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A costly mistake as defence turns in to attack

Chris Medland October 9, 2012
Fernando Alonso failed to clear turn one for the second time in four races © Press Association
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Fernando Alonso's Japanese Grand Prix lasted around 700 metres, while Sebastian Vettel had to cover a full 307.771km, with the end result of Alonso's championship lead being all but erased and his hopes hugely dented too.

Though there are five races still to go, Alonso is now a clear second favourite for the championship despite holding a four point lead. It's a sign of his brilliance this season that he's even in such a position driving what has been on average the fourth quickest car on the grid, but on Sunday he made his first race day mistake of the season.

Alonso was starting from sixth place on the dirty side of the grid, and in Suzuka the even-numbered positions have a genuine disadvantage; just look at Kamui Kobayashi's start to jump Mark Webber. Alonso got a slightly poor start, with both Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button getting away better than him from the row behind.

Having raced at Suzuka on eight occasions previously, Alonso knew he'd be slower away on the inside and soon cut across towards the outside, where Raikkonen was gaining. With Button easing up on the right, Alonso twice tried to intimidate Raikkonen in to backing out ahead of turn one, but it didn't work.

On the first occasion, Raikkonen was forced on the grass with the sort of move which had Alonso screaming "all the time you must leave a space" in Bahrain. Even allowing for the fact that it was at the race start, Alonso was being over-aggressive, continually moving across towards Raikkonen in a similar manner to Romain Grosjean at Spa. Then, with Button fully alongside, Alonso wanted the widest turn-in point for turn one, and again edged left.

Fernando Alonso was left to watch as Sebastian Vettel took 25 points out of his lead © Getty Images

The last move was the costly one. Raikkonen's off-track moment had seen him lose some momentum but he still had part of his car alongside the Ferrari and his front wing sliced Alonso's left rear. The championship leader went spinning out, and Vettel smiled inside his 52nd helmet design.

The most significant point is not Alonso's error however, it's his mindset.

Alonso's consistency has been remarkable, and he's picked his fights to ensure he leaves each race with a good haul of points. Previously, he has been talking about defending his lead and beating the driver second in the standings - whoever it may be - in each race. Holding a significant points lead but a significantly slower car meant he was taking a very defensive approach to the championship.

That all changed at Suzuka.

Quoting Miyamoto Musashi - a 17th century Japanese Samurai - after the race, Alonso tweeted: "If the enemy thinks in the mountains, attack by sea. If they think in the sea, attack by the mountains."

The focus has switched from defence to attack, and it had clearly already done so before the race. Vettel was his biggest threat and had proven he had the quickest car. Having already put his car on pole, Vettel blocked Alonso in Q3 and cost him around 0.1s. But that 0.1s was the difference between sixth on the grid and fifth; ahead of Sergio Perez and on the clean side.

With Vettel only having been reprimanded, Alonso's frustration will have grown. Then came the poor start, which left him facing the prospect of exiting turn two in eighth place while his nearest challenger disappeared in to the distance, and Alonso fought hard. A little too hard.

Despite the calm and confident exterior that he has exuded all season, Alonso's been feeling the pressure as his championship lead has been reduced. At Suzuka, it finally showed.

Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1

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Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1 Chris Medland, who in his youth even found the Pacific GPs entertaining, talked his way in to work at the British Grand Prix and was somehow retained for three years. He also worked on the BBC's F1 output prior to becoming assistant editor ahead of the 2011 season