Fernando Alonso told his home press earlier this week: "Yes, no doubt, if I can help, I will help Massa.". He followed that up in the press conference ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix weekend with:
When I said this in Fuji what I meant is that now we have a competitive car it seems that we are able to fight sometimes with Ferrari and McLaren and first of all we need to have a competitive, hard car here in Shanghai and Brazil to be fighting with Ferrari and McLaren. If we do that and Felipe wins the race and I can be second or third I will be happy to help Felipe to take as many points as possible and this is the only approach.
To me this looks like a psychological swipe that rather than a genuine threat to get in Hamilton’s way or take him out. How will Hamilton react in Shanghai?
Hamilton may have the championship lead but the impetus in the title battle rests with rival Felipe Massa: he has out-scored Hamilton in all but one of the last five races. And at Singapore, Massa was perfectly poised to win before that disastrous pit stop.
Massa won Interlagos, scene of the season finale, in 2006, and was set for victory last year when he obligingly yielded to team mate Kimi Raikkonen to guarantee a Ferrari champion. Hamilton needs to out-score Massa by a point or two this weekend to make the Brazilian’s chances of wrapping up the title at his home race extremely difficult.
The role of Alonso
This imperative and Alonso’s words of warning will be preying on Hamilton mind. But, realistically, what could Alonso do to disrupt Hamilton’s race?
Delay Hamilton in qualifying? Alonso would get a penalty. Hold up Hamilton in the race? He’ll have to out-qualify him first. Crash into Hamilton? Surely no-one seriously expects Alonso to take matters that far.
In the press conference, Alonso claimed the extent of his desire to ‘help Massa’ was simply to finish between the leading Ferrari and Hamilton. Later Hamilton spoke about his encounter with Alonso in the season finale at Interlagos last year, which might indicate a wariness about Alonso in Hamilton’s mind:
Firstly, in Brazil I didn’t try to overtake [Alonso] and make a mistake. Fernando was on the outside and he braked a little bit earlier than I anticipated and so I had to try to avoid him, so I went wide and that forced me to go off, so that wasn’t a manoeuvre trying to overtake.
But realistically, in order for Alonso to cause problems for Hamilton, the two will have to be disputing the same piece of track at some point. And even though the R28 has clearly improved in recent races, they haven’t seen much of each other all year.
They clashed at Bahrain – which proved to be entirely Hamilton’s misjudgement – and the two wouldn’t even have been in that position had Hamilton not fluffed his start. Then at Monza Hamilton caught Alonso and passed him with a lack of drama, the McLaren several seconds quicker than the Renault at that point. Once again, it was an earlier error by McLaren that brought Hamilton and Alonso into each other’s races.
Conservatism is the key to the title
Hamilton should naturally exercise caution if he gets into a wheel-to-wheel battle with Alonso this weekend. But frankly, he needs to do a bit more exercising caution anyway – he made two in the first few corners at Fuji, and they weren’t the first he’s made this year.
It pains me to see exciting drivers curb their racing instincts. I blame a points system that over-rewards minor finishes. But if Hamilton wants to win this championship, he needs to drive like he did at Singapore and not like he did at Fuji.
If he does that, Alonso should scarcely have the opportunity to influence the outcome of the championship.
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