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There is a fantastic interview with Fernando Alonso in the Gazzetta dello Sport today, in which he gently moves closer to talking about Ferrari and his possible move there.

According to Pino Allievi, the number one writer on the paper, Alonso has moved to a house on the border between Switzerland and Italy, near Lugano. He spoke about the affection he has for Italy and Italians: “As a Spaniard I feel more at ease with Italians,” he said. “We have a lot of shared culture and character. We have identical feelings.”

There is a big following for Alonso here in Monaco

There is a big following for Alonso here in Monaco

As for Ferrari he started talking about the team, when asked how he imagined life would be inside the team. “It’s difficult to imagine from the outside. I can only say that when we race in Bahrain the circuit is full of Ferrari banners. You go to China and it’s the same. I see Ferrari as a symbol. At the moment I’m driving for Renault, where we are doing a great job. I only think about winning, the rest we’ll have to wait and see.”

The word I’m hearing is that these next few races are pretty important for Kimi Raikkonen. Although he has a contract for 2010, the suggestion is that he has certain criteria to meet and that an agreement, which is in place with Alonso for 2011, has a clause which could bring it forward to 2010. The next couple of months will be decisive.

One GP driver I spoke to recently said that in the briefings and at moments when the drivers are all together, Kimi seems like he doesn’t care any more. It’s as if he’s going through the motions. It’s a shame if this is true, as Raikkonen is one of the most exciting and most talented drivers in F1.

However the Italian media has started treating him with a little less respect, calling him “Forrest Gump” earlier this weekend and today’s Gazzetta piece looks to me like a preparing of the ground for Alonso and the future, in a very Italian sort of way.

Ferrari went for Raikkonen in 2006 rather than Alonso because Jean Todt, the boss at the time, had fallen out with Alonso over a test driving agreement in 2001, which Alonso went back on. Now Todt has gone and the feeling in Ferrari is quite different.

Alonso also shed a little more light on what happened at McLaren. Asked what question he would ask Ron Dennis if he had the chance he said,
“I would ask him, ‘Why didn’t you listen to me?’ ”

And on relations with Lewis Hamilton he said: “I spoke to him when we were team mates, in Turkey. I said, ‘We are fighting for the world title, one against the other, we both want to win, but we also have to find a way to work together.’ It was a frank discussion, very open. In reality, he wasn’t the problem. The team was.”

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While we wait for the grands fromages to have their meetings and decide what kind of spectacle we are going to see next year and beyond in Formula 1, I thought a brief colour post might be in order.

For the first time in years I’m not staying in Monaco this year. I’m in Villefranche, which is 20 minutes west by train. They have a fantastic train service here with double decker trains whizzing you along the coastline. Monaco railway station is a 10 minute walk from the paddock and the media centre.

On my way in I passed a series of posters on the wall which stopped me in my tracks; they are Marlboro adverts. You get so used to not seeing any kind of tobacco advertising any more that so see these bold posters of a tattoed Kimi Raikkonen with his car really grab you. This is Monaco, a law unto itself.

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I stopped at the market this morning on the way in. Chatting to locals it seems that everything is 20% down this year; ticket sales, hotel bookings, restaurants etc. I’d say that extends to boats in the harbour. There are some nice ones out there, but not the megas we have seen in recent years. I think part of it is the ‘being seen to do the right thing’ aspect. A lot of sponsors take big boats here normally, but in the current climate they don’t want to be seen to be living it up.

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Ironically the team bosses have their boats here, like Flavio Briatore, who’s Force Blue is playing host to Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Alesi this weekend. It is available for weekly charter the rest of the year for a fee slightly north of £200,000. This afternoon it is also the venue for the FOTA team owners meeting at 2pm. They will have to cover a lot of ground quickly as they are due at the Royal Automobile Club at 4pm to meet Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone. It’s a good ten minutes from Flav’s boat to the club.

One of my Swiss colleagues has pointed out to me that Ferrari has been in F1 for 60 years, but in that time it has not taken part in every race. Apparently they have missed 27 races mostly due to strikes and industrial action in the 1960s. But the funniest bit is that they missed the first ever race, the 1950 British Grand Prix, because they weren’t happy with the start money! So in a way nothing has really changed.

Bernie Ecclestone has come out today to say that Ferrari cannot pull out before 2012 because of the binding agreement they signed in 2005, part of which was the celebrated right of veto. The French court agreed with Ferrari that this was still in place and the flip side of that is that Ferrari is committed to stay for three more seasons.

“We would always respect our contracts,” Ecclestone said. “And all the teams that have signed contracts with us would expect us to respect them, and we would expect the same from Ferrari. They are saying they are going to walk, we are saying we hope they respect their contract.”

As you know, I work now for RAI, the Italian TV station and I was interested to see that the boss of RAI sport, Massimo De Luca, told La Gazzetta dello Sport that if Ferrari wasn’t in the game they would want to review their contract with Ecclestone: “If Ferrari leaves F1, along with other major manufacturers, then I can guarantee you that RAI, along with all the main TV companies, would take legal action to review our contract.”

Meanwhile a spat has broken out between Felipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella. The pair got into a bit of a spat on the track yesterday and afterwards Massa criticised Fisi, comparing his unhelpful approach to a footballer who never passes the ball. Fisi replied, “He’s wrong. He ruined my lap on new tyres, he doesn’t own the circuit.”

So you can see, it’s happy families all round here in Monaco.

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I caught up with Fernando Alonso this afternoon at his press briefing in the Renault motorhome. He’s one of the few drivers to do this session on the first day of practice.

I was interested to hear how good it felt to be back on the streets here, brushing the barriers, feeling that unique adrenalin rush of Monaco. His answer surprised me a little,

“Not feeling good because being close to the barriers is not something you enjoy too much it’s a bit stressful. It’s always nice to be at Monaco and you get a different feeling, but it’s very demanding in terms of concentration in terms of how precise you are with your lines etc, because a little mistake and you finish your session. On Thursday you need to do as many laps as possible, so from a driving point of view you need to start risking, improve some racing lines, but you need to allow some margin because you want to do as many laps as possible.”

Today went pretty well for the team. Alonso wound up 11th, but he set his fastest time on the eighth lap of a 12 lap run on used soft tyres, so his time is not particularly representative of his outright pace. He thinks that with a bit of luck, a clear track and a bold lap he might squeeze into a slot on the front three rows of the grid.

“Top five, top six will be the absolute maximum. Maybe a more normal result will be fighting for the last couple of points. It’s a good opportunity for us to fight against teams we cannot fight on normal circuits. We know that when we get to Turkey we will be between position eight and position ten, more or less. So here is a bit different. Maybe here the position changes, if you have a good lap in qualifying, if you are close to the barriers, everything goes perfectly on your lap then maybe you start fourth in the race and you can keep that position.”

Today was more about the drivers getting comfortable with the car and the track than anything else, doing as many laps as possible to get into the groove. The circuit changes a lot here over a weekend as the rubber goes down. But already we saw how fast these cars are with the slick tyres and improved mechanical grip compared with last season. the fastest time today was a 1m15.243, which is only a tenth slower than the fastest low fuel time in qualifying from last year. So I reckon we will see some very fast times on Saturday.

“The set up was good more or less straight away,” says Alonso. “We tried not to change too many things on the car because the circuit keeps changing on every run, improving and improving when you put some rubber down. It’s quite clear for everyone that supersoft tyre will be better for qualifying for the one lap performance and the soft tyre will be better for the race with better consistency.”

Alonso got the maximum out of the car in Spain, finishing fifth behind the Brawns and the Red Bulls. He’s punching well above the car’s weight this season, so keep an eye out for him on Saturday.

He finished by reiterating his comments from yesterday about not wanting to drive in F1 if the manufacturers pull out at the end of this season,
“If all the manufacturers retire from F1, it’s not any more F1. It’s not about technology, it’s not about improvement it’s not about the maximum category in motorsport. I won’t consider driving in a category that is not the maximum of technology.”

The teams meet tomorrow morning to discuss the situation with the budget cap and then they meet again at 4pm with Max Mosley. With a week until entries open for the 2010 championship it will be a time for cutting to the chase.

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For the first time in his career, Jenson Button goes to Monaco as the favourite to win the race.
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“To go to Monaco with the lead in both the Drivers’ and Constructors’
Championships is fantastic but we saw in Barcelona that the performance
margins at the front are extremely close. There will be a lot of
competitive cars fighting it out this weekend, ” he said.

He has won four of the first five races and even though there have been signs lately that the Red Bull car is more than a match for the Brawn, at a tight circuit like Monaco the Brawn should have the edge. It is better mechanically than the RBR car and very nimble.

All eyes will be on Red Bull to see if Adrian Newey’s team has been able to rush out the new floor with the double diffuser in time for the race. That has certainly been their plan. The extra downforce could make quite a difference to them.

Jenson has had some great days in Monaco, the most exciting was definitely the 2004 race where, driving the BAR Honda he was narrowly beaten by pole sitter Jarno Trulli in the Renault.

It is, to date, his only Monaco podium.

He’s had some bad times there, too. In 2003 he was unable to take the start after a horrible shunt in practice, where he slammed the barriers at the chicane and in 2005 he was forced to miss the race because BAR were banned for two races for fuel tank irregularities.

I remember that weekend well, because Martin Brundle and I persuaded him to commentate on the race with us on ITV and he was really terrific at it.

Button’s task will be made a lot easier this weekend if he can qualify at the front, but I will be fascinated to see whether Sebastian Vettel can maintain his record of qualifying in the top three at every race.

Button knows that being aggressive on Saturday will be crucial,
“My usual driving style is very smooth but I will have to change that a little bit to get the best out of the car here,” he said in the pre race preview today. “You have to be aggressive around Monaco and not let the barriers intimidate you whilst obviously paying them due respect.”

It will be Rubens Barrichello’s 17th Monaco. He’s never won it either, although like Button he has finished second. The one I remember best was 1997 when he followed Michael Schumacher home in the rain, not in a Ferrari but in a Stewart-Ford.

I remember interviewing Jackie Stewart for TV at the end of that race and he was in floods of tears, he totally lost it. That clip appeared on a few highlights rolls over the years! The less nice memory was that I took my firesuit off after the race and packed it away in its bag and soon forgot that it was soaking wet…until I opened it again at the next race in Spain and it had mildew on it! Eeugh!

I love Monaco. I used to hate it, years ago when it was much harder to get around. But it is the only F1 race that lives up to the hype and the only venue which does more for the sport than the other way around.

This is my 19th Monaco (I missed the 1994 race) and I am as excited about it as I was before the first time I went.

I’ve got a few ideas for content this weekend and don’t forget to look out for the twitter feed, with a live reading of what’s really going on in qualifying and the race.

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You will have seen some of the interviews Lewis Hamilton did this week, on Reuters, in the Times and on the BBC.

The Times one caught my eye because it was an open expression of regret that Formula 1 has become a job and that he does not enjoy the political environment around him.

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Hamilton has slotted into the space left vacant by Michael Schumacher in Formula 1, clearly massively talented, unloved by his fellow drivers and always seeming to find himself tangled up in controversies. Senna occupied that space before Schumacher.

The Times interview reveals the state of mind of the driver in the third season of his F1 career. He is weary of the politics, no longer enjoys the banter with the media, he is on his guard, feeling caged and also unfulfilled because his car isn’t fast enough to get him in the game.

“It doesn’t feel so good,” he said, “Getting up in the morning and knowing you can’t win that weekend no matter how hard you drive or how good a job you or the team does.

“It’s hard to take but it’s a fact and you have to deal with it. You just have to adjust your expectations and find new goals.”

In other words he now finds himself in the same position as most drivers in F1, who have no chance of winning a race, even though their career up to F1 was probably gilded with victories and championships. Hamilton described some of these drivers as ‘the monkeys at the back’ last season and that went down like a cup of cold sick. Few have any sympathy for him now.

In Spain last weekend he found out how it felt to be at the back, lapped by Jenson Button in the closing stages of the race.

“I have known Jenson since I was 10 years old, ” continues Hamilton. “He has had some tough tough years and I think I can appreciate that even more after this year exactly how he felt. I have a huge amount of respect for how he dealt with it all.”

What is happening at the moment with Hamilton is that he is having to rebuild relationships. Imagine a telephone switchboard, with loads of leads plugged in all over the place. Well Hamilton is unplugging all the leads and taking care over how he plugs them back in again. It is a root and branch reconstruction of some of the key relationships which make up the ebb and flow of his F1 life; his relationship with his team after the lying episode in Melbourne and the human damage which ensued, his relationship with the media, his relationship with his fellow drivers.

The media one is a perpetual battle. Hamilton will have hated being made to go in front of the press in Malaysia to apologise for lying. It worked well and most of the media respected him for doing it, but the trouble now is that whenever he finds himself in the middle of another controversy, there will be the inevitable, “Are you going to apologise, Lewis?”
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Exactly the same thing happened with Schumacher. He tired of dealing with the media and always refused to give them what they wanted, when they demanded apologies for things. He was stubborn like that. I bet Lewis will be the same.

Schumacher, despite in later years growing to hate his dealings with the media, was very professional and always did what he had to do, always gave an answer. He found a coping mode, which got him through to the end of his career. He was extremely well advised by Sabine Kehm, a former F1 editor on the German equivalent of the Times.

Lewis has his Dad and the McLaren media department to help him, but no-one who’s done the Fleet Street nasty stuff and who is there to look after his interests alone. He’s lost out because of that, no question.

Lately he’s been trying the disrespectful grunt or monosyllabic answer, particularly to the Fleet Street tabloid contingent and it has got him no-where. They are a thick skinned lot, however, and he will be a big story as long as he stays in F1. I am sure Lewis will slot into ‘Schumacher media mode’ too, once he’s unplugged the leads and plugged them back in again, figuring out out who are the good guys and who are the bad.

To be reworking relationships across so many sectors at once seems to be taking a lot on. At least he has the mental space and time for that this year. He’s not under pressure for the title race. The car isn’t going to give him much this season, it will improve, but it’s one of those McLarens that doesn’t really work, so he’ll be ‘polishing a turd ‘ as racing folk have it, for the rest of the season.

Let’s hope the same cannot be said for his relationship rebuilding exercise.

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Ferrari F1 memorabilia including engines, a motorhome used between 2001 and 2005 and wind tunnel models are some of the items under the hammer at an auction due to take place at Ferrari HQ in Maranello this Sunday, 17th May. The event is called Leggenda e Passione.

The auction is likely to see a new record for a Ferrari as a 1957 250 Testa Rossa goes under the hammer. The record currently stands at £5.9 million.
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It’s an exciting time of year for car lovers to be in Italy. The classic Mille Miglia set off on 13th May and runs to the 17th, just in time for wealthy car fans fired up by a few days of driving the most beautiful roads and eating the best food Italy has to offer, to dive into Maranello and spend some money!

You’ve got to love the way Ferrari works it’s mythical status.

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Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton has today backed Brawn GP’s Jenson Button, the runaway championship leader, to finish the job off and take his title.

“I think Jenson’s got a great chance, a great shot at it so I wish him all the best,” he told Reuters’ Alan Baldwin today.

“I think if I were to wish anyone (else) to win, it would be him.”

It’s quite an exciting prospect for British F1 fans to have two consecutive world champions. This used to happen in the 1960s when British drivers dominated the F1 scene. In 1962 to 65, we had Graham Hill, Jim Clark then John Surtees, then Clark again. And a few years later Graham Hill won the 1968 title and Jackie Stewart won in 1969.

Ferrari’s Felipe Massa said to a group of us on Sunday that he believes it is impossible for him to catch Button now, with only 12 races to go and a 37 point gap. He would have to outscore Button at an average of 3 points a race to get in front and he doesn’t see that happening.

Hamilton also appeared to rule himself out of the equation,
“We’ll keep pushing to try and win races in the year but clearly defending the world championship is out of the question, ” he said.

And looking forward to next Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, it looks very much as though the track will suit Brawn, perhaps more than any track we have visited so far. The Brawn was easily the fastest car in sector three of the lap at Barcelona, which is all stop and start and traction out of slow corners. Button and Barrichello must start favourites there,

“I think it’s a great story, so I wish him all the luck,” said Hamilton. “They (Brawn) are going to have a great car there (in Monaco) so to beat them will be very tough.

“I don’t think he has ever won there … it will be a very special one for him to add to his list.”

Special doesn’t cover it. This is a fairytale season for the almost ‘forgotten man’ of F1. The championship beckons, but if he could win Monaco along the way…

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