Why Alonso is leaving Formula 1
Fernando Alonso’s decision not to race in Formula 1 next year was driven by a lack of enjoyment – and, despite his claims to the contrary, also a paucity of results. But what does the future hold for the two-time world champion?
SHOCK was the only appropriate reaction when Fernando Alonso’s absence from the Formula 1 grid in 2019 was announced last week. It wasn’t that his decision blindsided anyone, as he’d dropped hints for months and was widely expected not to waste another year in a grand prix car not worthy of him. But this is the kind of shock that follows when a famous luminary dies of old age. Unsurprising, but seismic nonetheless. At 37 and still at the top of his game, nobody seriously doubts Alonso’s ability to fight for – and win – another world championship given his performances for Mclaren this year. And he is on course to win the 2018-19 World Endurance Championship with Toyota. But while he’s left the door open for an F1 comeback – the word ’retire’has not escaped his lips – what is most astonishing is that he walks away with only two world titles and 32 wins. Great success, certainly, but it’s a measure of how brilliant a performer Alonso is that this haul seems so meagre. The question is, why? Alonso talks about wanting to take on other challenges, and that’s consistent with his pursuit of the triple crown of motorsport. The reality is, inevitably, more complicated, despite his protestations that frustration at a lack of results isn’t a significant factor. “I have other, bigger challenges than F1 can offer right now,”says Alonso, answering questions about his decision for the first time ahead of last weekend’s WEC round at Silverstone.“it is a series that definitely has some positive things, and I have been enjoying it for 17 to 18 years of my life. I think I achieved much more than I dreamt when I started in 2001, and right now the action on track is not the one I dreamt of when I joined F1 and when I am on the track in different series. “Most of [the reaction to] my announcement went to sadness or frustration over the last couple of years for the lack of results. I’ve been racing for 18 years in F1, I’ve won two [titles], so arguably 16 years of my life I was frustrated, but it was not the case and it is not the case now. “I stopped because the action on track, in my opinion, I feel is very poor. In fact, what we talk about more in F1 is off track. We talk about polemics, we talk about radio messages, we talk about all these things, and when we talk so many times about those things, it is a bad sign. “It was because the on-track action was very poor on that weekend, and that is what I feel in F1 now. There are other series that maybe offer better action, more joy and more happiness, so that is what I try to find.” Alonso’s explanation is in keeping with some of his comments over recent months about how F1 has changed for the worse. During his title-winning pomp in 2005-06, the races were divided into sprints between pitstops that were fulfilling for drivers even if the lack of overtaking led to plenty of fan criticism. While things have got better since the peak of the high-degradation tyres and fuel-management years, drivers today still have to manage the races to the nth degree. But Alonso’s claim that this is his sole reason, and that results don’t come into it, is a little hollow. While he attacks the predictability of F1,
“WHAT WE TALK ABOUT MORE IN F1 IS OFF TRACK. WHEN WE TALK ABOUT THIS, IT’S A BAD SIGN”
he would have less of a problem were he inevitably going to be winning or close to winning rather than scrapping for the odd eighth place here and there. To do what he’s been doing during his second stint at Mclaren – feed over scraps – is clearly seen as a waste of his time. Alonso acknowledges this, but only briefly before resuming his critique of F1. “It is true,”says Alonso when it’s put to him that he wouldn’t have turned his back on F1 for 2019 were he facing a year in a title-winning car. “But when I was in 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2011 I was not winning any single race in those years [he did win races in three of those seasons, but he was only an occasional victor in each]. But it was difficult [then] to predict what would happen in Spa and Monza. Now we can write down what’s going to happen. We can put the first 15 positions with maybe one or two mistakes, so how predictable everything became is tough. We go to Barcelona and we test the first day of winter testing and
“WHY CLOSE DOORS IF ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN IN THE FUTURE? I’M NOT OLD, I FEEL STRONG”
you know what you will do until November in Abu Dhabi, and it is tough.” Especially, you could add, if you are in a Mclaren. What’s certainly the case is that Alonso has no interest in racking up more grand prix starts just for the sake of it. If he is going to return to F1, it’s going to be in the knowledge he will be one of the drivers fighting at the front – to secure the third F1 title he still covets but will almost certainly never come his way. But there is still a slender chance. He’s said that if Mclaren returns to what it sees as its rightful place then“it could be the right moment for me to be back in the series”. The same will surely apply were Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull to call him and offer a place – something that’s unlikely, but you never know what can happen. Any team lacking a world-championship-calibre driver would inevitably reach for Alonso’s number. Alonso himself makes it clear that he’s not officially retired from F1, more in hope than expectation – but with a driver as good as he is, there is always going to be hope. For a few more years, at least. “The door open is more because I think I am driving at the best level of my career now,”he says.“and why close doors if anything could happen in the future? I am still young. I’m not 45 years old. I feel strong and I am doing this year 27 races, so my thinking is to stop. And that’s why I stop. But who knows?” Unusually among top drivers, Alonso does publicly engage with the idea of his legacy. The standard answer when his fellow superstars are asked about their place in history is to dodge the question and just say they want to win races. Alonso wants to win races, but ever since his assault on the Indianapolis 500 was announced last year he’s made clear that he wants to go down as a great driver for the versatility of his career. “To be the best driver in the world I have to either win eight world championships and have one more than Michael Schumacher, or win in different series,”was Alonso’s mission statement. He’s been true to his word, performing brilliantly at Indy last year and being in the mix for victory when his Honda engine failed. He’s since won Le Mans, and competed in the Daytona 24 Hours – and leads the WEC standings. It’s clear what’s most important to Alonso is winning, and if that’s not in F1 then it will be in other categories. A full-time Indycar move is likely (see page 22), and he’s set to test a car on a road course next month, while he also sees sportscar racing as part of his longer-term future. “All series have their own appeal, and F1 has a lot of good things,” says Alonso.“it’s still the biggest series in motorsport. Every kid that comes to my karting school, the first priority and the first dream for me as a teacher and them is to arrive in F1, that is no discussion. “But at one point of your career, 21 races, the commitment, the total dedication to the sport for so many years, it is something that you need to evaluate and think what I will do next year. “If I win a third world championship one day, how much will it do for my career and my legacy? Or if I do something that has no precedents in motorsport, how much will that give to my career, to my legacy? You put in the balance and you decide and everyone will decide different things. I decide one thing and I am happy.” The use of the word‘legacy’is an interesting one. Alonso’s F1 legacy will always be of a prodigious talent wasted, because he’s one of those rare drivers who deserves more than two world championships. And without doubt he will always be talked of as a driver too often in the wrong place. It’s inconceivable now that 12 years ago he stood on the Brazilian Grand Prix podium as a double world champion with realistic aspirations of matching or eclipsing the retiring Schumacher’s haul of seven crowns and 91 wins. This, remember, was before either Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel had even made their F1 debuts. There was so much time. But that Mclaren move turned hideously sour, something Alonso contributed to even if the team’s management has to bear the brunt of the responsibility. After two years back at Renault, in which he was engulfed in the Singapore Grand Prix crash scandal that allowed him to win that race in 2008, his Ferrari move promised much. But after near-misses in ’10 and ’12, he turned his back on Maranello at the end of ’14. His crucial mistake there was to underestimate Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne’s resolution to turn things around and, as Alonso headed into the disastrous embrace of Mclaren-honda, Vettel took his place at Ferrari and has won races and fought for titles since. But the triple crown is an alluring target, one that is at least realistic, even though winning the Indy 500 is a formidably difficult challenge. Michael Andretti raced there 16 times and never won despite coming close, while father Mario started Indy 24 times after his first win in 1969 and never managed to drink the victory milk again. That’s perhaps why a full-time entry in Indycar will appeal, giving him the best preparation as well as the chance to add an outright title. What matters is that Alonso is not a washed-up driver chasing a final few pay days, or marking time in categories he secretly considers to be below him. He’s always been a ferocious competitor with forensic attention to detail, and he’ll bring that to any team that cares to employ him in the coming years. He will not be just enjoying himself, not that bothered about results – he wants to win and build that legacy. So when will we know exactly what Alonso’s 2019 plans are beyond the three races at Sebring, Spa and Le Mans that conclude the WEC superseason? While it’s widely anticipated that he will be an Indycar driver next year, it’s going to take some time. “Probably this is bad news, but I will probably not decide or be ready to confirm anything until a couple of months [have passed],” says Alonso.“maybe October or something like that. It is going to be a long wait and a lot of predictions, I guess.” Whatever Alonso does, he will excel. He’s that kind of driver. He’ll be a loss to F1, but the appeal of seeing this titan of motorsport wasting his time dragging out some more heroic minor points finishes has long since lost its appeal. But a post-f1‘alonso-on-tour’coda to his topline career will be a fascinating story for years to come. Hopefully, we will see him again in a competitive grand prix car, but that’s a long shot. If not, what matters is that Alonso is able to race and win at a high level elsewhere, and for as long as he’s still willing and able to deliver at his current level. If he does that, then his legacy will be secured by what he does in the coming years. Who knows what‘quadruple crown’idea may be brewing in his mind?