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
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