Following a devastating barrel-rolling crash in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix – resulting in a fractured rib and sit-out of the Bahrain Grand Prix – Fernando Alonso was back behind the wheel of his McLaren-Honda in China.
In a race that was full of varying strategies with tyres and on-track collisions, Alonso kept his car in one piece to finish twelfth, his best finish since last year’s United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.
Kicking off the weekend in FP1, Alonso struggled with long-run pace on the 5.4-kilometre circuit, finishing twelfth-fastest in the opening session. Having cleared his mandated FIA medical check, the following FP2 session produced a better lap time of 1:38.728 seconds and an 11th-place finishing spot.
“We were not completely happy with the race pace,” Alonso said of the day’s practice sessions. “We were not super fast so we made a lot of changes in he car.”
In a slightly rain-affected qualifying session, Alonso had hopes of advancing to the 10-driver Q3 session – in a format returning following the heavily unpopular elimination format in the opening two rounds.
Despite the good news on that front, it was all disappointment for Alonso as Q3 was not in the cards for the 34-year-old, lining up eleventh for Sunday’s 56-lap event.
“Massively frustrating today,” Alonso said. “I think the car had the potential to be in Q3. Both McLarens were competitive and we didn’t use the new tyres, we didn’t use the full engine power.
“On the positive side, we were aiming to pass Q1 a few races ago and now we’re frustrated not to be in Q3 so the car is definitely growing [in its potential]. I think the points are the target, that’s for sure. How high [in the points] is impossible to know.”
Once the lights went out, the race down into Turn 1 was full of contact as Kimi Räikkönen, Sebastian Vettel, Romain Grosjean, Lewis Hamilton and others spit debris throughout the racing surface.
Coming out unscathed, a safety car on Lap 4 brought Alonso in for his first pit stop of the day. Restarting third, Alonso believes, in the end, the caution period was a negative hit on the Spaniard’s race.
“The safety car probably didn’t help,” he said. “Normally on the first stint you try to avoid this 25 seconds extra to stop. They managed to re-group the field so they didn’t lose those 25 seconds when they did the pit stop.”
Falling through the running order as teams began to rebound, Alonso went for a two-stop strategy while many others chose a third.
“It was interesting to see a lot of strategies in the race,” he said. “Fun to watch, I guess, for you guys. For us, a little bit difficult to understand sometimes because when we went with a different strategy we choose two stops while most of the people choose three.”
For a majority of the afternoon, the McLaren team showcased strong straight-line speed as both Alonso and teammate Jenson Button were overtaking teams like Williams and Force India for positions inside the top twelve.
Finishing 12th, one spot above Button, Alonso believes he simply didn’t have the speed to contend and finish in the points.
“We didn’t have the pace today to be in the points,” he said. “That’s a shame and we need to improve for next round.”
It isn’t exactly a race win Shanghai produced for him in 2013, but Alonso noticed quick improvement from the opening weekend of the year. Finally having solid, clean Grand Prix in 2016, Alonso heads into Russia in search of points.
“[In] winter testing, we never did more than 50 laps,” he concluded, “Australia [had] the accident, of course, and Bahrain I didn’t participate. This is really the first time we do these long runs. It will be useful information.”
Images via McLaren Honda