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GP Week : Issue 217
The guys here at GPWeeK have long memories, so they were looking a bit smug when I turned up in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago for the first race of the season. I was hardly off the plane when they hastened to remind of my verdict, in the column which I had submitted for the final edition of 2014, on the catastrophe which was still unfolding at Ferrari only a few months ago. Several senior figures in Maranello's management were out on their backsides and Fernando Alonso had just quit the Scuderia in favour of a return to McLaren. 'What the hell,' I asked, 'was Sebastian Vettel thinking when he allowed himself to be sucked into this mess?' Well, I'm writing this just after watching a revitalised Vettel take his first Ferrari victory of the season, in Malaysia, thanks to a promising car and superior tyre management. All credit to him and the backroom design staff under James Allison, but I suspect that not even Seb wasn't expecting to have things so easy and so soon. Those of us in the media who have been suggesting that Mercedes has been deliberately keeping something in hand, in order to jazz up the championship, may have to think again about that. I've seen more Ferrari come-backs than most of the folk in the press room, and while this latest one has come sooner than many, there's a lot of racing to go before we learn whether the Malaysian success can be converted into a title-winning year. It was heart-warming to see how close-fought the racing was all the way down the field at Sepang, and to have the reassurance that F1 can do so much better than that miserable parade at Albert Park, so I'm looking forward to seeing Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes continuing the fight. What a pity that Nico Rosberg's race form is still no match for Hamilton's. One of the most peculiar media moments of the weekend took place when one of the brighter interviewers for Sky TV quizzed Fernando Alonso about his decision to leave Ferrari just as it seemed to be coming good. It was amazing to see Nando insisting that he was happy with his lot, despite the concussion in Barcelona and his absence from the grid in Melbourne. He actually looked happy, too. He smiled broadly at a question about having left Ferrari. "When I saw Mercedes winning by half a minute [in Australia] I was so clear about my decision," he said. "To beat Mercedes at the moment you need to do something different. You need to risk somehow because if you copy you will be always be behind. So I'm in the right place." Those words were spoken soon after the Spaniard had qualified just 18th for the Malaysian race, his worst grid placing since 2010. "It was expected. It's a tough period at the moment for us being out of Q1 but if we see the facts and the numbers it's much better than it's been in Australia in terms of pace and so I think we are making very big progress," Alonso insisted. "If we can improve 1.5 seconds every two weeks in three or four races, we'll be on pole!" The longest drought in the history of Ferrari world championships was the 15 years between 1984 and 1999, and it took a driver of Michael Schumacher's genius to establish the hegemony that won him five consecutive titles between 2000 and 2004. Finding all that dominance in red thoroughly overwhelming, I preferred to look back to an even earlier era, when Ferrari presented a slightly sweatier and more human face, as it was in 1979, when 12-cylinder engines were still Enzo's trade-mark and my friend Jody Scheckter signed up to drive in front of one of them. I had got to know Jody in 1970 when he and his mechanic stepped off the Johannesburg flight into Heathrow, with just £1000 and a few phone numbers in his pocket, to race in Formula Ford. One of those numbers was of the flat I was sharing with a couple of other journos and the future champion spent his first couple of weeks in England camped out on our living room floor. That link made things easier when seeking interviews, and I got a really good one with him on the night before his first GP as a Ferrari driver, in Argentina in January 1979. As we chatted in his bedroom in the Sheraton in Buenos Aires (he had moved a lot further up in the world than I had), one of my questions was about the difference between the 'feel' of the Ferrari with its flat-12 engine and sophisticated gearbox, as compared with the rough old Cosworth V8 and Hewland 'box which had served him in his previous employment at Tyrrell and Wolf. I can't remember the exact words, but he screwed up his face and informed me that there was really no difference. 'When you drive racing cars to the limit, they're all dogs,' he scowled. That's what I wrote in my magazine the following week, and I thought his description had been apt. But a couple of weeks later an Italian newspaper picked up on my piece and ran a tabloid-style story under a headline which shouted, 'Scheckter says his Ferrari is a dog.' Bloody journalists ... Jody went on to win that year's world championship - and it would take 21 years for Michael Schumacher to succeed him as the next of Maranello's drivers to take the title. Press relations are more tightly controlled these days, as we saw this week in Alonso's soothing words about his McLaren-Honda. But sometimes I wish there were a few drivers left who weren't too shy to describe their cars as 'dogs.' nAndo's hAppY With his mAc - But for hoW long? OPINION OPINION MiKe DooDsoN 11 GPWEEK.com // 11 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: