By John O'Brien
SINGAPORE, Sept 21 (Reuters) - It was a case of 'business as usual' for Ferrari in Singapore on Saturday as the Italian team ended a disappointing two days of practice and qualifying well off the pace and hoping to make up ground with superior race strategy.
Fernando Alonso has done brilliantly to convert mediocre grid positions into podiums this season to lie second in the drivers' championship, 53 points adrift of Red Bull's triple world champion Sebastian Vettel.
However, with only seven races remaining and Vettel on pole for Sunday's night race, the Spaniard will be starting three rows back in seventh place and needing to pull another rabbit out of the hat to keep his title hopes alive.
"I think we were not competitive in any of the sessions this weekend unfortunately and we are struggling a little bit with the pace compared to our main competitors, but in a way it's nothing new from some other weekends," Alonso told reporters.
"In qualifying, we struggle a little bit and on Sunday, things are improving and at the end always getting close to the podium or on the podium.
"So we will try and do our good Sunday again and hopefully score many points and see where our main competitors finish the race."
Vettel is seeking a hat-trick of Singapore wins, and with the German comfortably quicker than all his rivals this weekend, it might be time for Ferrari to shift focus to next season's car and the arrival of Kimi Raikkonen as Felipe Massa's replacement.
Alonso, however, is refusing to throw in the towel just yet and believes there is a chance for the team to score good points with a strong strategy.
"It's not so clear after the long runs which tyre is the best for the race, how many stops are coming to the race, so I think the strategy is very open at the moment," he said optimistically.
"We need to concentrate step-by-step. The first is the start, the first corner and first lap and after that making the tyres stay alive for a little bit longer than our rivals and then we see.
"We must finish the race, score as many points as possible and then check what the others did."
Brazil's Massa seems to be showing few ill effects from the fact his eight-year stint with Ferrari will end this season, displaying a rare show of pace to qualify one place ahead of Alonso in sixth.
"I think it was a great qualifying. Yesterday I was struggling massively ... I didn't know how to drive the car, I didn't know where to go, the car was not working well," Massa said.
"We changed the car completely from yesterday to today and again for qualifying ... and actually managed to put together a great lap and I'm very happy for how I started the weekend and the qualifying I did."
Looking ahead to Sunday's race, Massa is expecting a long, hard battle under the floodlights on the 23-turn Marina Bay Street Circuit.
"The race will be very difficult tomorrow ... many things can happen," he added.
"You can have a safety car as well and very big degradation of the tyres, so anyway, I hope we can manage to put together a good race and the car can be better than in qualifying.
"I hope I can finish perfectly these seven races with Ferrari and finish well quite a long history I have with the team."
(Editing by Stephen Wood)