SUNDAY 26 MARCH, MELBOURNE, RACE
Promoted one place to 12th on the grid by Daniel Ricciardo’s pre-race woes, Alonso drives “probably the best race of my life” to run in tenth for most of the Australian GP, only for Esteban Ocon’s Force India and Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault to nally swamp him seven laps from home. He then pulls in with suspected oor damage. Vandoorne does make it to the nish – in 13th, the nal classied nisher and two laps down.
Alonso makes up a place at Hülkenberg’s expense at the start, then moves into the points from lap 14 when Romain Grosjean’s Haas expires. F1 Racing watches the race from the quick Turn 11/12 left-right ick, and during an afternoon in which most cars run in dull isolation, the orange McLaren and Ocon’s pink Force India are noticeable exceptions. Ocon is glued to Alonso’s tail all the way to lap 50. Okay, so it’s clearly tough to pass in this new generation of F1 car, especially on a narrow, bumpy, parkland track – but Fernando is faultless. With lap times that vary by only a few tenths, Ocon barely gets a sniff, until late in the race Hülkenberg closes on both.
Even the mighty Alonso has to cede in the end, although not without a nal ourish of resistance, and with tenth place gone he pulls in with that problem. A point has been lost, but in reality it has been made. Alonso has managed only the 17th fastest lap of the race, 3.5s off Kimi Räikkönen’s benchmark in a car he claims is 30km/h down on power on the straights – but he has carried it far higher than it deserves.
This is exactly why they love Alonso at McLaren – and why the team are desperate to keep him. What a performance that was in Albert Park. His best race ever? There are a fair few from happier days that would top it. The uncharitable might suggest talking up one’s own drive isn’t a bad idea when one wants to remind the market that one is ready and available for offers… but still, this was certainly special.
Buried in the mideld he might have been, but to anyone watching closely it was a performance that blazed in lights his deant warrior spirit. In the paddock he looks dead-eyed and bored, but there’s a well of latent fury below the surface – and he unlocks it in the best way possible once the helmet is on.
Back at that FIA press conference earlier in the week, Hamilton had paid a warm and unprompted tribute to the man beside him – the rival he respects far beyond any other. “We need this guy to have a good car so he can get up there and ght with us as well – before his time’s up,” said Lewis. “We got a hint that it’s another couple of years [away] at least, so that’s good. I feel we’re yet to see the best of Fernando. The sport needs that and he deserves to be able to show that.”
But can McLaren ever offer him what he needs to get back to where he once belonged? The answer to that question rides on Honda’s vital upgraded engine, coming soon at a race yet to be specied. This will represent the reaction Alonso is looking for – and if there’s not a marked improvement, ‘Mission: Impossible’ it will be.
Right now, it’s hard to believe Honda can make the leap. You sense the team know what they must do; whether it’s mid-season or at its end, it’s surely just a matter of time.