Alonso remains realistic about title chances

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SHANGHAI (AP) - Fernando Alonso has “no illusions” about his prospects in the Formula One championship despite ending a 12-race drought with a commanding victory at the Chinese Grand Prix.

The dozen races without a win was the Ferrari driver’s longest barren period since his winless 2009 season, and represented a sharp change of fortunes after a Did-Not-Finish result at the previous race in Malaysia.

“It couldn’t have gone better than this today,” Alonso said after Sunday’s race. “This has a special feeling because it was a tricky race full of action.

“Along with the second place I got in Australia, this result shows that the car is competitive and that we are working in the right direction to always be in the fight for the podium.”

The Spanish driver said he had “pace in his pocket” which he kept in reserve, yet still drove away to a comfortable 10-second victory over Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen. Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton hung on for third, just two-tenths of a second ahead of the fast-finishing Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull.

The comfortable nature of the win raised Ferrari’s hopes of taking its first drivers’ championship since 2007, particularly with the next race coming this weekend in Bahrain, giving rival teams no chance to introduce any significant aerodynamic upgrades in the meantime.

However, the 2013 season is already shaping as one in which fortunes will change from venue to venue depending on the layout of tracks, surfaces and the various team strategies revolving around tires. The Red Bulls were dominant in Malaysia, yet absent from the podium in Shanghai.

“With no one dominating the championship, it makes it extremely interesting, even if we are aware this is only the third race,” Alonso said. “We are under no illusions and we must continue to concentrate and do all we can to improve still further.”

Vettel still leads the drivers’ standings, with his advantage sliced to three points over the consistent Raikkonen. The Finn’s second-place finish on Sunday was his 20th consecutive points finish in Formula One, joining Alonso (23) and Michael Schumacher (24) as the only men to achieve that feat.

That string of points finishes appeared to be in serious jeopardy when he ran heavily into the back of Sergio Perez’s McLaren early in the race, but remarkably his Lotus lost little pace and the team opted to keep the damaged front wing and nose on the car.

If not for that accident, and a slow start that saw the Finn immediately shuffled down from his second place on the grid to fourth, Raikkonen would have posed a much stronger challenge to Alonso.

“It was quite difficult out there,” Raikkonen said of driving with a rearranged front assembly. “The car is not designed like that, otherwise we would use it all the time, but I was surprised how good it was. Of course there were some handling issues, which was not ideal, but we just had to try to live with it and we still had pretty OK speed.”

Lotus’ trackside operations manager Alan Permane calculated that the damage cost Raikkonen about one-quarter of a second per lap. Given it happened with 40 laps to go, that was 10 seconds in all _ precisely the margin behind the race winner.

“Without the poor start and without the incident for Kimi, then we definitely would have fought for a win today,” team principal Eric Boullier said. “Kimi showed once more why he’s one of the very best drivers in the world by being one of the fastest on track despite sustaining damage to his car.”

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