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The Spaniard has not completely given up hope for the 2012 season but feels another difficult day awaits Ferarri at Sepang
Fernando Alonso has the look of a tragedian. His thick black eyebrows and pizzetto beard have been applied, it seems, by a make-up artist whose brush is too broad and hand too heavy.
The Ferrari driver’s sombre appearance is in keeping with his troubled mind because he knows his car â€“ at least in its current, sorry incarnation â€“ cannot win him the championship that his gifts deserve. His third season with the team will almost certainly bring him his third disappointment.
On Sunday the truly brilliant Alonso arm-wrestled his Ferrari from 12th to fifth in the Australian Grand Prix that launched the new Formula One season. His team-mate, Felipe Massa, meanwhile, found the car fundamentally undriveable. He started 16th before getting tangled up with low-middle-order traffic. His retirement, after 46 laps, had the feel of a merciful release.
The disparity between the performances of the two drivers has never looked so stark. But draw a line between the results, of the inimitable Spaniard and the troubled Brazilian, and you will have the true worth of the car.
Ferrari, of course, the biggest name in Formula One, are capable of rapid metamorphosis, but unless they achieve it they will not only continue to trail McLaren and Red Bull but also have Mercedes and Lotus swarming about their ears. Their design, too conservative in the recent past, is now too radical, and has delivered probably nothing better than a mid-table car.
Certainly Alonso, who won his first pole and first podium at the Sepang Circuit in 2003, sees little prospect of meaningful improvement in Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix. Asked whether the change to the fast, sweeping corners at Sepang would be better than Australia’s street circuit he shrugged an exaggerated, thespian’s shrug and said: “I’m not sure. Hopefully yes but I don’t think so, to be honest.
“We have been testing at different circuits: Jerez, Barcelona and then in Australia with more or less the same car with the same problems on it. I don’t think there will be big surprises here.”
Ferrari will have a new chassis in Malaysia but will not have an upgrade overhaul before the fifth race in May and until then are expected to continue to have problems with their traction and low-speed downforce.
“In Australia, I think there were two McLarens, two Red Bulls, Mercedes, Saubers, Toro Rossos â€¦ so there were a lot of people quicker than us,” Alonso added. “But the championship is long. We stay calm, we stay focused, because we see a lot of determination in the team. We need to score as many points as possible in these couple of races and in a very short period of time try to be on the podium and win races. If we manage that we have plenty of races to recover the gap.”
But if Alonso cuts a forlorn figure here, what of Massa? Ferrari are expected to replace him at the end of the year, when his contract expires â€“ and the latest driver to be linked with that job is Sauber’s Sergio PÃ©rez.
In the meantime, it seems, more humiliation awaits him. Michael Schumacher, who won five of his seven world titles with Ferrari, found it difficult to explain the gap between Alonso and Massa. “If I look at all the winter testing I think it was very clear that the two drivers were very close together. If you look at the optimum lap time achieved in the Barcelona tests, it’s again very close.
“So to see the big difference that we saw in Melbourne, I can only assume there must have been something not right for him. He’s been around for so long. He’s been fighting for the championship recently, he’s always been up front, so I don’t see any reason.”
Massa himself â€“ without a podium finish since 2010 â€“ was in defiant mood. “To be honest, I really don’t care [about the critics],” he said. “If we go back to testing in Barcelona and Jerez, I drove the same car the day after Fernando and there was nothing different in terms of lap times or race pace or tyre degradation.
“Then we arrived in Australia and saw that everything is different. I couldn’t drive it from the first day.”
It is not only Massa who is in danger. Unless Ferrari avoid another disappointing year the next batch of upgrades will not be for the car but for the personnel who are responsible for creating it.