SINGAPORE, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Fernando Alonso was cautiously optimistic he could collect a rare podium after his stuttering Ferrari surprised him with its competitiveness in qualifying at the Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday.
The twice Formula One world champion will start Sunday’s race in fifth after he followed up his promising practice form by finishing qualifying just 0.226 seconds behind pole sitter and former team mate Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes.
The Spaniard, who went quickest in first and third practice at the Marina Bay Street Circuit, has had a tough year and sits fifth in the drivers championship after only collecting two podiums places.
But the strong showing under the lights on the long and winding track where he won in 2008 and 2010 allowed him to entertain talk about taking the chequered flag for a third time on Sunday.
“I think a podium is closer than ever, the level of competitiveness is quite good this weekend,” the 33-year-old told reporters as the rain poured after the qualifying session finished.
“We are competitive and we start in the top five so why not think of the podium but victory I think is very optimistic but we will see. It is a circuit that is very demanding on the mechanical side, so we sill see how many cars can finish the race.”
Alonso has cut a frustrated figure at Ferrari as the Italian team, the most successful in the sport, has endured a difficult year in which their long-time chairman Luca Di Montezemolo followed team principal Stefano Domenicali in stepping down.
The Spaniard thought the lengthy, 23-turn high downforce, track had a big part to play in the improved display but was still taken aback at how close he could get to the flying Mercedes pair of Hamilton and championship leader Nico Rosberg.
“It was a surprise for us to be honest. Two tenths from pole position is something that we could not imagine probably yesterday,” he said.
“In free practice we are normally competitive but then in quali we lose ground but it didn’t happen here in quali we still competitive also, so good news.
“Reason, not clear, probably the track characteristics probably suit our car. We know the power effect is a bit low here.”
Alonso, who predicted the race would hit the two-hour maximum time limit rather than go the 61 laps, said his car had required hardly any tinkering this weekend.
“I felt confident in the car from lap one. Lap one in P1 I was first and I keep first in P1 so definitely (and) its a circuit I normally feel confident here also.
“I think we did one minor set-up change in the car so my car was quite good from the first lap which also helps the driver to keep doing laps with similar characteristics and performance so lots of things — on top of those the power affect — help us.”
The same could not be said for his team mate Kimi Raikkonen, who was hampered by a problem with his Ferrari in the final round of qualifying as he clocked the seventh best time, almost half a second slower than Hamilton.
“Struggling a bit with the car. Obviously unfortunately we had a problem,” the Finn said. “I think it was some electronic things.” (Editing by Ed Osmond)