DID F1 FAIL FER­NANDO ALONSO?

Few would dis­pute that Fer­nando Alonso is an all-time F1 great, yet he’s also one of the most di­vi­sive char­ac­ters ever to have raced. So as he pre­pares to turn his back on the sport (for now), should he be blamed for the fail­ure to achieve the level of th

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - PIC­TURES WORDS AN­DREW BEN­SON

Af­ter all these years, even though he hasn’t driven a front-run­ning car for some time, Fer­nando Alonso re­mains at the epi­cen­tre of For­mula 1. Not just as a gold stan­dard, and one of only two driv­ers by which all the oth­ers are judged, but also as the sport’s most charis­matic and fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter – not­with­stand­ing Lewis Hamil­ton’s celebrity friends and greater so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing.

Yet in a few races, Alonso will be gone.

Why? Be­cause he can’t get into a com­pet­i­tive car. The same ques­tion again: why? It’s not be­cause of his age, and there is no sug­ges­tion that he is past his prime. Alonso turned

37 in July, but as Mclaren CEO, Zak Brown, puts it: “his com­pet­i­tive­ness is undimmed.”

De­spite the dif­fi­cul­ties a racer of his cal­i­bre, ex­pe­ri­ence and stand­ing must have in mo­ti­vat­ing him­self to drive a car that might just, on a good day, qual­ify and fin­ish in the top ten, Alonso says he is mov­ing on be­cause he has “big­ger chal­lenges” in the fu­ture than those For­mula 1 can of­fer him. He hasn’t spelled them out, but

HE WANTS TO RACE SOME­WHERE HE CAN WIN

it’s very ob­vi­ous what he means. He wants to race some­where he can win.

Over 2018, this has meant the World En­durance Cham­pi­onship with Toy­ota, which he is lead­ing and in which he won Le Mans. He’s al­ready won the Monaco Grand Prix twice (in 2006 and 2007), which leaves just the In­di­anapo­lis 500 if he wants to join Gra­ham Hill as the only win­ner of mo­tor­sport’s un­of­fi­cial ‘triple crown’. And go­ing af­ter that is ex­actly what Alonso is ex­pected to do in 2019.

Alonso, who an­nounced in mid-au­gust that he would re­tire from For­mula 1 at the end of the sea­son, has not ruled out a pos­si­ble re­turn. He said: “I know Mclaren will come back stronger and bet­ter in the fu­ture and it could be the right mo­ment for me to be back in the se­ries. That would make me re­ally happy.”

Re­al­is­ti­cally, though, the prospect of Mclaren re­turn­ing, within the next few years, to the kind of form that could en­tice Alonso back are slim. Lib­erty Me­dia are de­ter­mined to change the sport in 2021

– by way of a re­struc­ture of the rules and rev­enue dis­tri­bu­tion – to help in­de­pen­dent teams com­pete with the might of Mercedes and Fer­rari. Even if they man­age it though, how likely is it that Mclaren can turn things around so com­pletely that they will be back on cham­pi­onship-chal­leng­ing form by then? And by 2021 Alonso will be on the cusp of turn­ing 40.

Right now, Mclaren can’t give Alonso a win­ning car. And he can’t move to one be­cause the top teams won’t sign him (de­spite his in­sis­tence over the Bel­gian Grand Prix week­end that Red Bull had made him “two of­fers in 2018”). This has lately be­come some­thing of an ac­cepted maxim, but it’s worth step­ping back a lit­tle to ex­am­ine the logic of that sit­u­a­tion.

Paddy Lowe, Wil­liams chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer, who worked with Alonso at Mclaren in 2007 and fought against him for many years be­fore and af­ter, has done just that: “It is an ab­so­lute dis­grace that F1 can­not give an ace such as Fer­nando a com­pet­i­tive car,” he main­tains. “He is one of the all-time greats. And be­cause he can’t get into one of the only six cars that can ever win a race un­der the cur­rent busi­ness model, then he must leave. This is a sign, if ever we needed one, that F1 is com­pletely bro­ken.

“These three teams get two-and-a-half times the money of the other seven. In terms of dis­cre­tionary spend on re­search and devel­op­ment, af­ter over­heads to go rac­ing, that is about five to six times what every­one else gets. That is a di­ver­gent sit­u­a­tion. These three teams just open a big­ger and big­ger gap ev­ery year be­cause they can spend so much more on R&D. It’s very up­set­ting to lose Fer­nando.”

This sit­u­a­tion is not just lock­ing in a com­pet­i­tive order with three teams miles ahead of the rest. It also

gives those teams sig­nif­i­cant con­trol over many ar­eas in F1, in­clud­ing, as we are see­ing with Alonso, the fu­ture even of the sport’s big­gest stars.

Alonso him­self has re­peat­edly re­turned to this theme over the course of this sea­son: “I’m not bored,” he said in Canada, as he cel­e­brated his 300th grand prix. “It’s ob­vi­ously the top se­ries in mo­tor­sport, and it’s where we all dream to come, but it’s true that in the last years it is so pre­dictable. This is race seven; there are 21 races, we all know what is go­ing to hap­pen in the next 14 and this is very sad for the sport. I will come here and fight from sev­enth to 12th and I will fin­ish the sea­son in Abu Dhabi fight­ing from sev­enth to 12th. It doesn’t mat­ter about your in­spi­ra­tion, your lap in qual­i­fy­ing, how you set up the car – things go your way or against you. You can im­prove a cou­ple of po­si­tions but it doesn’t change the over­all out­come of the cham­pi­onship, and that is prob­a­bly unique in this se­ries in mo­tor­sport.”

Lib­erty were keen for him to stay on, and Alonso, in his state­ment an­nounc­ing his re­tire­ment, of­fered his grat­i­tude to “[Chief ex­ec­u­tive] Chase Carey and Lib­erty Me­dia for the ef­forts made to change my mind”. Com­mer­cial boss Sean Bratches has agreed that Alonso is right to say that F1 is too pre­dictable. “We have a plan to fix it,” Bratches says. “I wish he was around for an­other ten years to be part of that. He’s been such a phe­nom­e­nal am­bas­sador for the sport, such a hero, a leg­end. I hope that his brand stays around for many years to come.”

De­trac­tors would sug­gest that Alonso has only him­self to blame for this sit­u­a­tion, say­ing he has been a dis­rup­tive in­flu­ence at ev­ery team for whom he has driven. It’s cer­tainly true that his first stint at Mclaren ended badly, and that he left Fer­rari un­der a cloud. But it’s also true that the rea­sons those re­la­tion­ships went wrong were rooted in his un­quench­able com­pet­i­tive spirit, and his own sense that he had been let down. And he was not the only one at fault.

At Mclaren in 2007, Ron Den­nis had promised to give Alonso pri­or­ity in the team over a novice Lewis Hamil­ton, only to re­nege on that com­mit­ment when Hamil­ton swiftly proved to be a phe­nom­e­non. The re­la­tion­ship be­came ter­mi­nal long be­fore many re­alised. The fi­nal blow-up in­fa­mously came in Hun­gary, where Alonso threat­ened to re­lease to the

FIA emails per­ti­nent to the on­go­ing ‘Spy­gate’ case, and Den­nis phoned FIA pres­i­dent Max Mosley about it be­fore Alonso sent his man­ager back to apol­o­gise and with­draw the threat.

That row with Den­nis had arisen due to an in­ci­dent in Q3 at Bu­dapest in which Hamil­ton was ini­tially at fault when he dou­ble-crossed Alonso by go­ing against a team agree­ment to let him do one fur­ther lap in the fuel-burn phase of qual­i­fy­ing. The two had been al­ter­nat­ing this ad­van­tage all sea­son to make things fair. Dis­ad­van­taged and an­gry, Alonso re­sponded by block­ing Hamil­ton in the pit­lane later in the ses­sion, just long enough to pre­vent him get­ting in a fi­nal lap. Alonso was given a five-place grid penalty for this.

But the re­la­tion­ship was on the rocks three months be­fore that. At the Monaco Grand Prix, Alonso had dom­i­nated the race from pole and then backed off in the fi­nal stint to pro­tect his over­heat­ing brake calipers – a prob­lem both Mclarens were suf­fer­ing. Alonso was then caught by Hamil­ton who com­plained he was be­ing held up. Af­ter the race, Den­nis took Alonso to one side and said words along the lines of: “Be good to the kid; we had to stop him.” Alonso was fu­ri­ous, mis­in­ter­pret­ing what was per­haps a badly phrased at­tempt at prov­ing to him that he was the num­ber one as an in­ac­cu­rate sug­ges­tion that he had not de­served the win be­cause Hamil­ton had been faster.

Should Alonso have ap­plied a lit­tle bit more per­spec­tive to both of those in­ci­dents and be­haved and re­acted dif­fer­ently? It’s hard to ar­gue oth­er­wise. Had he re­sponded in a more mea­sured fash­ion, he might well have won the 2007 and 2008 ti­tles with Mclaren, adding to those he had al­ready col­lected in 2005 and 2006 with Re­nault.

But if Alonso’s be­hav­iour at Mclaren in 2007 was viewed by those in­volved as un­pleas­ant, un­ac­cept­able even, at the root of it was his burn­ing de­sire to win. And with­out doubt, Den­nis could have han­dled the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter. Blame lies on both sides.

It was the same for Alonso at Fer­rari. He drove su­perbly through­out his time there, of­ten car­ry­ing sub­stan­dard cars on his back and twice com­ing within a hair’s breadth of win­ning the ti­tle, in 2010 and 2012, in cars that were a long way off be­ing the fastest. Each time he missed out; each time it was not his fault. Yes, he made a cou­ple of high-pro­file er­rors in the first part of 2010, but so did even­tual cham­pion Se­bas­tian Vet­tel. In the se­cond half of that sea­son, Alonso closed a 47-point deficit in the cham­pi­onship and was lead­ing go­ing into the fi­nal race – only for Fer­rari’s mis­judged strat­egy de­ci­sion to scup­per him.

In 2012, he was vir­tu­ally flaw­less, driv­ing su­perbly in a car that was, on av­er­age, only the fourth-fastest on the grid. Yet some­how he man­aged to lead the cham­pi­onship most of the way. Peo­ple still re­call the

LEAV­ING FER­RARI WAS A GRAVE ER­ROR BUT IT WAS EASY TO UN­DER­STAND HIS FRUS­TRA­TION

streak of four con­sec­u­tive wins by Vet­tel later in the year, which turned the cham­pi­onship in his favour once Red Bull had per­fected their ver­sion of the ex­haust-blown dif­fuser. Even so, Alonso would still have been cham­pion had it not been for the two first­corner ac­ci­dents in which he was taken out through no fault of his own by Lo­tus driv­ers Ro­main Gros­jean at Spa and Kimi Räikkö­nen at Suzuka.

As then Fer­rari team boss Ste­fano Domeni­cali ob­serves: “He was un­lucky not to win the ti­tle be­cause I do be­lieve he de­served it. With a ti­tle, the his­tory of that pe­riod would have been changed dra­mat­i­cally.”

Alonso talked him­self out of Fer­rari in 2014, sign­ing a re­lease from his con­tract fol­low­ing months of tense ne­go­ti­a­tions over what had started with the in­ten­tion, on both sides, to ex­tend it. He had ini­tially re­quested that re­lease – quite pos­si­bly as a ne­go­ti­at­ing ploy – be­cause he felt that team boss Marco Mat­ti­acci had back­tracked on his prom­ises to im­prove his salary and ac­cede to his de­mands on con­di­tions. But the team even­tu­ally grew fed up with his tac­tics and of­fered him the re­lease, hav­ing al­ready lined up Vet­tel to re­place him. Alonso signed it, and that was that.

Leav­ing Fer­rari was a grave er­ror, but at the time it was easy to un­der­stand Alonso’s frus­tra­tion af­ter five years fight­ing the odds, slip­ping back all the while. His de­ci­sion to re­turn to Mclaren was, how­ever, less easy to un­der­stand, other than on fi­nan­cial grounds.

Could Fer­rari have han­dled Alonso bet­ter and kept him? He left for un­com­pet­i­tive Mclaren just as Maranello be­gan to in­vest se­ri­ously in their F1 team un­der Ser­gio Mar­chionne. In let­ting him go, Fer­rari lost ar­guably the best driver in the world. Few would dis­pute that Alonso is de­mand­ing, but Domeni­cali in­sists it is “un­fair” to sug­gest that he is po­lit­i­cal and drives teams apart. “You need to man­age the fact he has a great per­son­al­ity,” Domeni­cali in­sists. “It is some­thing you need to work on with all the big driv­ers. Some­times it is easy and some­times it is not.”

Speak­ing of the pro­longed ne­go­ti­a­tions over his new Mercedes con­tract this year, Hamil­ton ad­mit­ted that he him­self was “not the eas­i­est”. Nei­ther was Ayr­ton Senna straight­for­ward, as the many no­to­ri­ous tales of his bat­tles with Den­nis at­test. In the mid­dle of 1992, while driv­ing for Mclaren, Senna even of­fered to drive for Wil­liams for free to try to get into what was then the dom­i­nant car. With Senna, such dis­rup­tive be­hav­iour was ac­cepted be­cause, well, he was Senna. Yet for some rea­son, Alonso sim­ply be­ing Alonso has not proved sim­i­larly ac­cept­able.

Per­haps Alonso is not as good as Senna. That’s a mat­ter of per­sonal opin­ion – but he’s cer­tainly good enough to be con­sid­ered in the same con­ver­sa­tion. And the same can­not be said for many other driv­ers on the cur­rent grid. In­deed, the num­ber of F1 in­sid­ers who speak in awe of Alonso’s abil­i­ties are le­gion. So why aren’t the top three teams clam­our­ing for him?

Mercedes’ ra­tio­nale is most eas­ily un­der­stood: for starters, there are the events of 2007, and their 40 per cent con­tri­bu­tion to the $100m fine that their for­mer part­ner Mclaren had to pay af­ter the ‘Spy­gate’ hear­ing, which re­sulted from Alonso’s row with Den­nis in Hun­gary. Equally, Hamil­ton is their star driver, and they feel he op­er­ates bet­ter with­out an­other A-lis­ter along­side him, pre­fer­ring in­stead to em­ploy a more com­pli­ant num­ber-two.

It’s a sim­i­lar story with Fer­rari, who are al­ready in­vested in Vet­tel. Vet­tel has spo­ken of los­ing out last year be­cause Fer­rari lost per­for­mance rel­a­tive to Mercedes in the se­cond half of the sea­son. That’s true, but with­out his red-mist mo­ment in Baku and the over­ag­gres­sive ma­noeu­vre off the line in Sin­ga­pore that trig­gered a multi-car shunt and took him out of the race, he would still have been in with a strong chance at sea­son’s end. And in an even bet­ter car this year, he has, at the time of writ­ing (pre-ital­ian Grand Prix), made three costly er­rors so far. At Baku he overcooked an over­tak­ing at­tempt on the Safety Car restart, drop­ping from what would have been first or se­cond to fourth; col­lid­ing with Valt­teri Bot­tas at the start in France; and crash­ing out of the lead in Ger­many. Would Alonso have made these sorts of er­rors? It’s less easy to imag­ine.

What of Fer­rari’s other driver, Kimi Räikkö­nen? In 2014, when he and Alonso were team-mates, Alonso out­qual­i­fied him 16-3, was on av­er­age more than 0.5s quicker than him, and scored al­most three times as many points.

Vet­tel has never at­tained any­thing close to Alonso’s level of dom­i­nance over Räikkö­nen since 2015.

And then there’s Red Bull. When Daniel Ric­cia­rdo moves to Re­nault in 2019, Pierre Gasly will join the se­nior team to race along­side Max Ver­stap­pen, on whom Red Bull are fo­cus­ing their fu­ture. Gasly shows prom­ise, but no one could se­ri­ously sug­gest he is a match for Alonso at this stage of his ca­reer.

Red Bull mo­tor­sport boss Hel­mut Marko says of Alonso: “We were ne­go­ti­at­ing with him in 2007 or 2008. His de­mands were very te­dious back then. If you look at his his­tory, in Mclaren and Fer­rari it was al­ways a one-man show. That doesn’t fit with us.”

Fer­rari and Red Bull clearly want to fo­cus on their num­ber-one driv­ers, even if they won’t ad­mit it. The im­pli­ca­tion is that they won’t sign Alonso be­cause they think he would be too much trou­ble. But in do­ing so they are un­ques­tion­ably giv­ing away per­for­mance – per­haps even, in Fer­rari’s case, their best chance of beat­ing Hamil­ton and Mercedes to the ti­tle. That’s their pre­rog­a­tive. And if they are pri­ori­tis­ing sta­bil­ity and a har­mo­nious team dy­namic, it’s un­der­stand­able. Whether it is the right thing to do, for them­selves, or the sport as a whole, is an­other de­bate al­to­gether as F1 now faces the de­par­ture of one of its all-time greats.

“IF YOU LOOK AT HIS HIS­TORY, IN MCLAREN AND FER­RARI IT WAS AL­WAYS A ONE-MAN SHOW THAT DOESN’T FIT WITH US” HEL­MUT MARKO

Alonso’s fe­ro­cious com­pet­i­tive spirit has been a trade­mark of his ca­reer, dat­ing right back to his early days at Re­nault

The four eras of Alonso: Re­nault, Mclaren, Fer­rari, and Mclaren re­vis­ited. He’s amassed two ti­tles and 32 wins – although the last vic­tory was five years ago at the 2013 Span­ish GP

As F1 has lost its com­pet­i­tive al­lure, Alonso’s at­ten­tions have turned else­where. He now runs his own kart­ing school (above) and has his eye on the triple crown, hav­ing al­ready ticked vic­tory at Le Mans off his list ear­lier this year (be­low)

The Alonso legacy: It’s hard to be­lieve he’s leav­ing, so how will he be re­mem­bered? As a Sa­mu­rai who was born to fight be­hind the wheel and un­doubt­edly one of the all-time greats. His de­par­ture is For­mula 1’s loss

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