Why 2014 Malaysian Grand Prix Will Define Fernando Alonso's Title Chances

Oliver HardenFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2014

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 14:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and Ferrari drives during practice for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 14, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The Malaysian Grand Prix has almost always seemed to play an important role in the career of Fernando Alonso.

The Spaniard claimed his first Formula One pole position at the Sepang circuit in 2003 before claiming his first of three wins at the track two years later—a result that elevated Alonso to the top of drivers’ standings for the first time in his championship-winning season.

His second-place finish in 2006 provided the perfect springboard for a streak of five wins from the next seven races, as Alonso conquered Michael Schumacher to win his second world title in as many years.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - APRIL 08:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Mercedes celebrates winning the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix at the Sepang Circuit on April 8, 2007, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

In 2007, Alonso took an assured debut win for McLaren to kick-start a season that saw him lose the title to Kimi Raikkonen by a single point.

It was a matter of small margins again in 2010 when Alonso’s Ferrari suffered a broken clutch, which led to handling problems. He later retired with an engine failure from ninth on the penultimate lap of the race at the beginning of a season which ended with the Spaniard missing out on the championship to Sebastian Vettel by four points.

The following year, Alonso was in contention for a podium finish, but a collision with Lewis Hamilton left him in sixth with a 30-point deficit to Vettel after only the second race of the season.

Alonso recovered well in 2012 to secure what was arguably the finest grand prix victory of his career with an opportunistic drive in wet conditions. The rain proved to be his downfall last year, however, when he tagged Vettel at the start and retired from the race on the second lap after his front wing lodged underneath the Ferrari chassis.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 24:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and Ferrari crashes into the gravel trap at turn one after sustaining front wing damage during the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix at the Sepang Circuit on March 24, 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malay
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

His 2013 title challenge—due to his and Ferrari’s decision to soldier on with a wonky front wing—was over before it had even begun.

Maybe it’s down to the sweltering heat and draining humidity that makes the event so unique, but the Malaysian Grand Prix always seems to have some kind of effect on Alonso. Formula One’s arrival in Kuala Lumpur can either bring out the most thrilling or clumsiest aspects of his driving.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, though, that Alonso’s most unfortunate and error-strewn performances in Sepang have occurred in the period since he joined Ferrari at the beginning of 2010.

The Italian team’s failure to provide Alonso with a pace-setting car, as well as their development disadvantage compared to their rivals due to an unreliable wind tunnel, has placed an emphasis on getting early points on the board in recent years.

Giving the likes of Red Bull, Mercedes and McLaren—Ferrari’s main rivals—something to think about aligns well with Alonso, who is no stranger to mind games and is regarded as the most political driver on the grid. Yet that desperation to make an early statement of intent has seen Alonso cross what can be a very fine line between brilliant and barmy.

And despite Ferrari’s wind tunnel now operating optimally, correlating with data taken from the track, the team’s deficit in performance—as we identified following the Australian Grand Prix—remains a concern.

Those concerns were summed up by technical director James Allison, who referred to the team’s double-points finish in Melbourne as “unacceptable” when he told Sky Sports:

While we can take some satisfaction from the reliability shown by the F14T, it is clear that we have our work cut out to improve our car in order to compete on equal terms with the Mercedes team.

There is plenty about the F14T that is working very well: The starts and the pace in the corners - especially the high speed ones - are particular strong points, but we need to work further on the stability under braking and the speed on the straights.

If a lack of speed on the straights hurt Ferrari in Melbourne—which was alarmingly evident when Alonso found himself stuck behind the Mercedes-powered Force India of Nico Hulkenberg despite benefitting from DRS—the problem is almost certain to be magnified in Malaysia. While Albert Park is street circuit-like in nature, Sepang is defined by two long straights and is more representative of the style of track that makes up the majority of the F1 calendar.  

With that logic, Ferrari’s disappointing yet not entirely surprising results of fifth place for Alonso and eighth for Raikkonen in Australia (which became fourth and seventh respectively following Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification) actually flattered the Prancing Horse.

After all, had the three Mercedes-powered cars of Felipe Massa, Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton not suffered from technical problems and/or external factors such as the wet qualification session and on-track collisions in Melbourne, Ferrari might have found themselves on the fringes or even outside of the top 10.

With rain, F1’s great leveller, forecast for the Malaysian Grand Prix, however, the team could yet have more time to play with to fix their problems and fight for the 2014 title on even ground. In Alonso, Ferrari have the perfect lead driver to eke the most out of any opportunity and keep their prospects alive for as long as possible.

But with the Mercedes works team a class above the field and the German manufacturer’s customer teams packing quite a punch, Ferrari must register a victory sooner rather than later if they are to mount a genuine challenge this season.

And what better place to return to the top step of the podium than the scene of their superstar’s greatest triumph and the home of Petronas, Mercedes’ title sponsors?

Alonso might just be the one to watch in Sepang.