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Sunday, June 17, 2007
Hamilton's rear wing too common of a sight for Alonso

By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Fernando Alonso certainly could have won the eighth United States Grand Prix run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday. He probably thinks he should have won it.

Instead, the two-time Formula One world champion crossed the famous IMS Yard of Bricks staring at the rear wing of the McLaren-Mercedes driven by his rookie teammate, Lewis Hamilton. It was the fourth time in seven races that McLaren No. 2 beat McLaren No. 1, and Hamilton now owns a 10-point lead over Alonso in the F1 championship standings.

Lewis Hamilton
McLaren-Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton, left, and Fernando Alonso celebrate a 1-2 finish.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. World champions aren't supposed to get their doors blown off by rookies, especially within the same team.

As the young charger within the Renault team from 2003-06, Alonso made his teammates, F1 veterans Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella, look bad. Now with McLaren at the ripe old age of 25, he's getting a taste of his own medicine.

And judging by the hang-dog expression his face wore after Hamilton's controlled win at Indianapolis, the Spaniard wasn't expecting it.

"Yes and no," Alonso admitted. "We knew from winter testing that Lewis was very quick, with very close times to Pedro [de la Rosa, McLaren test driver] and me. There was not a big difference between the three drivers, so why would he not fight for wins and the championship?"

"On the other hand, it's a surprise for me and everybody to see him do so well and lead the championship at this point," he continued. "But I have big, big confidence. We have only done seven races and there are 10 to go. I'm very happy with my 48 points. The championship will be decided at the end and I'm confident I can do it."

Alonso may be happy with his 48 points, but he probably never could have imagined that his novice teammate would rack up 58 markers in the same seven-race span.

At Indianapolis, Hamilton took the pole for the second consecutive race and controlled the pace during the first stint. The pair of silver McLarens lapped in the 1 minute, 14-second range until five laps before the first of their two scheduled pit stops. Then Hamilton and Alonso showed they could easily lap in the low 13s.

Hamilton built a 3.4-second lead before stopping on the 21st of 73 laps. Alonso pitted a lap later, and when they were both back up to speed, the gap was less than two seconds.

Alonso closed to within a few car lengths of his teammate and tried to take advantage when Hamilton made a small mistake while lapping Vitantonio Liuzzi on the 38th lap. The two McLarens screamed down the pit straight almost side by side, with Hamilton edging Alonso toward the outside.

"He closed enough to slipstream me down the front straight," Hamilton said. "I was a bit nervous when I saw him coming, but I made one move and made it stick. I stayed to the inside and knew if I braked where I needed to brake, he would stay behind."

How close had the two McLarens gotten in the run to Turn 1 before Alonso tucked back in to wait for the next pit stop exchange?

"One or two centimeters, probably," Alonso said. "It was close, but it was difficult to overtake on this circuit. You only have one chance, at Turn 1, and I had only one chance, on Lap 38. It was not possible, and after that, you can't run any closer than one second or 1.5 second to the car in front. At least I finished on the podium."

The USGP result again demonstrated that Formula One races are often won or lost in qualifying. Hamilton won the race to Turn 1 from pole position and that proved to be the difference.

We have only done seven races and there are 10 to go. I'm very happy with my 48 points. The championship will be decided at the end and I'm confident I can do it.

Fernando Alonso

"It was the key of the race," Alonso confirmed. "We were extremely close this weekend and I really thought I would have a good car and be quicker than him in the race. It was close this time, but Turn 1 was 90 percent of the race. Whoever was second at the start was going to be second in the race."

Hamilton had about a second in hand until a final, critical mistake ended Alonso's chances of winning for good. After his near-pass on Lap 38, Fernando kept within 1.2 seconds of Hamilton, but the lead doubled on Lap 47 when Alonso locked his brakes into Turn 8 and ran wide on the grass.

There was no damage to his McLaren, but the damage to his challenge was terminal.

"When you follow someone, you lose a bit of downforce and it's hard to keep the tires for a full stint," Alonso said. "It's easy to damage your tires behind someone and my last stint was a conservative one.

"Eight points [for second place] is better than nothing and we increased the gap to Ferrari, which is important. I've started thinking about the French Grand Prix."

When the F1 circus returns to Europe, circumstances should play even more into Hamilton's hands. The races he won in Canada and Indianapolis were on circuits he had never seen before.

"Obviously Fernando was extremely quick this weekend and he drove a fantastic race as always," Hamilton said. "But I managed to outqualify him and I stayed ahead of him in the race.

"As you can see we are extremely close on the track and we're getting closer and closer off the track in the respect we have for each other. I'm proud to sit next to him, because I've always looked up to him the last few years."

With McLaren's long-stated policy of not using team orders to influence races results, Alonso is going to have to catch up to Hamilton on his own if he wants to claim a third consecutive F1 world title. As the season nears its halfway point, it's obvious that he has his work cut out for him, because, rookie or not, Hamilton is showing no signs of letting up.

"I would have never thought in a million years that I'd be among these drivers up here," Hamilton said after his latest race win. "Coming into the season, you have to be realistic. This is the pinnacle of this sport, so I didn't expect anything, but I hoped to do well and keep learning.

"I hoped maybe I would get a podium at some point and it's just insane. I find it very hard to come to terms with everything and I don't think anyone expected me to do as well as I am doing."

Especially Fernando Alonso.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.