|© AP Photo/Luca Bruno
After a frustrating start to the season, Fernando Alonso retains high hopes of clawing back his 30-point gap on championship leader Sebastian Vettel starting at this week's Spanish Grand Prix.
The two-time world champion has drifted down to fourth place after four races. But the Spaniard feels that for the first time in years Ferrari has a car good enough to dictate the race to Red Bull, rather than waiting for opportunities and slip-ups from his main rival.
"Yes, maybe, yes, it's the first time we've arrived (here) with a competitive car. In the first four races we felt competitive, we felt that we were ready to fight for the top places if the race was without problems," Alonso said on Thursday. "It's a weekend we approach with a positive mentality and not a defensive mentality (like) the first three years with Ferrari."
Alonso's position would doubtless be higher with a little more consistency and less bad luck.
The Spaniard started the Malaysian GP in a strong position -- third on the grid -- but damaged his front wing when he bumped into Vettel's Red Bull and crashed out a lap later when his wing shattered. In Bahrain, he again started from third, but problems with the DRS system forced him to pit twice in the first eight laps and he could only fight back to eighth spot.
Those setbacks have not dented his confidence, however, because he knows the car has more speed than last year -- when he only lost the championship to Vettel by three points.
"Last year we were 1.5 seconds behind the top cars and we won by the weather, and by the luck," the 31-year-old said. "We've been second in Australia and we won in China, so it's a very different feeling and a very different package that we have this year. We need to do some consistent points now for the next Sundays. But we are more optimistic."
Vettel's lead may seem impressive, but Alonso was much further ahead last year and still lost to the German. Alonso thinks that gives him reason to believe that he can do likewise.
"Sebastian last year was 43 points behind us after the summer break and arrived leading in Austin, in Texas. So in five or six races you can recover 45-50 points," Alonso said. "Same with us (Renault) in 2006. I was 33 points in front of Michael (Schumacher), which means 75 or 80 points with the current points system and he was leading the championship in Suzuka (Japan), two races from the end. Until we are 75 or 80 points behind we should be optimistic."
Although the Circuit de Catalunya is tough to overtake on, Alonso says Ferrari has not made pole position a priority -- despite the fact he hasn't qualified higher than third this season, whereas Vettel started the first two races from pole.
"The race pace this year and the tyres are faster than in previous years. ... (You have to) try to find the right balance between qualifying and the race," he said. "Maybe the first really important qualifying will arrive in two weeks' time in Monaco when we know that qualifying is extremely important. Here it's more or less a normal circuit and we need to find a compromise."
Besides, Alonso hopes to get a boost elsewhere -- from the fervent support of his home fans. Alonso used to be scared of letting them down, now he uses them as an inspiration.
"You give an extra ten percent of what you normally do to take care of every detail over the weekend," he said. "It's a special weekend. After all those years you have an extra motivation and it's not pressure any more. The first few years you worry to do well here."
With teams bringing upgrades to their cars, and an extra set of hard tyres for practice in order to help drivers stay out longer rather than saving them for race day, Vettel and Alonso should have their cars in optimum condition.
Vettel is also looking for more from his Red Bull.
"We won two out of four, so it's not that bad. From a results point of view we can be happy," Vettel said. "But surely you're not looking at the raw result, you're looking at the way you achieve the result and here and there you have room for improvement."
Vettel, who leads Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen by ten points in the standings and Lewis Hamilton by 27, laughed off speculation that he will leave Red Bull at the end of the season to join Hamilton at Mercedes.
"I was surprised when I read it as well," he said. "I don't read that much, but usually headlines, and, yeah, pretty funny."