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Malaysian Grand Prix: Fernando Alonso starts the mind games

Spaniard attempts to undermine Raikkonen as drivers' competitive streaks surface early

When it comes to playing mind games, Formula One drivers are tyros compared to Sir Alex Ferguson.

The Manchester United boss is the master of the offhand quote, the putdown, the knowing comment, all delivered in just the right way to get the point across while unsettling the opposition. That requires a greater level of cunning and intelligence than most drivers are capable of mustering, but mind games of a subtle nature are being played here in Malaysia as those who lost out in the opening race last weekend seek to put the best face on their defeat.

Ever since Kimi Raikkonen stunned rivals by needing only two tyre stops in Australia while his main rivals needed three, the latter have begun the “we could have done that” chorus, because to do anything else would be to admit that Raikkonen and Lotus were the better combination on the day.

Unsurprisingly, Fernando Alonso was the leading practitioner. “I think the pace of the Lotus was very good, but nothing that we could not do,” he said dismissively. “They had a very clean race, with no traffic and a very good strategy, but the pace was nothing out of reach.”

Alonso likes playing mind games. At Ferrari’s annual media skiing event in Madonna di Campiglio last year, he was asked who represented his most serious threat.  “Michael Schumacher,” he replied immediately.

Had it not been Alonso, everyone would have laughed. Schumacher was plainly past his best, and his Mercedes uncompetitive. And of course Alonso didn’t think for a minute the seven-time champion would be a threat. But saying that insulted the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Raikkonen and thus potentially destabilised them. He enjoys doing that. He played down Ferrari’s chances all season, continually deriding his car, yet stayed in play for the world championship right to the bitter end. He’s an awesome talent behind the wheel, but clearly the Ferrari cannot have been as bad as he liked to paint it.

At McLaren in 2007, he allegedly threatened to tell the FIA that he knew McLaren possessed some Ferrari intellectual property, unless Ron Dennis ran team-mate Hamilton out of fuel in the next day’s race and favoured his own chances of the title for the rest of the season.

But Alonso came unstuck a little yesterday when Ferrari engineer Pat Fry admitted: “It was quite obvious Kimi was going to be two-stopping. I don’t think we could have followed suit and competed on a two-stop, which is why we went for the aggressive three-stop. We weren’t brave enough to make the two-stop work. Kimi was.”

Vettel isn’t averse to the odd mind game, either, though he takes his lead from Red Bull themselves. Several times last year the FIA picked them up on technical things, such as engine mapping or the device that apparently, and in contravention of the rules, would facilitate a change in ride height. Every time such things go against the team, who have spent a great deal of money developing them, it’s a given that their removal would have no effect on performance. Which begs the question why they were developed in the first place.

Over a single lap, Red Bull have the fastest car this year, but it eats its tyres. Yet Vettel has been at pains to play down the shortcoming, and to play up his car’s speed. It’s all part of the game, between two drivers who don’t particularly care for each other after past run-ins.

Raikkonen doesn’t give a damn about such things. He just gets on with the job and to hell with what anyone else thinks. Neither Jenson Button nor Hamilton is bothered, either, but while Hamilton was being careful not to overplay expectations of Mercedes after winter testing, team-mate Nico Rosberg went out of his way to big up the team.

Yesterday Hamilton and Rosberg kept their powder dry, focusing on setting up their cars rather than seeking outright speed. As Button continued to struggle with his McLaren, they left that to Raikkonen, who pipped Vettel by a hair as Felipe Massa and Alonso chased them in their Ferraris.

Mercedes have denied that the cessation of Nick Fry’s role as CEO of their team will impact on their competitiveness. Fry, the former team principal of BAR, was inevitably going to have to stand down once Niki Lauda joined late last year and Toto Wolff moved over from Williams this year. Wolff takes over his duties as Fry takes a commercial consultancy role.

“We will work hard to retain our loyal partners while also attracting new names to the sport in the future,” Wolff said. “I’m pleased that Nick will remain close to the team to support us in achieving these targets.”