In the second part of my series on F1’s drivers, we look forward from Ayrton Senna to a contemporary figure of the paddock. This time we look the career of my current favourite driver: Fernando Alonso. This post has already had one version, for when it was announced he would run in the Indy500 in 2017. It had a second version for his win at win at this 2018 LeMans, But with his retirement now announced comes a final, saddening update. Now, Alonso has decided to go searching in other racing pastures, especially as he is one step away (only Indy to go!) to achieving his “long held an ambition to win the ‘triple crown’ of Monaco, the Indy 500 and Le Mans” which so far only Graham Hill has completed.
----Graham Hill in his victorious Lola-Ford at the 1966 Indianapolis 500----
At the age of 37 Fernando's F1 career could still be far from over, IF he was given a competitive car...if Kimi Raikkonen is anything to go by at least, but his unsuccessful Indy500 venture and winning LeMans outing (the latter being part of an entire season racing for Toyota in WEC) is an indication that he knows that he has run out of time to achieve his elusive 3rd Formula 1 world title. Especially given McLaren's current state of affairs. Fernando deserves to win; if he must go elsewhere to achieve that, then so be it.
----Alonso at LeMans & Indy 500----
It is strange to write a tribute about my favourite driver finishing his career. I always try to remain as objective as possible. Therefore, I will only make slight judgements on his impact on the sport at this early stage. Another post may follow this. But for now let us instead focus briefly on each stage of his involvement, not year by year but stint by stint with each team. In future"driver posts" I plan to follow the same format, but in a way it is an especially fitting method of analysing Alonso's time in Formula 1, as many in the paddock deem him the architect of his own downfall, burning bridges and making rash decisions at strong teams. At any rate, regardless of your thoughts about the magic-man from Asturias the stats are clear: 32 victories, 97 podiums and 22 pole positions have carried him to 2 F1 world titles as well being excruciatingly close to a 3rd on many occasions as we shall explore.
So without further ado, let us dive in to the career of this F1 great: it is a tale of ups and downs, incredible drives and unbelievable heart-break.
Alonso's career in F1 started in humble beginnings at perennial back-markers Minardi. For some sort of scope in to the ability of this team you only have to read the stat that by the time Fernando made his debut as the third ever youngest driver in F1, their cars had only scored 28 points since the beginning of their outfit in 1985. As such, it is no surprise that the 2001 iteration of the team, European Minardi, was not able to carry Fernando to any points at all in his debut season.
----A young Fernando Alonso in the uncompetitive Minardi----
However, the season was not without merit for Alonso: notable performances over the season earned him attention from much faster teams. The clearest indication of Alonso's talent was made when he put his Minardi on an early provisional pole at the US Grand Prix 1.3 seconds ahead of his team-mate. You only have to watch German legend Michael Schumacher's face, whilst he was watching Alonso, to know that even at this early stage the Spaniard's quality and control was clear.
Fernando's 2002 season was spent solely as Renault's reserve driver behind Jarno Trulli and a young Jenson Button, whom he would later partner for 2 seasons at McLaren. His first full season in 2003 was when, for many, he truly arrived in the sport: Alonso became the youngest driver to achieve pole position with only his second race with the team at the Malaysian Grand Prix, breaking Ruben Barichello's 9 year standing record. He also went one further at the Hungarian Grand Prix by becoming the youngest driver to ever win a race, taking the 44 year old record from Bruce McLaren. Furthermore, in Hungary 2003 Fernando out-qualified his team-mate Jarno Trulli by a whole second then lapped him in a race which he characteristically controlled. This ability to absolutely dominate his team-mates is crash.net describes as "a recurring feature of Alonso's career" and the true indicator of why many consider him to be the best driver of his generation.
----Alonso pre-season 2004: despite not winning a race, consistency allowed him 4th in the standings----
From 2003 it was only upwards for the young Alonso, as he carried his car to incredible performances to rival the 7 time champion Schumacher. The 2005 San Marino Grand-Prix was the epitome of their rivalry; for the entirety of a tense final 10 laps Schumacher nipped and tucked over the track to attempt to pass for the lead, but Fernando kept him at bay and won the race with what some think to be the finest defence performance of the decade. That race was a true 'changing of the guard moment' as Fernando went on to beat Michael in the championship in 2005 and in doing so, become the youngest ever F1 World Champion. The following year, in 2006, he again won the title ahead of Michael to become the youngest ever double champion. Whilst both accolades now rightly belong to Sebastian Vettel; Alonso, then, was untouchable.
----Fernando’s pure passion: his famous scream after winning the 2005 title is an iconic F1 image----
However, even then Alonso was not without controversy; being involved in a number of 'brake tests' against fellow drivers: involving deliberately braking very hard whilst ahead of his rivals, causing them to do likewise, taking evasive action to avoid accidents. Most notably at Monza in 2006, Alonso was reprimanded for potentially blocking future team-mate Felipe Massa in qualifying: Fernando stated
"I love the sport, love the fans coming here – a lot of them from Spain, but I don't consider Formula One like a sport any more" thereby showing an early moment of his famous dramatic outspoken nature, which he has become loathed and loved for in equal measure by the fans.
----Alonso’s penchant for the theatrical: Victory in Japan in 2006----
However you look at it though, Fernando's first stint at Renault will, most likely at this late stage, be forever remembered as his most successful time in the sport: he racked up 15 pole positions, 15 wins and 37 podiums along with his two world titles during his 5 seasons at the team. He was so dominant that on 19 December 2005, Alonso announced that he would be moving to McLaren for 2007 to be paid a reported 39 Million Dollars a season: being able to make such an announcement a year before his Renault contract ended, and at such a young age, showed how in demand he was as a driver.
An early season Autosport post from 2007 chronicles the seismic waves Alonso was making in Formula 1 by moving to McLaren. Fernando's former manager, Marcos Campos, stated that the Spaniard would "surpass Schumacher" before suggesting that "Ron Dennis has found, in Fernando, a new Senna" and in truth neither comparison was unfounded in logic or Alonso's characteristics. To many, the Spaniard is still today the ultimate driver in F1, with the abilities of Schumacher's precision & poise mixed with Senna's pace & passion. Therefore one can clearly see that when he moved to McLaren at the tender age 25, he was the most magical driver the sport had seen in years: even his long-haired 80's style seemed to have something of the Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost vibe about it compared to the more trimmed figures of Hakkinen and Schumacher. The sky seemed to be a few limits too easy: Fernando Alonso's potential was infinite, the possibilities beyond all imagination.
----Alonso in his 2007 McLaren, the World Champion’s Number 1 proudly on display----
But what happened next was not in anyone's script for the season. In 2007, McLaren performed a complete change of their driver line-up. Out went Kimi Raikkonen to Ferrari as well as combination of Juan Pablo Montoya and Pedro De La Rosa into F1 retirement and reserve respectably. In came Fernando Alonso himself, as well as what many were touting to be a promising young rookie driver from England, his name: Lewis Hamilton. The plan was to have the two best young drivers on the grid for the long haul; a driver pairing that would set up another McLaren domination.
The result, was in truth catastrophic. What no-one had anticipated was that Hamilton would be as fast, if not faster at times, than Fernando. The Spaniard may have had the number one on his car, but it quickly became clear that his status in the team was not entirely secure: both drivers scored an identical 4 wins and also the same 109 points. Such close competition not only caused friction on the the surface, but the deeper team dynamics "turned out a right mess: intense personal ambition colliding with a rigid desire for sporting equality, played out against a backdrop of industrial espionage" as Sky Sports' summarise.
----Hamilton on track with Alonso at the season conclusion to 2007 in Brazil. Both drivers would miss out on the title, during this race, to Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen (also pictured) by only a singular point----
McLaren and Alonso's whole season was marred irretrievably following the Hungarian Grand-Prix. On the surface level their rivalry came to a sharp boiling point when during qualifying both McLaren's pitted quickly for new tyres: Alonso remained stationary in the McLaren pit-box for a few seconds, delaying Hamilton for long enough to prevent him from getting another timed lap in to challenge Fernando's own pole time. However, it was in the subsequent investigation where"it emerged that some team members within McLaren, among them Alonso, were aware of confidential information belonging to the Ferrari team" which therefore brought the severity of the happenings far beyond inter-team farce: at the season's conclusion McLaren were excluded from constructor's championship, which they should have won.
Fernando did not cover himself in glory with rumours that he "threatened Dennis with reporting the team to the FIA (for the information issue) if he was not given number one driver status" providing an insight into the turmoil. The subsequent backlash from both team and driver disputes with Hamilton meant a short, mutual termination, of Alonso's contract for 2008; where he would return to Renault. Many argue that it is as early as this 2007 season that his career can be said to have taken it's downward turn. The McLaren team should have won both championships that season; they had the best car and if it was not for the infighting with Lewis, Fernando might have got that additional single point beat Raikkonen to the championship. Additional salt was rubbed in the wounds as Lewis Hamilton won the 2008 championship with McLaren. In a way then, Fernando arguably missed out on two titles from this fractured relationship.
Renault 2008 & 2009
Alonso's second spell with the Renault team was rather more befitting his year at McLaren: tumultuous and with more limited success. Even after his first two races with the team in 2008, where he finished 4th and 8th respectively, there were rumours that he wanted out to BMW Sauber or Honda. The French team was already not fitting his high expectations and he was doubtless still recovering from his ousting at McLaren. These two seasons at Renault were punctuated by only 4 podiums, 1 pole position and 2 wins. But it is the former of these two wins, both in 2008, that will be long remembered in history: unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.