FORGET-ME-NOT: ALONSO LEAVES F1 AS A LEGEND
Alonso has gone, but he will be sorely missed
Fernando Alonso bid goodbye to Formula 1, very possibly for good, with a whimper. Eleventh in the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. This was the consequence of one of the weakest Mclaren chassis we have ever seen, but it was clear his heart wasn’t entirely in it during those final few races. The sarcastic Brazilian Grand Prix radio message, where he scoffed at targeting 16th place not long before demanding radio silence, was proof of that, as were a trio of penalties for cutting the track at Yas Marina. This concluded a season during which he has been most conspicuous for his occasionally ludicrous, often irritating and always bombastic self-mythologising.
But this shouldn’t be what we remember, because what we can provisionally call his final season was one during which Alonso regularly demonstrated his greatness, and regularly earned the right to make outrageous statements about his own virtuosity. The Alonso pantomime that rumbled off-track must not overshadow what he did on it, because by any measure he walks away from F1 as one of the greats, with some superb
drives in 2018 rewarded only with minor placings. Without Alonso, Mclaren would not have finished sixth in the constructors’ championship, and he had no business finishing 11th in the drivers’ standings in what was, on average, the secondslowest car in the field.
If there’s one thing that will never fade from the memory of Alonso’s valedictory F1 season, it’s what he could do that team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne couldn’t. Driving a Mclaren lacking in rear stability and prone to losing a proportion of its downforce once steering lock was applied, Alonso minimised its limitations brilliantly. The very favourable comparison with Vandoorne is not only about the statistics, not even the crushing 21-0 qualifying victory achieved by Alonso. It’s more about the way Alonso drove. Watching trackside during 2018, there was continual evidence of Alonso wringing the car’s neck while Vandoorne was constrained by its limitations. One driver defied the car to go ever quicker, and backed himself to keep it pointing in the right direction, the other was limited by it. The way Alonso drove underlines what has made him such a remarkable driver throughout his F1 career.
Azerbaijan and Singapore are seared in the memory. At Turns 11-12, perhaps best described as the exit of the ‘Castle Section’, in Baku, Alonso was all throttle and steering inputs. He could live with the rear moving around unpredictably and hustle a lap time. It was the same story at Turn 3 at Marina Bay – Vandoorne rolled the car into the left hander while Alonso provoked it, changed his lines, lived with the unpredictability as he sought a way to use the resulting instability to get closer to the edge of the performance envelope.
Drivers can’t transcend cars, even Alonso at his most arrogant would not attempt to operate outside the laws of physics, but they can find ways to dance on the edge of what is possible. Do that and you will go beyond what even a very good performer without the same car control could ever hope to do on more than an occasional basis. When it’s a bad car, as the Mclaren was, a conventional style is limited, but Alonso – ever the improviser and never a classicist behind the wheel – found a way to make it work. His style has always been about carrying speed into the corner then sorting out the consequences, a method that puts enormous demands on the driver’s skill and reactions, but he lives on his wits like no other.
Throughout his career, Alonso has been a street fighter of a driver – perhaps more in the mould of Nigel Mansell than Ayrton Senna. F1 has changed so much during Fernando’s career, yet when have you ever heard Alonso complaining the car doesn’t suit his style? That reflects the way he drives: infinitely adaptable and backing himself to sort out whatever mess he might find himself in as he tries to drive around a car’s limitations. He’s a driver who feels the grip, the turning moment of the car, every slip of the tyre, and translates that into the perfect response.
He’s shown his versatility in the tough seasons – his remarkable 2012 title bid in a tricky Ferrari stands out, and when the car has been good he’s found a way to make it better. During his title winning years at Renault, he wasn’t afraid of making the most of the Michelin rubber with armfuls of steering lock even though this was far from the textbook way to drive. That is what makes him so effective in races. He can adapt to the ever-evolving balance of the car and hustle it regardless. He will seek perfection from the
car, but he doesn’t unyieldingly demand it like some, and that’s why he flew in everything, whether it was a 2001 Minardi, a 2006 Renault, a 2011 Ferrari, or a 2018 Mclaren-renault. Whatever Alonso was presented with, he did things his way and made the car submit to him.
Those qualities stood him in good stead on track. Off the circuit, sometimes he was too provocative, too rash in his decision making. Can we really take Alonso at his word that he regrets none of the decisions that defined his path and cost him more wins and titles? Two titles does him a disservice, but even with the way his career has gone he could easily have won in ’07, ’10 and ’12 to stand equal with Lewis Hamilton as a five-time world champion. So, it’s hard to believe someone of Alonso’s intellect would not change some of what happened were he to have his time again.
Alonso is shrouded in myth off-track. He is often portrayed as a victim of F1, as a driver let down by its shortcomings. But while his reputation as a disruptive influence is overstated, he has certainly brought some problems on himself and made even the top teams he hasn’t driven for wary of signing him. But maybe the capacity to subjugate the car to his will shares the same root as what makes him such a provocateur, meaning one cannot exist without the other?
Sure, Alonso should have more wins and world championships, but that’s just numbers. What’s important is what he leaves behind – the memories of what he did on track. The results might not show it, but what might well turn out to be Alonso’s final season is a part of the enduring legend of a man who bent a grand prix car to his will like no other.
HE FLEW IN EVERYTHING, WHETHER IT WAS A 2001 MINARDI, A 2006 RENAULT, A 2011 FERRARI, OR A 2018 MCLAREN-RENAULT. WHATEVER ALONSO WAS PRESENTED WITH, HE DID THINGS HIS WAY AND MADE THE CAR SUBMIT TO HIM
Even in his ‘final’ season Alonso managed to demonstrate his greatness on several occasions
Alonso wore a special helmet in Abu Dhabi, combining his current design with the one he used in ‘01