Fernando Alonso heads back to his native Spain this weekend determined to win the Spanish Grand Prix for the first time and extend his lead in the drivers’ world championship.
Alonso (24) leads the race for this year’s drivers’ crown after winning twice and finishing on the podium in every one of the five races so far.
But he has seen his lead cut from 17 points to 13 over the last two Grands Prix as Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher has taken back-to-back wins at Imola and the Nurburgring.
Renault driver Alonso has targeted an emotional home win in front of a sell-out crowd of 13 000 fans as one of his main aims for the 2006 season — after he was beaten to victory by McLaren’s Finn Kimi Raikkonen (26) in last year’s race.
Alonso said: ”Last year I think it was not quite so important for me [to win here] because I was so focused on the championship and just wanted to win races, it didn’t matter which ones.
”This season it is a bit different. Of course, I am fighting really hard for the title. But now, it is true that if I have to pick two or three races in the year I want to win, then Barcelona is definitely one of them.”
After finishing second behind the Ferrari of Schumacher (37) in Sunday’s European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, Alonso admitted that Renault struggled to match the pace of the Italian team at the German circuit.
But he thinks that the 65-lap race at the Circuit de Catalunya — set in the hills above Barcelona — will be a different matter.
The ten-time Grand Prix winner believes Renault will have a significant advantage over Ferrari due to the amount of testing they and their French tyre supplier, Michelin, have done at the circuit compared with Ferrari and their Japanese rubber manufacturer, Bridgestone.
Alonso added: ”I think we are always good there 9at Barcelona]. It is an aero-circuit, which is good for Renault, and the team was on the podium every time in the last three years.
”We saw in Germany that the car is competitive, but Ferrari were a little bit stronger. The next races in Barcelona and Monaco will be dominated by tyres, I think, and in the past years they were both Michelin circuits. I think there are some good opportunities coming up for us.”
But Renault’s engineering chief Pat Symonds is more worried about the threat from Ferrari and Schumacher.
Englishman Symonds, who was Schumacher’s race engineer at Benetton when the German won two world titles, thinks the Scuderia’s pace over the last two races could be a sign of things to come.
Symonds said: ”They [Ferrari] were definitely quicker than us at the Nurburgring — the race at the second pit-stop saw Michael respond to everything we had and some more.
”It’s hard to say where exactly their pace is coming from, but I think their Bridgestone tyres are certainly a factor. It will vary from race to race, though, and we will see who is faster where.”
And German Schumacher himself is keen to close the gap on Alonso still further by taking his sixth win at the Barcelona track — where overtaking is notoriously difficult due to the succession of high-speed corners.
The seven-times world drivers’ champion praised the developments the Ferrari team have made over the last month and believes that has been the sole reason for their recent resurgence.
Schumacher said: ”We gained a lot of new insight over the course of the last few weeks, our car has a lot of potential and we now understand how to make the most of it.
”I’m sure that I will have some major say in the outcome of the championship.
”It was good to have a win in Imola and then at the European Grand Prix, and I think they [Renault] should not be surprised to see us at the front at every circuit from now on.” — AFP