By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, like the keen cycling fan he is, has made the breakaway and now it is up to the rest of the Formula One pack to reel him in.
That will be no easy matter, even if his car is still not the fastest.
The Spaniard's stirring victory in his home European Grand Prix in Valencia on Sunday made him the first repeat winner in eight races of a thoroughly unpredictable season.
That success may have been against the odds, with Alonso starting 11th on the grid and Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel on pole and charging to victory before an alternator failure brought his car to a halt while leading.
Yet the double world champion has now surged 20 points clear of Red Bull's Mark Webber in second place, with McLaren's Lewis Hamilton a further three points behind.
Sunday was Alonso's 20th successive race in the points, a run stretching back to Valencia last June, and only two of those finishes have been out of the top five.
With seven different winners in the first seven races, consistency has been the name of the game and Alonso, repeatedly getting more out of the car than anyone would have thought possible, has been the master.
"This victory is very important because our main rivals in the championship had some problems. Reliability is a key factor this year and you need to score points every time," said Ferrari principal Stefano Domenicali.
Until Sunday the championship rivals had all been tightly bunched together with nobody managing to get more than seven points clear at the top since the first race of the year.
Briton Hamilton, who was left fuming after a collision with Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado's Williams pitched him into the wall and out of the race on the penultimate lap, arrived in Spain just two points clear of Alonso.
After last month's Monaco Grand Prix Alonso was three points clear of Vettel who had been level at the top with the Spaniard after the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.
Vettel, in turn, was four points clear at the top after the Bahrain race in April while Hamilton had a lead of two points after China and Alonso was five points ahead after Malaysia in March.
The Spaniard has now put clear distance between himself and the rest but there are many miles to cover and mountains to climb with more than half the season ahead.
It could take rivals several races to reduce the gap, however, even if they will be pointing at their own mechanical misfortunes to show how quickly the situation can change.
"Fernando's finished every race, he drove brilliantly...but he'll have a tough weekend at some point," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner whose advice to Vettel on Sunday was "keep your chin up, it's a long championship and it'll come back to you."
Ferrari also know Alonso's driving is flattering their car and they have to keep on improving it after a slow start to the season.
Vettel's dominance in practice and qualifying in Valencia, and the way in which he vanished into the distance at the start of the race, left no doubts about just how fast the Red Bull is.
The Lotus, too, was very quick in the sweltering conditions while McLaren continued to blow hot and cold.
"The car is at another level from what we were seeing at the beginning of the season but it is not yet the car that is the quickest," Domenicali told reporters.
"The Red Bull that I have seen this weekend is the quickest in terms of pure performance. In the race it was leading comfortably, the pace was very strong. That is something we need to look at."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)
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