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