F1 favourites Ferrari spurred on by Alonso

Spurred on by the enthusiastic arrival of Fernando Alonso and a disastrous 2009, Ferrari will head into the Formula One season as the championship favorite with a bit of a chip on its shoulder.

Last year, the Italian team had its worst run of results since 1993, finishing fourth in the constructors' standings after only one victory. Also, Felipe Massa missed the second half of the season because of a near-death crash in Hungary.

Despite the doom and gloom, Ferrari has rallied behind the signing of two-time champion Alonso, who, after three straight difficult seasons, has been re-energized by what he has described as "the best car I've ever driven."

"It's unbelievable the feeling here, the passion of everybody," Alonso said last month in Valencia, where a record 36,400 spectators came out to see his first spin in the iconic red car.

Alonso replaced Kimi Raikkonen, whose stand-off personality never enamored itself to the Tifosi even if the Finnish driver beat both Alonso and McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton to the 2007 title by one point.

Alonso will finally get the chance to duel with Hamilton in a worthy car, while Massa, Michael Schumacher, defending champion Jenson Button and Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel are all expected to be in the fold.

"He's definitely one of the best," former Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello said. "And when you first start at Ferrari it's a dream team with all they can offer you — not only the car but what they offer you outside, too. With that he's living a good moment, so I tip him and Massa (for the title)."

Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo is expecting a lot from his two drivers after a team usually marked by excellence faltered.

"I haven't forgotten the humiliation of the Abu Dhabi weekend," Di Montezemolo said in front of Alonso, Massa and 400 Ferrari employees. "But now we know that our efforts paid off, because we can look at the start of the season knowing that we have a reliable car and we're ready to tackle our competitors."

Last season was a catastrophe by Ferrari's high standards.

Ferrari focused on 2010 earlier than usual since it was already out of the title fight by April's Spanish Grand Prix, while Massa replacement Luca Badoer placed last in the two GPs he raced before Giancarlo Fisichella was signed, with Fisichella remaining this season as a reserve driver.

Ferrari wrapped up the preseason with more test time than any other team and the fewest reliability problems.

"What we could see, and considering all the unknown factors in the testing, I think that we've shown that we can be competitive and are part of the top group in terms of pure performance," Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said.

Last season was also a write-off for Alonso.

The Spanish driver managed only one top-three finish with Renault, who guided him to back-to-back titles in 2005-06. Those championships spurred his move to McLaren, where promising rookie Hamilton proved to be the biggest obstacle to a third straight title as the British driver was favored despite his inexperience.

"That helped me become a better driver," Alonso said of his year at McLaren. "I've arrived with more maturity because of those experiences. I'm more relaxed, more at peace. I'm ready for any challenge."

Massa cannot afford any mistakes following his early exit last season after a freak accident in Budapest led to skull surgery and the lengthy layoff. Raikkonen later picked up the team's sole win in Belgium.

"I've never had problems with teammates in the past or present so I'm 100 percent sure that I will never have a problem with Fernando — we work well together and that's important," the Brazilian said, although in a very defensive tone. "We're working very well in the right direction."