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Ferrari's odd couple

Laurence Edmondson March 19, 2012
Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa had contrasting results in Australia but will both be worried ahead of Malaysia © Getty Images
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Both Ferrari drivers will be feeling uncomfortable after the Australian Grand Prix, albeit for very different reasons.

Felipe Massa's plight is clear to see. He's struggling to get the new F2012 to respond to his commands and, most concerning of all, he doesn't understand why. During pre-season testing he thought he understood the car's quirks, but in Australia it reverted to floating wide on corner entry and spitting him sideways under acceleration. A case in point was turn three, where the apex soon became a distant memory and the exit a lurid nightmare.

Massa is a driver who thrives on confidence and he was full of it four years ago when he made team-mate Kimi Raikkonen look ordinary while challenging for the title. But times have changed and now he is up against one of the toughest team-mates in Formula One - only Lewis Hamilton has met the challenge of working alongside Fernando Alonso - and is under immense pressure that is doing nothing to boost his morale.

Over the winter Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo said: "Massa has to do something great, and something special, after a non-positive season. We are offering him the best conditions to do a great job." While you could argue with the second sentence, the message in the first is clear.

In 2011 Massa became the first Ferrari driver since Ivan Capelli in 1992 not to score a podium all year, and it doesn't bode well that Capelli was sacked with two races of the season remaining - a reminder, if it's needed, that Montezemolo does not tolerate excuses. Massa has now gone 22 races without finishing in the top four and during that same period Alonso has scored 11 podiums while outperforming the Brazilian 18-4 in qualifying.

Felipe Massa is struggling to understand why his Ferrari's balance is so poor © Sutton Images
Which brings us neatly to Alonso. While Massa has been failing to live up to expectations, the Spaniard has been transcending them, and Melbourne was just another example. Massa set his fastest lap on lap 46 (just before his collision with Bruno Senna) with a 1:31.940, but on the same lap Alonso was 1.6 seconds faster. And in case you don't think it was a fair fight, both were on medium tyres (Alonso's were three laps older), both had roughly a two second gap to the car in front and both had another car pressuring from behind.

Alonso was able to manage his tyres so much better at Albert Park and did so while riding the knife-edge handling of the Ferrari. Rather than attempt to force his driving style upon a car, he has the ability to adapt his approach to the messages he is receiving from each of the four tyres. From 2003 to 2006 Alan Permane was the race engineer in the adjacent Renault garage to Alonso, helping Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella to put up as strong a fight as possible. During that period Alonso took his two championship victories and Permane said it was Spaniard's ability to adapt to the tyres that impressed him most.

"Fernando was incredibly impressive in the car and it was not only one lap, it was being able to do it time and time again," he said recently. "When Fernando drove for us in 2003 and 2004 he was incredibly hard on his front tyres and that's how he got the most out of them, he was very, very aggressive.

"So when the FIA brought in single-race tyres in 2005, I remember thinking how is he going to cope with it? But he completely changed his driving style like it didn't matter and just got on with it. Again, that's the sign of a champion, they instinctively know what needs to be done and it wasn't ever a problem for him."

Fernando Alonso managed his tyres to perfection in Australia and finished fifth © Getty Images
So why is there cause for concern in the Alonso camp? Well, at 30 years of age he is arguably in his prime and his performances over the last two years tend to back that up. Yet Ferrari appear to be in decline, on a negative spiral just as Alonso is hitting his peak. Since he joined the team it has gone from title challengers to potential midfield runners in the space of just two seasons. Team principal Stefano Domenicali is not denying the downward trend, but believes Ferrari's performance is cyclical and foresees a return to form over the coming year.

"I tell you this as someone who experienced the [Michael] Schumacher era first hand and I recall how much we suffered before getting there," he said. "Ferrari will be back with another winning cycle as the basics are in place to achieve it."

That is undoubtedly true, but the question bugging Alonso will be how long the cycle takes. If 1992 was the bottom of Ferrari's last cycle - the year before Jean Todt arrived on the scene - and 2004 was the top of the cycle - the year Schumacher won his last title - then Alonso could be in for a rather long wait.

But making comparisons with the past is not terribly useful, for either those observing or Alonso himself. He has a contract until 2016, which, including 2012, gives Ferrari less than five years to return to winning ways. If it doesn't show signs of doing that soon, he may start reading the small print under the section entitled break clauses.