Fernando Alonso on frustration at Ferrari, Vettel and the future
The question touches a raw nerve, but Fernando Alonso does not flinch. Does it hurt to be regarded as a great racing driver but not to be able to convert that standing into more than his two titles?
"A little bit, yes," the Ferrari team leader says. "I still believe that I have many years in front of me to recover some of the championships that I could have won probably, like 2010 and 2012. They are clearly examples.
"Inside, I am still thinking that when I retire I will have more than two. I don't know how many, but I will have more than two.
"If I cannot achieve that it will be a shame, it will be sad, because I had so many opportunities - but at the moment I am thinking we will have more opportunities and the next ones we will not lose any more."
Alonso looks tired and a little pale as he talks in the Ferrari building in the paddock at the United States Grand Prix for a BBC interview that will be broadcast before Sunday's Brazilian race.
The 32-year-old Spaniard is famous for being Formula 1's most relentless and determined competitor, but in the circumstances his careworn appearance is understandable.
For one thing, Alonso is still recovering from a nasty incident in the previous race in Abu Dhabi, when a 150mph trip over the kerbs avoiding Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne jarred his back and left him with a week of bad headaches and, as he puts it, "difficult nights".
For another, a long F1 season is inching to its conclusion, a year that promised so much for Ferrari only for their challenge to collapse again, swept aside by the juggernaut of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel.
Appropriately for a man who is fascinated by Far Eastern philosophy, Alonso is almost Zen-like in his stillness throughout the 15-minute interview with Lee McKenzie.
Sitting back in a plastic chair behind a table, only his right hand moves - occasionally to touch his face, at other times to gently stroke the table with a thumb.
Alonso has long been one of F1's better interviewees, but today he is in a particularly frank mood, and the tranquillity of his presence emphasises the power of his words.
He knows full well that, but for a couple of agonising twists of fate, it would be him with four world titles and Vettel on 'only' two, rather than the other way around.
Instead, it is Vettel who has this year entered an exclusive club of four-time champions, alongside only Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost. Does Alonso himself consider the Red Bull driver as a great driver to rank alongside such names?
"Time will tell us," he says. "There are many years [to go in his career].
"He is 26 years old, so when he will have a car like the others, if he wins, he will have a great recognition and be one of the legends in F1. When one day he has a car like the others and he is fourth, fifth, seventh, these four titles will be bad news for him because people will take these four titles even in a worse manner than they are doing now.
"So there are interesting times for Sebastian coming."
The barb - that Vettel has been able to dominate only because his car is on another level from the rest - is implied, but unmistakable.
Alonso is regarded by many - including several rivals - as the greatest active driver in F1. Yet he won the second of his world titles way back in 2006, and this is the third time in four years he has been Vettel's closest challenger only to lose out in the end. He has not troubled to hide that it has been difficult for him to go through it again.
"There has," he admits, "been a lot of frustration in the [Ferrari] team, no doubt. We were hoping every year to do well and to fight for the World Championship.
"When Red Bull dominate the sport one year it is OK. They have great aerodynamics; they have a great team.
"When it happens two years, frustration grows a little bit, [but] it can be because of the blowing exhaust or the double diffuser or something like that. When it is happening constantly every year there are more frustrations and the atmosphere in all the other teams is getting a little worse and a little more in a sad mood, let's say.
"So it is up to us; we cannot let things go down for us. It is time to deliver even more. It is time to work even harder. And we try to motivate each other.
"But from outside it is normal that we receive only bad news and bad questions. Because we are Ferrari, we should deliver, win races, compete with the best. We are not doing so, so the bad questions or sad feeling from the outside and from our fans are understandable."
The frustration peaked in the summer, when the reality of Red Bull's performance and Ferrari's own inability to progress was first dawning.
Red Bull sources told this and other media organisations that Alonso's management had approached them offering his services for 2014. The information sent the F1 rumour mill into overdrive and led to problems at Ferrari.
When a TV crew asked Alonso after the Hungarian Grand Prix what he would like for his birthday, he replied: "Someone else's car." The next day Ferrari revealed on their website that their president Luca Di Montezemolo had phoned Alonso to wish him happy birthday, but also to "tweak his ear" and remind him of his responsibilities.
Now - as then - Alonso insists there was no approach to Red Bull.
"No, no, nothing at all, it was only rumours," he says, adding: "This year there have been more rumours than any other year, not only for me, but about [Nico] Hulkenberg, about Kimi [Raikkonen]. At the beginning of the year with Multi 21 [when Vettel ignored team orders not to overtake Mark Webber in Malaysia], there were a lot of things going on for two or three races even inside Red Bull.
"It has been a strange season, but from my side, zero, zero talks with anyone."
Why not, he is asked, given Ferrari's struggles to prepare a car worthy of his talent?
"Well," he says, "first of all because I have a contract [until 2016], which I need to respect and am happy to respect. Second because I trust Ferrari can do a good job and I trust that every year.
"It is true that for four years we did not have that possibility but for next year there are big changes in the rules. No-one in the paddock can point at one team and say they can dominate next year, so it is a random choice you could make if you move teams.
"I think I am in the best team to win next year and we will try to do so."
He is less sanguine when discussing tyres.
Alonso has been highly critical of Pirelli this season. That's not only because the fragility of the original 2013 tyres forced a reversion to last year's design, which favoured Red Bull, but also because the tyres are still not durable enough to allow drivers to race hard throughout a grand prix, one of Alonso's biggest strengths.
"The tyres were not good enough this year and this is the truth," he says. "It is strange to see Pirelli sometimes blaming me or Mark [Webber] or something. It is just because they were too nervous.
"The situation was out of control probably and they tried to mask a little bit the problem but, you know, we saw so many tyre failures that are not good for the sport and the fans, and are dangerous for drivers.
"We want one tyre that can last a race and can make a good show and this should not be too difficult when all the tyres are the same for everyone."
Now, with second in the drivers' championship secured and just Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix to go, Alonso admits he is "counting the days" to the end of the season.
Although many predict fireworks when another former world champion Raikkonen joins Ferrari from Lotus next year, Alonso dismisses that notion, saying "we have the experience to deal with the problems if they come" and adding that he expects there to be a "performance advantage" for both as they "push each other to the limit".
More important for Alonso is the chance to recharge his batteries and start again, hoping it will be eighth time lucky for him to win that elusive third title.
"We [already] want [it] to be Sunday night in Brazil, packing everything, go back to Maranello, put this in one side of the factory, close off for a little while and completely focus all the efforts and motivations on 2014.
"We have new engineers, new designers coming from other teams, big names like [new technical director] James Allison and other key people from Formula 1, and we need to deliver. It is time to deliver and next year everyone in the factory feels it is time to do it."
How much it will hurt if Ferrari fall short again is left unsaid.