MONTMELO, Spain – It’s only seventh place in qualifying, and Fernando Alonso will take it.
Take it, and cling to it, in hope that his season has hit bottom and is looking up.
Alonso had his best day behind the wheel of his trouble-prone McLaren on Saturday in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix, finally giving his Formula One team some relief and his home Spanish fans a reason to cheer.
Alonso finished 1.9 seconds slower than pole winner Lewis Hamilton, but he defied expectations by beating out all the other teams that can’t compete with Hamilton’s Mercedes and challengers Ferrari and Red Bull.
Alonso called seventh place a “gift,” considering his previous best qualification was 12th place in Australia.
“We knew we needed to put the perfect lap together,” he said. “Today was the one of those days when everything went well.”
The two-time world champion is having the most frustrating season of his long career. Problems with the McLaren’s Honda engine kept him from finishing the first three races, and that only got more embarrassing when his car broke down in the formation lap of the last grand prix in Russia.
Things didn’t appear close to improving back home.
Despite McLaren and Honda having two weeks to find some desperately needed fixes, Alonso’s car spouted smoke and gushed fluid in a breakdown on the very first lap of practice on Friday.
That debacle came a day after Alonso gave McLaren an ultimatum of six months to give him a car with a chance of winning a championship.
So forecasts were high that the Spaniard would endure more torment come qualifying.
Instead, Alonso went from surprise to surprise, making the cut from the first session that eliminated the slowest five drivers, then surviving the second cut to reach the remaining 10 drivers for the first time this season. He topped it off by clocking a better lap than Force India pair Sergio Perez and Esteban Icon and Williams’ Felipe Massa.
Hamilton took note of Alonso’s improvement, saying “It’s fantastic for McLaren and Honda to get into the top 10. It shows progress.”
Alonso marked a cautiously optimistic tone about the race on Sunday, when his car will have a much tougher test of its more than questionable reliability.
“Obviously, I don’t have 100 percent confidence. But I am pretty sure we keep learning from the things that are happening to the car,” Alonso said. “I have a good feeling for tomorrow.”
He spoke alongside team director Eric Boullier and Honda F1 boss Yusuke Hasegawa, both looking relieved to not have to again explain why their cars have taken a step back. The season’s start is in risk of damaging the reputation of the once proud McLaren, which has 12 driver titles and eight constructor titles to its name.
Alonso’s last race win, his 32nd, came here at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in 2013 while driving for Ferrari. With its rougher surface and tricky curves, the track gives slower cars like his McLaren a fighting chance.
If his car holds up, Alonso said he will need to use every bit of his veteran wiles to keep McLaren in the points. He marked the importance of a good start in order to protect his position.
“The points is the main target,” he said. “Seventh place maybe seems too good.”
Regardless of the outcome on Sunday, Alonso will then take a break from F1 to try his luck at the Indianapolis 500.
The decision to switch competitions will mean he misses F1’s Monaco GP this month, but Alonso said he had “zero” regrets since Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull are still out of reach.
“I will race the Indy 500, one of the biggest races in the world,” Alonso said. “There will be six cars (in F1) that will be unbeatable for the next few races. To fight for seventh place in Monaco? No thanks.”
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