle was successful as the season progressed – Ferrari started way behind, but with Fernando’s consistency, Red Bull’s struggles with the reduced effect of the EBD and Vettel’s initial lack of harmony with his machine, along with Mclaren’s operational errors – they were still strong contenders.

The DNF’s in Belgium and Japan didn’t help, neither did Vettel’s dominance in the fly-away Asian races. Despite a valiant effort, it was a heartbreaking second by a mere 3 points for Fernando at the end of 2012. A breathtaking fight throughout the season with so many emotional peaks and valleys – a season where the competitive spirit of F1, and pure determination of two top-tier athletes at the peak of their game was there for the millions to see.

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Fernando nearly gave us an underdog triumph that would have no doubt immortalized him in the hearts and minds of F1 fans the world over. It reminded us that the driver is still, as Murray Walker often stated, the most important nut in the car.

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2013 belonged to Sebastian Vettel. Fernando brought home 2 victories in China and Spain, and again scored consistent finishes, but nobody was ever going to catch Vettel in the Red Bull. The under-steer from 2012 was still present, and became a more apparent issue on harder compounds, as before.

This handling issue carried over into the Scuderia’s 2014 car, which Alonso handled far better than new teammate Kimi Raikkonen who famously favours a more responsive front end on the car. With the new engine formula, Mercedes had nailed it with an award winning and revolutionary engine. Ferrari and Renault had not. Ferrari felt to have taken another, bigger backwards step. You can’t blame Fernando for wanting to leave – the handling issues that had been problematic for more than a season hadn’t been dealt with, and the engine is too far behind Merc to offer a serious title challenge.

I fear, however for Fernando that the handling issue is something that will plague him still at Mclaren, who have also been fighting with under-steer since a switch to pull-rod front suspension in 2013, exactly as Ferrari have. Both teams so far have stubbornly stuck with the system in favour of push-rod suspension.

The trade-off between the two systems is this – With push rod you have a relatively accessible front suspension system with a wide operating window, allowing for a lot of fine tuning to get the handling characteristics of the front of the car to suit the drivers preference, or indeed to manage tyre performance or front/rear balance. With pull-rod suspension you have an aerodynamic gain, as the bulk of suspension housing is lower in the chassis giving the car a lower center of gravity, theoretically making the car better handling.

The issue with this system is that it’s labour intensive to make simple alterations to your suspension settings, which in a formula with very limited time to set the car up, tyres with a narrow operating window and often fast changing track conditions, is a drawback that can cost you dearly. Not just this, but for the system to work, it requires to be set very stiff. Again, this restriction in your options with chassis set-up is far from ideal with Pirelli’s sensitive tyres. The front/rear balance might be as desired on the softer “option” compounds, but on the harder, firmer, more rigid prime tyres the old under-steer will rear it’s ugly head. The stiffness also kills the driver’s ability to feel the feedback through the wheel.

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It’s Red Bull’s decision to stay with push-rod front suspension in 2013 that I feel gave them the adaptability to be so consistently competitive – Yes they had a fast car, but they also have to be able to look after the tyres. For what it’s worth, Mercedes also used push-rod front suspension this season. I don’t believe any team will win a championship on this generation of Pirelli tyres with front pull-rod suspension, and neither Mclaren or Ferrari have been competitive since they introduced the systems. The wind tunnel says yes to the system, so far the results on the road say no. As for the engine package at Mclaren-Honda, it’s a big unknown. Ron Dennis has said the performance is there, but the reliability isn’t. Having a well performing power plant is one thing, but there’s a mountain of torque in these new hybrid engines and you need a well balanced chassis for that to powering the car in the right direction.

I feel Alonso would have been better staying where he was. The problems are much the same, but with the love and respect he had at Ferrari he could surely have used his influence to see these are dealt with? With that said, however, Honda have always been on-point when it comes to making low displacement engines. Perhaps I am wrong, but I will always look back at his time at Ferrari and think, “What if?”

He’d moved there from Renault with the promise that they would hire any technical staff he wanted. Adrian Newey who went on to design the Red Bull’s Vettel would race to the next 4 WDC’s had at the time expressed an interest in working at Ferrari. James Allison who penned the extremely front positive and tyre-friendly Lotus cars (Also push-rod front suspension!) of the following season had worked with Fernando at Enstone. Why was Pat Fry the only man he insisted Ferrari hired? No disrespect to Pat, who’s no doubt one of the sport’s finest engineers and has been an unnecessary victim of Ferrari’s blame culture, but when you look at the people Schumacher brought to Ferrari two decades ago with the same opportunity you have to wonder why Alonso only made one demand with so many superlative talents available at the time.

I have so much respect for Alonso’s driving at Ferrari, and I feel he will forever be remembered by the Tifosi in a similar light to Gilles Villeneuve – they never won titles together, but there was ALWAYS under any conditions real fighting spirit. It is a shame, because I firmly believe with the opportunity Alonso had going into the 2010 season he had every chance to be leaving Ferrari with a legacy more akin to that of Michael Schumacher.

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