By Alan Baldwin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Fernando Alonso astonished fans and Formula One rivals on Saturday by qualifying seventh for his home Spanish Grand Prix in a McLaren that had been the slowest car on track a day earlier — when actually moving.
“I think it surprised everybody,” said the Spaniard’s former Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa, who qualified his Williams two places behind. “Fernando did an amazing job.
“I think he got some speed in Indianapolis,” added the Brazilian referring to Alonso’s rookie orientation at the famed Brickyard last week when he recorded a top speed of 222.548 mph (358.156 kph).
Alonso, who will skip the May 28 Monaco Grand Prix to compete in the Indy 500 on the same day in two weeks’ time, had seized the headlines on Friday when his Honda-powered car broke down at the start of practice.
He went off to play tennis, spending more time on the court than in the car that day, before returning to prop up the timesheets in the afternoon and discuss the damage to Honda’s reputation.
The transformation 24 hours later was entirely unexpected, even for the fans still trekking to the Circuit de Catalunya out of loyalty to the double world champion who is still the only Spaniard to win a grand prix.
He was far quicker than highly-rated rookie team mate Stoffel Vandoorne, who qualified 19th, and in the top 10 on the grid for the first time this year.
Alonso has finished only one in four races so far this season, with McLaren yet to score a point, and he failed to start in Russia two weeks ago when the car halted on the formation lap.
Asked whether he was confident he would be starting and finishing on Sunday, the 35-year-old was unwilling to tempt fate.
“I am more or less confident. I don’t have 100 percent confidence,” he said. “Yesterday was a difficult day with another failure, so you can’t go into tomorrow with 100 percent confidence.
“But I am pretty sure that we keep learning from the things that are happening to the cars. I have a good feeling for tomorrow.
“Some weekends start in a good way and everything goes in the wrong direction. Some weekends start wrong, but at some point in the weekend everything goes right. Today everything went right and I still have the feeling that tomorrow is going to be okay.”
Alonso said the giddy heights of seventh on the grid had not made him regret in any way his decision to miss Monaco, where overtaking is extremely difficult and points would be a definite possibility from such a position.
“I have minus zero regrets about missing Monaco,” he declared.
“I will race in the Indy 500, one of the biggest races in the world. There are six cars — two Mercedes, two Ferraris, two Red Bulls – that will be unbeatable for the next couple of races, so to fight for seventh place in Monaco? No thanks.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)