Fernando Alonso stands within touching distance of becoming a three-time Formula 1 world champion with only a few days left of the 2010 season. Yet only a few months ago, the idea that he would head into the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend with a 14-point lead seemed laughable.
That he is in this situation now is a warning sign to the rest of the paddock that, four years after Michael Schumacher retired for the first time, Ferrari has a driver capable of making himself the focal point of the team for years to come.
The Ferrari may not have the speed of Red Bull in the final two races of the season - by a very small margin - but the 29-year-old is the man who a sizeable percentage of the paddock would put their money on. In a way, he and Ferrari have come full circle over the course of 2010. As we head into the final exchanges in this remarkable championship, it's worth reflecting on just how the Alonso/Ferrari partnership got to this position.
Pre-season, it seemed that 2010 was destined to be Ferrari's year. Following a dismal 2009 season, during which only a little help from the safety car and KERS boost at Spa prevented a winless campaign, the F10 caught the eye from the moment it hit the track. Alonso impressed with some formidable long-run pace at Jerez in the second week of pre-season testing and the Spaniard was hotly-tipped for the title. But it soon became clear that Ferrari had missed tricks with McLaren's F-duct and Red Bull's elegant exhaust-blown diffuser.
An Alonso-led one-two in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix proved to be a false dawn, and by the time the Spaniard crossed the line 14th at Silverstone after a race ruined by a penalty, a puncture and a poorly-timed safety car, he had slipped 47 points off the lead. As a championship contender, he seemed dead and buried, not because the points deficit was insurmountable, but because Ferrari simply didn't have the pace to get the wins it needed to get back on top.
Fernando Alonso © Sutton
Despite all of the post-race Ferrari chatter focusing on the whys and the wherefores of his drive-through penalty for passing Robert Kubica on the grass, Alonso declared himself to be "more convinced than before this race that we will win the championship".
That raised a few eyebrows, and doubtless his statement was more about being positive than certain he was destined to climb back to the front, but once the wins started flowing in the final third of the season, he cited Silverstone as the turning point.
"We made some improvements to the car and it felt good," he said. "Before that, we had ups and downs but the car felt okay, although not at the level of Red Bull. After Silverstone, knowing that it was a difficult weekend for us with the circuit characteristics being very good for Red Bull, we were still quite competitive.
"With that car, I had much more confidence in fighting for the title. After Silverstone, I was more optimistic."
He might also have looked back a further two weeks to Valencia, where Ferrari ran its exhaust-blown diffuser upgrade for the first time. The team was anticipating a big step forward, but Alonso qualified half a second off Sebastian Vettel's pole time. It took Ferrari a while to get the package working, with regular tweaks to the floor, but - along with the F-duct it introduced in China - it helped to cut into Red Bull's advantage - not to mention that of McLaren, which was looking like the second fastest car during the middle stages of the year.
Team principal Stefano Domenicali has admitted that the focus on getting the F-duct right - no easy task - perhaps held back its pace of development in the first half of the season. With the exhaust-blown diffuser producing impressive figures in dry testing, Ferrari insiders spoke confidently about an imminent performance boost in Valencia, but it took time for the car to become a contender.
In Hungary, Red Bull obliterated the field at a track seemingly made for the RB6, but by now Ferrari had edged ahead of McLaren - not least because the team had followed Red Bull in capitalising on a degree of flexibility in its bodywork that was entirely compatible with the regulations.
At Spa, the championship window of opportunity opened for Alonso. After his victory at Hockenheim, courtesy of a bad start by pole position man Vettel and the team ordering Felipe Massa to let him past, he closed to within 20 points of leader Webber. With Red Bull struggling at Spa, it was a race Ferrari knew to be winnable. But after being clobbered by Rubens Barrichello on the opening lap, Alonso crashed out of eighth place late on. Again, the gap was stretched north of 40 points and again his title chances seemed remote.
Results-wise, Monza was the real turning point. He won from pole position after leapfrogging Jenson Button's McLaren around the pitstops. In Singapore, he dominated from pole after a virtuoso performance, defeating the two Red Bull drivers who clearly had better machinery. At Suzuka, once again Red Bull territory, he kept the top two in sight throughout the race and claimed a vital third place.
After the mistakes of the first half of the season - such as his disastrous FP3 shunt in Monaco that cost him a shot at victory, and a jump-start in China - Alonso was back on relentless form. He was showing the team exactly the abilities that made it covet his services for so long and there were now no doubts that he was the real deal.
If he does go on to win the championship, events in Korea two weeks ago might turn out to be the day that turned his fortunes. After taking his 26th grand prix win, he once again led the world championship - a position that he had not held since the second round of the year. It had been an uneven campaign, but he and Ferrari peaked at the perfect moment, as Alonso himself admitted after his Japan win.
"We are in a sport where you cannot be completely fit, focused, motivated one hundred per cent all the races, every month, so we go up and down," he said.
"We can say that now, in this part of the championship, I'm at a peak, one hundred per cent of motivation, concentration, so it's good to arrive now. Sometimes in the championship, in September, I was getting tired, all these long flights. Now, it feels like the championship starts now."
With intra-team ructions once again apparent at Red Bull, from the Webber corner in particular, the Ferrari/Alonso axis appears to be strengthening by the day. And with Alonso - by any measure one of the greatest F1 drivers of all-time - professing to be on top form, it's no wonder few are willing to bet against him.
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