Vintage Alonso sets up thrilling season finale
There were a lot of question marks hanging over Fernando Alonso and Ferrari before Sunday's Italian Grand Prix, his first since joining the team.
He was lagging behind in the championship after crashing out of the preceding race in Belgium - the latest in a string of errors by the Spaniard this season.
Ferrari - and Alonso in particular - had been surprisingly uncompetitive in Spa after a strong run of form.
And the Italian race took place four days after the team had escaped further punishment at a disciplinary hearing over their apparent use of banned team orders at the German Grand Prix.
As such, the pressure on them at Monza was intense, even before Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo turned up on Saturday and said Alonso "had to win".
Both Alonso and Ferrari responded in style, with the Spaniard delivering the sort of remorseless, flawless performance that used to be his stock-in-trade. This was vintage Alonso, far from the mistake-prone, apparently vulnerable figure he has been this year.
Alonso has driven some great races this season - especially his comeback drives in Australia, China and Monaco - but most of them have come as he made up for errors that put him further down the field than he should have been.
The mistakes, which Alonso himself admitted in the course of this weekend, have come as he over-reached in a car that for a lot of the year has been close to the pace required to battle for the championship but not quite close enough.
He has lost points as a result, and his crown as F1's most complete driver has slipped, with Lewis Hamilton staking a strong claim to it. All of that raised concerns about how Alonso would respond to the intensity of driving for Ferrari at Monza.
He brushed them aside with the sort of performance that forged his reputation - a brilliant qualifying lap, 0.6 seconds quicker than team-mate Felipe Massa on his first run before the Brazilian improved on his second, and a great drive in the race.
After losing the lead at the start, Alonso did not let the pressure on Jenson Button slip for one second, with the Englishman admitting it was "quite a tough race mentally to have Fernando behind me for most of it".
Rarely more than a second behind, Alonso had two huge moments - one in the second Lesmo, the other in Parabolica - as he fought in the turbulent air behind the McLaren to get close enough to have a go at passing Button.
He never quite managed it, so the result came down to the pit-stop period. Alonso was 0.96 seconds behind Button on the lap before the McLaren made its stop, and praised his mechanics for a superb pit stop - 0.8secs faster than McLaren's - for getting him out ahead.
"I pushed 100%, the pit stop felt so quick," he said. "I stopped, they changed tyres and there was a green light. I didn't even have first gear in, so physically there was not time to do all the buttons and they had finished the pit stop. So a big thanks to the team. Most of the thanks for the win is to the mechanics."
He's actually selling himself short, though. The stop on its own, good as it was, was not quite enough to get him ahead. He also produced a fabulous in-lap - 0.575secs faster than Button's.
After taking the lead, he then quickly left Button behind, extending the lead to 3.6secs in six laps.
Alonso rated it as one of his favourite races - saying it was as good a feeling as winning his home race in Spain in 2006. But it was also certainly one of his very best, as former Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine acknowledged on the BBC F1 red button forum.
"Fernando won the race and did an amazing job, perfect job," Irvine said. "No mistakes. He's made a lot of mistakes for what we know of him - he never really made mistakes under pressure like Michael [Schumacher] did - but he was perfect today. Alonso is super-strong, he's always been super-fast."
Alonso was clearly moved by the reception he got from the thousands of tifosi who flooded on to the track to salute his win but, feet on the ground, he was not getting carried away about his leg-up in the championship. He is now 21 points - less than a win - off the championship lead, now again held by Red Bull's Mark Webber.
Alonso pointed out that Hamilton was still second despite crashing out in Monza - a luxury Alonso himself still does not have.
"Hamilton was leading and after this race with no points he is still fighting with no risk," Alonso said. "For us, if we make a mistake we are out of it.
"We need to find some consistency because this was a good weekend but Spa was bad and we cannot afford to have these bad weekends, we need to be on the podium all the time. Sometimes we are not doing 100% and that is what we have to concentrate on."
If Ferrari can achieve that, they and Alonso have the pace to worry any of the title contenders - it has been the second fastest car all year, bar a slump in the spring, and the fastest of all at two races now, Germany and Italy.
As good as Alonso was at Monza, Button matched him. But staying ahead was always going to be difficult when the Ferrari was the faster car and victories often hang on the fine margins displayed at Monza. But we've covered him before - and the story on Sunday was Ferrari.
The race was a blow for Hamilton and Webber, both of whom looked seriously hacked off afterwards.
And in terms of keeping the championship battle close, it was the best possible result.
Hamilton and Webber had pulled away after Button, Alonso and Webber's team-mate Sebastian Vettel all failed to score in Belgium, to the point that Martin Brundle was moved to say that Spa had all but wrecked the hopes of a thrilling five-way fight for the title.
But this amazing season continues to surprise and thrill and all five are now again within a single win of each other. It sets up what should be a quite superb end to a season the like of which has rarely been seen before.
If it carries on like this, 2010 will probably go down as the greatest season in F1 history. It's a privilege to be watching it - and the men involved feel exactly the same.
"For me," Button said in Monza, "to be in a very competitive car, fighting it out at the front with so many great drivers who have either won the world championship or been very close to it, it's a great thing to be a part of that.
"I think this season, whatever happens, will go down in history as one of the best and most competitive seasons ever in Formula 1 in regards to the drivers but also the teams."
To which Hamilton responded: "Well said."