Claustrophobe Alonso out to keep Ferrari at bay

By Nick Reeves PARIS, AFP

Fernando Alonso, as a claustrophobia sufferer, is most at ease with plenty of space around him and daylight is what he’s hoping to put between him and his F1 rivals as he goes in search of his third driver’s title.

Formula One’s youngest ever champion won his first two crowns with Renault but for the 2007 season he’s moved across to join British rookie Lewis Hamilton at McLaren.

And the 25-year-old Spaniard insists he’s all geared up to usher in the post-Michael Schumacher era with a triumphant first season driving for the British outfit.

Alonso takes over from Kimi Raikkonen, who has the not inconsiderable task of trying to fill the shoes of the newly departed Schumacher over at Ferrari.

The Finn links up Brazilian Felipe Massa, third in last year’s drivers’ championship.

Ferrari has suffered a double loss for as well as Schumacher they will be missing Ross Brawn, their astute technical director, who has quit Maranello to take a year’s sabbatical

While pre-season testing has gone well for the Italian stable Alonso remains bullish about his title claims.

Spelling out his hopes for the new season which gets underway in Melbourne on March 18, he had only one target in mind: “To win the championship!

“It’s for this reason that I switched to McLaren Mercedes. We both want to be world champions.”

Success for either Alonso or Hamilton would deliver up McLaren’s first drivers’ crown since Mikka Haikkonen won the second of his two championships in 1999.

Hamilton, Alonso’s junior by three years, is the first black driver to compete in F1.

The 2006 GP2 champion, whose parents emigrated to England from the Caribbean island of Grenada, owes his place in the McLaren team to a chance meeting with team boss Ron Dennis when he was nine.

“It’s a nice story,” he said of his long association with the outfit.

“I’ve been with the team for nine years now – loyalty has been the key. This is the end of one chapter of my life and the start of another.”

Raikkonen moves to Ferrari with doubts about his ability to perform voiced by former world champion Jacques Villeneuve who reckons Massa will emerge as the team’s leader.

The Canadian, whose seat at BMW Sauber is now occupied by Robert Kubica of Poland, told F1 magazine: “Kimi’s overrated as a driver package, because apart from jumping in a car and going fast, he really doesn’t care about the rest.”

“If there are no fireworks with Raikkonen and Ferrari then it’ll be fine, but only if Felipe manages to drive the team,” added Villeneuve.

Renault have gambled on signing up F1 newboy Heikki Kovalainen of Finland to replace Alonso as partner to experienced Giancarlo Fisichella.

The French car giant, which has enjoyed a clean sweep of the drivers and constructors’ titles in the past two seasons, reckons that Alonso’s leaving will act as a motivating force.

Managing director Flavio Briatore insisted: “Like every year, we start the season hoping to win … like Ferrari, like McLaren.

“And Alonso’s departure has motivated the troops. Renault will be battling for the podium at every Grand Prix.”

One team only too happy to consign the 2006 campaign to the pits was fallen F1 giants Williams, who in finishing eighth endured their worst season in almost three decades.

Team founder Frank Williams said: “Without question 2006 was not our finest year but I am delighted to see how the entire Williams workforce has pulled together and redoubled its efforts over the winter. It is how you perform in adversity that really counts.”

The two men they are hoping will steer them out of trouble are Austrian driver Alexander Wurz, in for Mark Webber who is now with Red Bull, and former champion Keke Rosberg’s son, Nico.

No F1 season would be the same without an outbreak of bitter political infighting and this year looks to be no exception with already a rift developing over chassis-sharing.

Both Williams and Spyker are ready to complain to the FIA over the Super Aguri and Toro Rosso teams for using chassis supplied by Honda and Red Bull respectively.

Writs allowing, the F1 caravan’s first port of call is Melbourne on March 18 with Interlagos in Brazil staging the traditional season closer on October 21.