Why Fernando Alonso's Formula 1 Skills Shine so Clearly at the Singapore GP

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2014

Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso of Spain steers his car during the third practice session of the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix on the Marina Bay City Circuit in Singapore, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Aaron Favila/Associated Press

Fernando Alonso is good at every track on the Formula One calendar. The most complete driver on the current grid, the Spaniard is perhaps the only driver who can be counted on to get the maximum out of his package week in, week out.

But though excellent in each grand prix, there are some tracks on which he moves up to an even higher level. The Marina Bay Street Circuit is one of them.

By finishing fourth in the 2014 Singapore Grand Prix, Alonso maintained his record of never having finished outside the top four at the track.

He has done this despite rarely possessing even the second-best car in the field.

One of the few sections of the circuit which isn't an organic public road.
One of the few sections of the circuit which isn't an organic public road.Wong Maye-E/Associated Press

The Marina Bay Circuit is mostly laid out on public roads which are used by standard road traffic throughout the rest of the year.

Whereas many circuits today use a careful blend of materials to create smooth, grippy surfaces, these roads were laid down to handle normal, everyday traffic. Durability and value were far more important than grip, and years of use by cars, buses and lorries have taken their toll.

Over the course of the year, layers of dirt and grime settle on the already low-grip surface. This makes it harder for even the soft, sticky Pirellis to "bite" around the corners and in braking and traction zones.

Mechanical gripthat provided by the tyresis always quite low.

Were this a high-speed circuit, that would be less important. At greater speed, the huge levels of downforce generated by the cars push them down hard onto the trackaerodynamic "grip" is far more important than mechanical.

Aaron Favila/Associated Press

But Singapore is not a quick circuit. Of its 23 corners, 16 are medium speed or slower. Eight would be categorised as simply "slow."

They are typically around 90 degrees, and feature very tight, abrupt apexes which must be hit for an optimal line and lap time.

In these turns, the low speeds involved mean the benefits from the car's downforce generation are reduced, and mechanical grip gains greater importance.

But as previously mentioned, that mechanical grip isn't always there at Singapore. The car will often step out in the entry, mid-corner or exit, requiring tiny adjustments on the steering and throttle.

And it's in these situations that the difference between drivers of varying levels of ability becomes apparent even to a naked-eye observer.

Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle noted this during live TV coverage of second practice. When watching the cars through the tricky Turn 5, Brundle singled out Alonso and Lewis Hamilton as two drivers able to carry more speed than others:

We're seeing some amazing speed carried through here, Fernando Alonso, the commitment... you can really see the difference between the great and the merely very good straight away on a corner like this. They're so close to the wall, those with confidence, those with belief that the car will stick, that they've got the skill, and then they pick up the throttle slightly earlier.

I'm seeing Lewis Hamilton do that. . .they drive directly at the wall and light the turbo up, and then control the slide, control the wheelspin while still believing they're not going to connect with that violet wall-covering...

The very good driversmost of the rest of the fieldcan and invariably do make these adjustments when needed. But the truly great drivers can make them almost instinctively, gaining crucial tenths- or hundredths-of-a-second.

Brundle also mentioned the presence of the barriers, which also plays into the hands of a driver like Alonso. Just knowing the wall is right there at the edge of the track is enough to instill a sense of caution into every driver on the grid.

But those most able to simply see the trackand not focus on what lies beyond itcan extract that little bit more from their lap. It's as much confidence as it is bravery, and no one is more secure in his own ability than Alonso.

Marina Bay's lighting.
Marina Bay's lighting.Wong Maye-E/Associated Press

A final factor which may work in the Spaniard's favour in Singapore is the relative darkness and floodlit scenery.

Last season, BBC Sport's then-technical analyst Gary Anderson theorised that certain drivers, including Alonso, have better visual awareness and space perception than the average man on the grid. He wrote in his column:

Some drivers will react differently to the glare of the lights, and the reflections of the other cars. And I'm sure that's where you see a slight difference in the drivers' abilities to use the limits of a given track.

Everyone's eyesight is different and drivers respond differently to that. Different light levels affect people's perceptions of space, meaning some people will leave bigger gaps at night than they would during the day.

And I'm sure Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton are strong in that area as well as being world-class drivers.

All these things together are important over a single lap, but being able to take that advantage for two long, tiring hours is where Alonso's greatest strength lies.

Lap after lap, race after race, Alonso hits those apexes, brushes those barriers, corrects those slides and shaves off those valuable tenths better than anyone else in the business. His Singapore record is evidence of this.

Only once in seven races at Marina Bay has the Spaniard failed to finish at least one position higher than he qualified. That one occasion was in 2010, when he started on pole.

Wong Maye-E/Associated Press

In 2009 he gained two places; in 2011, one; 2012 also saw him gain only a single place, but in 2013 he gained five.

In the most recent race, he started fifth and finished fourth.

That's not a bad result, but had the safety car not appeared when it did, he looked likely to beat the Red Bulls on what should have been one of their best tracks.

Anywhere else in 2014, that would have been surprising.

But not in Singapore.

The "unfortunate" events of 2008 are a topic for another day, perhaps a day far in the past, and were deliberately not mentioned in the year-by-year recap. But it's worth noting outside the main body of the article that although Alonso was helped into the lead by Renault's shameful act, he still had a lot to do in order to win.