Ferrari on back foot after first lap exit for Alonso in Japan
Fernando Alonso's early retirement at Suzuka in another race dominated by main rival Sebastian Vettel wiped out his advantage in the championship and put Ferrari on the back foot.
Fernando Alonso might still be in the lead of the drivers championship, but with Sebastian Vettel cutting the gap between them from 29pts to just 4pts in a single weekend, the Spaniard is all too aware of how the momentum has shifted and that he's now on the backfoot in the title battle.
"Clearly, this result has practically wiped out the advantage I had before," admitted Alonso after the Japanese Grand Prix. "But if I'd been told at the start of the season that we would have been in this situation five races from the end, I'd have happily signed for it!" he continued, determined to keep his spirits high.
"What happened to us today could happen to the others next time: the wheel turns and that is what races are all about," he said.
"What happened to Fernando at the start is an example of the many variables that you cannot control in this sport and we have to accept it," agreed Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali. "But clearly all of us are very disappointed at the moment.
"We have to react calmly to this cruel blow for Fernando and work with maximum concentration on development of the car, as indeed we have done all these past few months," Domenicali added. "It is a very important point of the season, and we have the opportunity to react straight away next Sunday in Korea. Heads up - we need to be very cool."
Alonso pointed out that Ferrari had built up their lead in the drivers championship through making fewer errors than their rivals, and that this was still key to their hopes of securing the title in the final races of 2012.
"We need to keep working well and not making mistakes," said Alonso. "The others make mistakes - we need to avoid this. [It's] thanks to this consistency we are leading the championship.
"Now we start a sort of mini-championship, run over five Grands Prix - the aim will be to score at least one point more than all the others," he added.
"Five races is a lot and anything can still happen," agreed Domenicali. "If we are in this position of fighting for the title in the final races, it's because our work has been of a good standard, otherwise we would be a lot further back."
But now that their safety buffer in the points had been wiped out over the weekend, would mere consistency now be enough to keep them in the running? Another former world champion, McLaren's Jenson Button, felt that Suzuka had been a pivotal moment in this year's world championship and that the title was now Vettel's to lose.
"It's going to be very tough to hold on to Sebastian," said Button. "Ferrari are pretty quick but not as quick as Red Bull.
"It's gone, his lead," added Button, referring to Alonso's situation after Suzuka. "It's also tough for him because Red Bull are so fast."
Worryingly for Alonso - and for everyone else on the grid not driving a Red Bull - the team is said to be flying in a whole new aero upgrade package for next weekend's Korean Grand Prix that may put them even further ahead of their rivals in the last five races of the 2012 season.
Alonso has been outspoken for much of the season about how Ferrari need to maintain their momentum in the development battle with their rivals, and Japan only confirmed this as a top priority in his mind.
"Clearly, we must work a lot on the development of the car," he said. "I'm not worried, but we must react to the step forward that the other competitors have made."
The upgrades that Ferrari have been trying out haven't worked as well as the team had hoped, leaving Alonso increasingly unhappy as Ferrari were put on the back foot compared with the seemingly unending stream of technical genius coming from Red Bull's technical director Adrian Newey.
"I can very well understand his frustration at the moment - you can be sure that we are doing our utmost to give him a car that matches his talent" said Domenicali about Alonso's exhortations to the team to up the pace of developments. "The most important thing is to stay really rational and not fall into the worst enemy of the team, what the others are trying to put on us, which is pressure."
"We must not react in an emotional fashion, but rather we need to stay calm and concentrate on the job of developing the car," echoed Ferrari's technical director Pat Fry. "That's the best way to react, right from the very next race in Korea.
"We brought some reasonably significant updates to the last few races and there's more to come for the next ones," he pointed out. "It's true that sometimes, Singapore for example, not all of them worked in the right way, but it's equally true that that is something that has happened to others in this season of highs and lows."
Fry added: "Now we start again practically from scratch and everything will hang on the development of the car race by race. We must try to be better than the others and we know we have every possibility of doing just that."
Not that Red Bull are counting any chickens just yet either, with team boss Christian Horner all too aware of how expertly Alonso manages the strategy of expectations.
"Fernando is a very shrewd and formidable opponent, and over a season luck tends to balance itself out," he said. "Sebastian has had two DNFs as a result of reliability, Fernando has had been unlucky with Grosjean and the puncture he picked up today.
"It will be down to what the two of them do on the track and the relative performances of the cars over the last five races."