Shared Latin culture is what makes Fernando Alonso feel at home in the Ferrari team but, as he attempts to secure his third world championship in Brazil this weekend, the Spaniard has been assiduously maintaining the outward serenity with which he has risen from virtually nowhere in mid-season to an 11-point lead over his nearest challenger, Mark Webber, with two rounds of the title race to go.
While a tense Webber was revealing the internal divisions that have hampered the Red Bull team's ability to capitalise on their performance advantage, Alonso was telling a journalist that his only recent outburst of high emotion came on Wednesday night, when he watched the referee at San Siro failing to notice that Milan's Filippo Inzaghi had scored against the Spaniard's beloved Real Madrid from an offside position. Beneath Alonso's display of equanimity, however, lies a nagging anxiety.
For more than six decades the heart of every Ferrari has been its engine - the only bit of the car that the company's founder, old Enzo Ferrari, really cared about. And Alonso's fate this weekend may be decided by the success of a critical transplant operation.
Alonso will recapture the title on Sunday if he finishes the Brazilian grand prix having extended the gap to 25 points or more over his nearest pursuer, enabling him to go to the final race of the season, in Abu Dhabi tomorrow week, already assured of the championship. But he has already made use of every one of the eight engines permitted to each competitor during the course of a year.
In the last minute of the first practice session today Alonso coasted to a silent halt on a grass verge around the back of the circuit when his engine died. Ferrari had already announced that a change of power plant would be made between the morning and afternoon sessions but the failure did nothing to silence speculation that the limited number of effective engines available to Alonso may form the most serious threat to his late run for the championship, in which he has won three of the last four grands prix.
The maximum useful life of a Formula One engine is about 2,000km but power losses start to occur after the distance of a single race - just over 300km. In the old free-spending days Ferrari's mechanics would have fitted a brand-new unit for every race and every qualifying session but now the engineers are having to shuffle through their restricted stock of power plants in order to find those that suffered the least amount of wear earlier in the season.
"Engines are OK for us so far," Alonso said after arriving here this week. But it was as early as the fourth race of the season, in Shanghai, that Ferrari adopted a new strategy after he suffered a failure for the second meeting in a row.
"We had some difficulties early in the year," Chris Dyer, the team's Australian chief track engineer, said today, "and after China we sat down and made a plan for how we would manage the rest of the year. Since then things have gone absolutely to that plan." To run out of effective engines altogether would mean bringing in a ninth engine and incurring a 10-place grid penalty.
"Everybody plays the game of juggling the eight engines," Dyer said, "making decisions about where it's sensible to use the fresh engines, based on the circuit characteristics." Luckily for Alonso, Interlagos and Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina are not circuits that make ultimate demands on sheer horsepower. "They're not the easiest on the engines," Dyer said, "but they're not the hardest either."
In eight appearances at this demanding circuit, Alonso has compiled two second places and three thirds. He partially deflected suggestions that a third championship would be sullied by the extra seven points gained when Felipe Massa was ordered to hand him a controversial victory at Hockenheim in July by expressing the hope that his teammate - victorious at his home circuit in 2006 and 2008 - would win both this season's remaining races.
"Felipe is normally very strong here," he said. "And the best thing for us, and even for me in championship numbers, would be to have him winning the race." A win for Massa would deprive Alonso's rivals of the chance to score a maximum 25 points, significantly reducing their chances of closing the gap to the Ferrari leader.
Graphic : How the drivers match up in Brazil.