“He’s good in the dry, good in the wet. Good when the car is good, good when the car is not good”

Top Gear (UK) - - COLUMNS -

#20: Gil de Fer­ran, sport­ing di­rec­tor, McLaren Rac­ing

Was Fer­nando Alonso’s de­ci­sion to re­tire from F1 a shock? Not re­ally; you could sense that his in­ter­ests were broad­en­ing – he raced in the Indy 500 and tried his hand at sports-car rac­ing last year, win­ning the Le Mans 24hr. I guess he’s ready to try some­thing dif­fer­ent.

The thing about re­tir­ing, and I speak from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, is it’s very much an in­ter­nal jour­ney. Imag­ine you’ve been do­ing some­thing ever since you were a kid, the sole pur­pose of your life. You wake up ev­ery morn­ing think­ing: “I know what I’m do­ing to­day – I’m try­ing to be­come the best driver I can be,” then all of a sud­den it shifts, when you’re still in the prime of your life.

A de­ci­sion like this has a dose of logic, but also a dose of emo­tion. Those same emo­tions and same logic that drove him to be one of the best driv­ers in the his­tory of our sport, never mind F1. Is re­tir­ing now a good de­ci­sion? I don’t think that’s for any­one to judge other than him­self.

If I were Fer­nando, I would look back at my ca­reer and be in­cred­i­bly proud of what I ac­com­plished. Maybe in the record books some others have achieved higher num­bers, but the num­bers are not the full story. If the end re­sult wasn’t there, he was able to do in­cred­i­ble things with what he had in his hands. I be­lieve be­ing a good rac­ing driver is about much more than just be­ing fast – there are so many things you need to master to be­come a F1 world cham­pion.

Jackie Ste­wart once told me: “You know when you’re re­ally good when no­body knows you’re hav­ing a bad day, apart from your­self.” Well, Fer­nando was great at that. To me, he’s al­ways hav­ing good days, all of the time.

He’s an ex­pert at feed­ing back to the engi­neers. Data can tell you what the car is do­ing; only a driver can tell you what a car could do if you did X, Y or Z. Judg­ing by how pop­u­lar he is, you have to as­sume he dealt with the me­dia – F1’s con­duit to the fans – ex­tremely well, too.

I can’t claim to be his best buddy, but I find him a plea­sure to deal with, both from a per­sonal and a pro­fes­sional per­spec­tive. He’s very pro­fes­sional. Very pro­fes­sional. When we were in Amer­ica it’s like noth­ing else ex­isted in his mind but do­ing well in the Indy 500 – his fo­cus was in­cred­i­ble.

Plac­ing him in the pan­theon of great­est driv­ers is al­ways tough be­cause dif­fer­ent decades in our sport re­warded dif­fer­ent tal­ents. But the era I’ve per­son­ally wit­nessed in mo­tor­sport, from the late Seven­ties to to­day, I would def­i­nitely rank Fer­nando as one of the great­est I’ve ever seen. He’s good in the dry, good in the wet, good in the damp. Good when the car is good, good when the car is not good. Good in qual­i­fy­ing, good in the race. Good at over­tak­ing, good at starts.

Not enough credit is given to driv­ers in a dif­fi­cult car, bat­tling their way to fin­ish fourth when the car should have fin­ished sev­enth. Those per­for­mances are some­times hard to spot, but Fer­nando’s great gift is be­ing able to ex­tract a re­sult.

What’s next? Well, I know he loves to be com­pet­i­tive, he loves to be in a fight – that side of his per­son­al­ity is still very much alive and kick­ing. It doesn’t feel like he’s about to walk away from rac­ing al­to­gether, to me.

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