Much can happen in a decade. At the end of 2001, the 20-year-old Fernando Alonso was preparing himself for a year as test driver for Renault, after making a name for himself in his rookie Formula 1 season with Minardi. Now his role at another Italian team, the world's most famous car marque, ranges far wider than just driving the car. He's become Ferrari's talisman, its motivator and very clearly its No. 1 driver.
The fundamentals haven't changed, though. In '01, what caught the eye was how Alonso regularly qualified 18th in a car only good enough for 21st. Ten years on, Alonso still outperforms his car. A string of fifth places on the grid benchmarked the Ferrari on pure pace, yet Alonso earned 10 podiums and was in the running for second place in the championship all the way to the last race in Brazil.
It could have looked even better had he not so often lost positions while struggling on prime tires in the final stint – and, indeed, had he not been punted off the road by eventual winner Jenson Button in Canada. But, all things considered, Alonso sees it as a positive season.
“Definitely from a personal point of view, my feelings are very positive about the 2011 year,” he says. “Obviously, we're not happy with how competitive we were – winning only one grand prix is not enough for Ferrari. But if you take the 2011 season as a preparation for our next big opportunity, I think it was a huge step forward regarding the weak points we had in 2010. We made massive improvements in some of the areas where we weren't strong enough: when we have a competitive car, the team in general is now very prepared.”
So what went wrong in 2011? As ever, there is no single answer, but there was one major weakness, and that was the aerodynamics of the Ferrari 150 Italia.
“In 2011, all competitive cars were built around the blown diffusers,” says Alonso, “and we were a little bit behind that concept from the beginning until the end. After the first couple races, we realized we had a problem, especially in the wind tunnel – a correlation issue – and there were some races that were a little bit of a mess. We put parts back on from the launch car in January because we discovered that car was quicker than the car we were racing at the time.”
As a result, it was not long before it began to look unlikely that Alonso would be adding to his 2005 and '06 crowns.
“I think the championship hopes finished at the Belgian Grand Prix in August,” he admits. “The gap [to the Red Bull Racing RB7s] had been huge, but because of how the 2010 championship went to the last race, we still wanted to keep pushing until the last moment. But at Spa we had a big upgrade for the car, and it was still not competitive.”
Ferrari also struggled more than others to get a proper handle on the new Pirellis. It seemed that the car couldn't use its tires hard enough to generate enough grip in qualifying, although that in turn often created an advantage in the races.
“That's an explanation for people outside,” says Alonso. “and it's more or less true! But there's more complexity in the way we use tires, in the way we put temperature into them. It may be different compared to other teams, because it's not always less wear or less temperature. In some races, like Singapore for example, we were first to pit. So we had different wear in different corners, different temperatures, different track characteristics.
“After the pit stops and in qualifying we often seemed to lack some pace. It happened in two or three consecutive races – Nurburgring, Hungary, Spa – when we were second or third and then we finished fourth or fifth. The car was performing well, and then you put on a different type of tire, you improve your times but the others are flying. They maximized much more than us on some types of tires. It was frustrating, but it was a lesson to learn, because if we want to be stronger next year, it's better that we learn this year.”