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The good, the bad and the ugly: Fernando Alonso’s incredible F1 career and why he is one of the all-time best drivers

2018-08-19 10:00

Egmont Sippel

Image: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP

Let’s get this out of the way: In motor motorsport, Fernando Alonso Diaz is one of the all-time greats. Forget about Formula 1. Look at the bigger picture, including IndyCar and sports car racing.

The Spaniard from Oviedo, Asturias – who turned 37 just more than two weeks ago – is a two times F1 world champion and a Le Mans winner. In his one and only IndyCar race thus far he came within a couple of laps of winning the Indianapolis 500 first time out.

That elusive triple crown

The list of rookie winners at the Brickyard is not even 10 strong, and only four of those have registered since 1928, whilst three of those four drivers have competed in oval car racing prior to Brickyard debuts.

READ: 'Happy' Alonso leads Le Mans as Triple Crown bid continues

Graham Hill was the exception. The Brit’s inaugural Indy 500 was also his first outing in an oval track racer. Two years ago, Alonso nearly emulated Hill in this respect and he has since matched the latter’s record at Le Mans by winning for Toyota earlier this year.

In his pursuit of the Triple Crown, Alonso is thus one leg short. He has won at Monaco in F1, he’s bagged Le Mans and he now needs the Indy 500 on his résumé to become only the second driver in history to win the Triple.

That’s one reason why he’s off to compete in America’s premier single-seater formula full-time, starting in early March 2019 – which means that Alonso won’t compete in F1 next year. He won’t be hopping from series to series or from car to car, no sir. Is Fernando done with F1 then, for good?

Not wanted

Time will tell. He has left the door open to return to McLaren – or even another team – if a competitive seat becomes available in the future. For the time being, that’s not the case. McLaren is in the doldrums with little hope of a quick fix, whilst the top six seats in F1 have all been filled.

Or wait. Hasn’t Daniel Ricciardo just announced that he’ll leave Red Bull for Renault at the end of 2018? Yep. He has. So was this not Alonso’s big chance to secure a top F1 seat?

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Indeed. Except that Red Bull won’t have him, just like Mercedes were not interested in Alonso at the end of 2016 when Nico Rosberg unexpectedly announced his retirement to vacate the most sought-after seat in F1.

Which leaves us with the question: Why didn’t Mercedes and Red Bull jump at the chance to sign Alonso, at the top of his game, even after all these years, and universally acknowledged as one of the three best drivers in the world?

Records

Alonso started karting at the age of three. From the age of thirteen, he won three successive karting championships and he became world karting champion in 1996.

Five years later, he sat in a Minardi F1 car in Australia and made a huge enough impression to be secured as Renault’s 2002 test driver, a team to which he migrated full-time in 2003.

His first F1 win was scored in emphatic style later that year when he decimated the field in Hungary, in the process lapping F1 legend, Michael Schumacher. In 2003, Alonso also became the youngest pole sitter ever, a record that has since been broken by Sebastian Vettel.

In 2005 – at 24 years and two months of age – Alonso became the sport’s youngest champion yet (a record that has since been broken, first by Hamilton and then by Vettel) and in 2006 Alonso became the youngest double world champion (a status that has yet again been usurped by Vettel).

                                                                           Image: Twitter

At the time, Alonso was well placed to also beat Ayrton Senna’s record as the youngest triple world champion. Senna achieved the feat in 1991 just more than two months short of his 32nd birthday. Alonso was just more than 25 years old when he became a double champion.

He had plenty of time left to smash Senna’s record. In fact, Alonso had plenty of time left to smash all kinds of F1 records. If he could end up in the right car, he even had a very realistic shot at Schumacher’s seven world titles.

Alonso at Renault: the good

As things turned out, Alonso has not won a title since 2006. The right car never turned up. The question is: Why not? When the Spaniard joined Renault in 2002 as a test driver, the team was on the up.

Few people, especially in modern times, realize this but for a very long time Renault has had a far better record in F1 than Mercedes-Benz, or for a given period even Ferrari.

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In the two decades since 1992, up to and including 2013, Renault powered cars won 12 constructor’s titles to the 8 by Ferrari. Engine guru Jean-Jacques His was at the top his game and in typically French style Renault continually defied common logic by exploring new concepts like prioritizing traction over sheer power, etcetera.

It was in the company’s DNA, in any case, to be at the forefront of F1 thinking, having pioneered turbo-charging in 1977, pneumatic valve actuation in 1986 and a new breed of an engine, the V10, at the end of the 1980’s.

                                                                           Image: Twitter

It was into this milieu that Alonso stepped, first as a tester for Renault in 2002, and then as lead driver in 2003. He immediately made his mark, winning races and titles with a consummately professional but tenaciously relentless approach.

Alonso was never the out-and-out fastest qualifier, something he will admit to himself. In fact, he rates his strengths to be spread over the necessary spectrum: 9/10 for speed, 9/10 for guts, 9/10 for race craft, 9/10 for determination, 9/10 for the fight, etcetera.

He’s selling himself short, of course. He is 10/10 by almost any metric, although he might be 9/10 for qualifying speed and wet weather driving.

He lost his McLaren big time on a wet Fuji, in Japan in 2007, and crashed out of the race when even two points for seventh would have secured the world title, what with Alonso finishing equal to rookie teammate Hamilton on 109 points, versus Raikkonen’s 110.

That would have been the coveted third title at the age of 25. Instead, the fracas with Hamilton and McLaren drove Alonso out of the team and back to Renault, where a downhill spiral was well and truly in effect.

Alonso and McLaren, Phase 1

Alonso’s first spell at Renault already cemented his everlasting reputation as a severe competitor and a phenomenal race car driver.  Those were the golden years when he dethroned Michael Schumacher as champion and asserted himself as the pre-eminent driver of his generation.

Yet, the seeds for Alonso’s long-term demise had been sewn – by himself – on the day that he was first crowned world champion, in Brazil, in 2005.

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In a chance conversation between Alonso and McLaren chief Ron Dennis prior to the podium ceremony, Alonso revealed to Dennis that he would be interested in joining his team for 2007.

Forever the voracious political animal, Alonso had taken note of the fact that he was only third in his title-winning race, with McLaren having scored their first 1-2 in five years. Powered by Mercedes engines, Alonso could see which way the wind was blowing.

                                                                    Image: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP

He duly won the 2006 championship with Renault, notwithstanding the FIA’s best efforts to gift Schumacher a last title by ridiculously starting to penalize Renault left, right and centre (like a grid penalty for Alonso in Italy and banning the team’s effective mass damper system, out of the blue, as an aero device!). Yet, Alonso saw it through and prepared himself for an extension of his golden years, at McLaren. 

Alonso and Hamilton

The only problem was a young prodigy called Hamilton, who happened to have been in the McLaren fold since the age of 13.

At the age of 22, the Brit slipped into the team’s second cockpit and announced himself from the word go, firstly by crashing the car quite heavily in pre-season testing, but secondly by being supernaturally fast for a rookie.

                                                               Image: AFP / Andrej Isakovic

Hamilton duly qualified less than 3/10ths slower than Alonso in his debut race in Australia 2007 and ran ahead of his illustrious teammate until the second round of pit stops, even leading for a lap or two when Raikkonen pitted for fresh rubber.

A week later in Malaysia, Hamilton – running second to Alonso, who won – at one point radioed to his engineers that he’s got the hang of F1 now and that it was “time to go one better, next time out”.

It was game on and Alonso didn’t like it one little bit, especially when a garage gantry broke loose and fell on his car on the first day of the Bahrain GP weekend.

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Hamilton subsequently out-qualified the Spaniard in only his third race and irritation on Alonso’s part started to make way for paranoia, with tensions building quickly throughout the race weekend in Spain – where Alonso had a disappointing outing in front of his home crowd – and then in Monaco, where Fernando took pole and won from his teammate. All good then?

No. Because rookie Hamilton bitterly complained about McLaren ordering him to back off and not to attack Alonso around the streets of the Principality.War was brewing between the McLaren teammates. 

Hungary 2007: the ugly

In terms of speed, Hamilton proved to be a match for Alonso. McLaren, therefore, refused to give Alonso what he had expected in terms of prioritized team status.

The mental and psychological warfare eventually reached an apotheosis in Hungary. We’re not going to run through the whole ugly episode again, save to say that Hamilton was actually at fault, and that interested readers are hereby referred to an article by the same author as today’s piece, which explains the ins and outs of a calamitous weekend in the life of Fernando Alonso.

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The result of the Hungarian fracas was that Alonso got penalized by five grid places, which naturally cost him the race (Lewis won, Fernando, finished fourth) and the title and – eventually – much more.

In the aftermath of the qualifying disaster, Ron Dennis was extremely angry at Hamilton for breaking team protocol. Yet, he was powerless to change anything. Alonso, therefore, used the incident to demand a directive from Dennis, to officially make him the team’s number one driver.

To persuade Dennis to act, Alonso threatened to expose McLaren’s possession of Ferrari documents and data that were illegally obtained. Dennis called Alonso’s bluff and phoned the FIA himself.

Thus followed McLaren-gate, for which the team got fined $100 million. After Hungary 2007, there was clearly no way forward for Alonso at McLaren and the Spaniard took refuge with an old friend, Renault.

                                                                      Image: John Raoux/AP

Yet, even there he ran into controversy when teammate Nelson Piquet Jnr. deliberately crashed into a wall just after Alonso had made an early pit stop in the Singapore GP 2008, only for the Spaniard to assume the lead when the rest of the field pitted under the safety car.

There was nothing in any of this to suggest that Alonso knew of team manager Flavio Briatore’s devilish plan to engineer a Renault victory.

But coupled to the stench of the Hungarian fall-out, a perception had taken root that Alonso was a ruthless Machiavellian operator, not averse to advance his own cause by any possible means, even if to the detriment of his own team. That was the ugly part of Alonso’s career and, some would say, his personality.

Alonso at Ferrari: the bad, Part 1

Normally we’d talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. In Alonso’s case, his career path was rather the good, the ugly and the bad.

Renault Phase 1 was good, the year at McLaren was ugly, Renault Phase 2 was nondescript (apart from the diabolical Piquet incident) and 2010 was supposed to be the resumption of title-winning ways, when Alonso lowered himself into the cockpit of a Maranellian mount in Australia and proceeded to outqualify teammate Massa – who had been a proper match for Raikkonen in the preceding years – by a full 7/10ths of a second.

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OK, Massa had that terrible mishap in Hungary in 2009 which nearly blinded him. But it’s true to say that Fernando properly destroyed Felipe over the next three years – yet not as thoroughly as he had destroyed Raikkonen in 2014, before packing his bags for McLaren in 2015.

Why the latter? It’s easy, in hindsight, to say that Alonso made bad career choices. He left Renault as a champion and joined McLaren where he would have been champion, if not for the grid demotion in Hungary or the aquaplaning in Japan; a good choice, then, that worked out badly.

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Leaving McLaren and waiting for a Ferrari contract that was in the making – Ferrari even paid Raikkonen a salary, just to leave, so that they could have Alonso – the Spaniard had to tread water and he did it with Renault; not necessarily an ill-considered decision.

At Ferrari, he was denied a title in his first year (2010) when the team entered the last race (in Abu Dhabi) completely focussed on Red Bull’s Mark Webber, who was Alonso’s closest title competitor.

Webbo trailed the Spaniard by only 8 points, versus Vettel’s 15. So when the Aussie pitted early, Ferrari did likewise with Alonso, who then got stuck behind Vitaly Petrov’s Renault for the rest of the race, finishing 7th when he only needed 4th to beat Vettel to the crown.

                                                                                    Image: Twitter

A bad career choice? No. But a terrible faux pas by Ferrari. More heartache was to follow in the rest of Alonso’s red car tenure. In 2012 he missed the title by three points, in 2013 he was runner-up again and in 2014 the Spaniard’s efforts tallied less than half of Hamilton’s champion winning total of 384 points.

Tellingly, Alonso also managed to score almost three times what teammate Raikkonen could. The Spaniard had been driving his socks off, destroying a world champion on the other side of the garage, and he still had nothing to show for it. It was time to go.

Alonso and McLaren Phase 2: the bad turning ugly

Yet, where to? Mercedes didn’t have a seat, Red Bull/Renault’s hybrid technology was not up to speed and Williams blew hot and cold. And then Honda announced their return to F1, with McLaren.

Remembering the halcyon days of Senna and Prost ruling like two Japanese emperors, and remembering that Honda was on the verge of notching up another world title when the team sold out to Ross Brawn at the end of 2008, Alonso put his eggs into the McLaren basket again.

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Time does not always heal, but time does adapt. Alonso and Ron Dennis reunited in what seemed to be a bold move for the driver, the team and the engine supplier.

Disaster followed. Honda just couldn’t get to grips with the demands of modern F1 hybrid technology. So slow, and so unreliable was the engine – and, in hindsight, the McLaren chassis as well – that Alonso felt compelled to explore other forms of racing in between his F1 schedule, like the Indy 500 last year and Le Mans this year.

That McLaren agreed to let him do this speaks volumes about the team’s view of its own competitive state. A switch to Renault power this year did nothing to improve the situation. It was time once more, for Alonso, to go. But, yet again: where to?

Alonso remembered

Mercedes blocked him at the end of 2016 and Red Bull did it again now. Fernando, in the words of Christian Horner, has “tended to cause a bit of chaos wherever he’s gone”.

That’s not quite true. Engineer Andrea Stella says that Alonso was extremely well-loved at Ferrari before the 2014 fall-out. What they really appreciated was how relaxed he was and how infinitely clever, easily on the level of any of the engineers, both traits also having been praised by Renault’s Pat Symonds, back in the day.

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The other Alonso strength that everyone always marvelled at was his utter consistency. Alonso was always on top of his game and on top of the car, no matter what.

Yet, in the end, he’d be remembered as much for his talent, skill, commitment, passion, consistency and intelligence as for his part in the McLaren scandals of 2007 and the reputation that emerged from that, namely as a troublemaker and as a driver who perpetually seemed to end up in the wrong car at the wrong moment. Me?

                                                                    Image: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP

I’ll remember El Matador for the warrior that he was and for the indistinguishable thirst and passion he has for racing. It has shone through on every single lap that the Spaniard has ever spent behind the wheel of a racing car.

He had his good moments, yes. And the bad ones. Plus the ugly ones. But Fernando Alonso is personally a little bit less responsible for the latter – the bad and the ugly moments – than what people seem to think, whilst El Matador has provided more of the golden ones that people seem to remember.

Go in peace, Fernando. You are a true great of the sport.

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