Japanese Grand Prix race analysis: Fernando Alonso's drive from eleventh to fifth Fernando's final race position was effectively decided during two periods of the race: the opening stint, where he was penalised by slower cars running ahead of...
Japanese Grand Prix race analysis: Fernando Alonso's drive from eleventh to fifth
Fernando's final race position was effectively decided during two periods of the race: the opening stint, where he was penalised by slower cars running ahead of him on the road, and the early part of his third stint, when he lost a significant amount of time to Takuma Sato.
When you choose to run two stops against three, an overlap period usually occurs towards the end of the race when you have fuelled your car to the finish but your competitor is still running on low fuel. In order to beat a three stopping rival, the gap between the two cars must be kept below the time it will take the three-stopping car to make its final pit-stop and emerge from the pit-lane. If you can achieve this, then you will gain a position - if not, you are likely to fall frustratingly short.
For Fernando, this critical period in his battle for fourth place with Takuma Sato occurred between laps 35 and 40. After making his second and last stop at the end of lap 34, the Spaniard emerged from the pits 17 seconds behind the BAR and could afford for this gap to grow by around 3 seconds in the time between this stop and Sato's last visit to the pits, while still being able to beat the BAR to fourth.
However, heavy with fuel and suffering from tyre graining on the softer option compound early in his stints, the Spaniard's lap-times proved insufficient to keep him ahead. Instead, he lost 7.5 seconds to Sato and after the Japanese driver's shorter stop (he had five laps less fuel to take on-board), found himself four and a half seconds behind when the pit-stops had been completed. Game over...
Paradoxically, though, when he was in clean air at the start of the first stint, Fernando's pace matched that of Sato lap by lap -- and the Renault had more fuel on board. However, it was only on lap 7 that Fernando could begin running at his true pace, a legacy of a cautious qualifying lap that left him starting 11th. In those seven laps, he lost ten seconds to the Japanese driver... Ten seconds that would have handed him fourth place later in the race. However, as the Spaniard reflected ruefully afterwards, "sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes not..."
Ultimately, the race performance was a legacy of the team's circumstances over the race weekend. Locked in a battle with BAR for second position in the championship, and deprived of any dry practice time, the team was forced to use the softer option compound in qualifying as the circuit was still wet when they ran -- the softer tyre would provide more grip, and heat up quicker, in these conditions.
However, this choice of the softer tyre was compromised by the inability to exploit it early in the race after a difficult qualifying session plus the brief graining phase at the start of the stints, especially Fernando's third.
However, in spite of the difficult circumstances, the Spaniard once again put in a sterling performance, much as he had done in China two weeks before. The R24 was the eighth fastest car on long runs in the race (Fernando's longest stint was 20 laps), yet the Spaniard succeeded in climbing from eleventh to fifth.
Equally, the ultimate pace of the car -- while not revealed to its full extent by the two stop strategy which meant the car was running on older tyres relative to the three-stoppers when on low fuel, or on higher fuel when on new tyres -- left Fernando twelfth in the list of fastest laps, a ranking very different to his finishing position. Combined with an astute two-stop strategy, the young Spaniard's tenacity and aggression once more extracted maximum performance from the R24 in the penultimate race of the year.
If, as expected, the R24 proves more competitive in Brazil, then Fernando, currently in a rich vein of form, will be perfectly placed to exploit it and finish the season on a high.