Barcelona: Fernando Alonso's emotional comeback win at the European Grand Prix last Sunday has finally set one driver apart from the pack in the most tightly contested Formula One season in history.
Alonso steered his Ferrari from an 11th-place start to a dramatic victory at Valencia to become the first driver to win two races this year, opening up a 20-point gap over his nearest challenger, Red Bull's Mark Webber. Now the Spaniard and his team are trying to focus on the British GP on July 8, when Alonso will seek to repeat his triumph at Silverstone last season.
"These 25 points will definitely not go to our heads," Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said. "We are well aware how things can change in the blink of an eye and we must continue to work on improving the car's performance because it is still not at the level we want."
Alonso called the win in front of his home fans one of the best of his 29-win career. It featured a display of daring driving as he passed various front-runners on the notoriously hard-to-overtake street circuit. Becoming the sole driver with two victories in a season that has seen seven different winners in the first seven races also gave him a commanding lead over the other major candidates for the title.
While Alonso collected the 25 points for the win, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel failed to finish the race. After eight races Alonso has 23-point lead over Hamilton, with Vettel another three points behind the English driver.
Even so, the two-time champion was hesitant to claim he has taken control of the championship race.
"I think we always need to be cautious and we always need to be honest with ourselves first and with our supporters, saying that we will fight, will work day and night to be competitive and to fight for the title which is the ultimate goal for Ferrari," said Alonso. "The championship should be the target, considering the history and the level of the team."
Alonso's unexpected victory underscored why he's considered one of F1's best ever, but he reminded his fans and team that only managing 11th in Saturday's qualifying showed this year's Ferrari still needs improvement. His team-mate Felipe Massa struggled all weekend, qualifying 13th and then sliding to a 16th-place finish in the race.
"We were in 11th and 13th place, so we need to work. It's true that we believe and we will never give up, we will have confidence in ourselves and we will arrive with optimism at every grand prix we go to, but at the same time, apart from winning today ... we know that we are not in the position that we want to be and there are a few cars quicker than us and we cannot be blind to that."
If Ferrari still had doubts following its driver's big win, then McLaren and Red Bull had even larger ones.
Hamilton was heading for a decent point haul at Valencia, hanging onto third place, when Williams driver Pastor Maldonado bumped him off the track and out of the race on the penultimate lap. The incident overshadowed McLaren's own troubles that included fading pace down the stretch due to spent tires and a botched pit stop that cost Hamilton valuable seconds and positions.
"[It] was just a bad day in the office, but that's motor racing, and I'm already looking forward to the next grand prix, my home race at Silverstone," said Hamilton, who had gone into the Spanish race at the top of the points standings.
Vettel's concerns are surely deeper as the two-time defending champion looked set to claim his third straight win at the European GP after starting from pole and opening up a huge lead, but his Red Bull suddenly stalled midway through the race.
Just a few laps later Romain Grosjean's Lotus suffered a similar shutdown, robbing the young French driver of a chance to finish on the podium. Both cars are powered by Renault engines, suggesting a common cause.
"It was a bitterly disappointing race for Sebastian who had done everything right," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. "He looked to be in comfortable control of the race until we had a suspected issue with the alternator, which caused him to retire. We need to get the car back to fully understand the failure which we will work through with Renault, as it looked similar to the one that Grosjean had."
Red Bull leads the constructors' title race with 176 points. McLaren has 137, Lotus 126 and Ferrari 122.