Fernando Alonso: The Spanish Samurai

Introduction

In the second part of my series on F1’s greatest ever drivers, we look forward from Ayrton Senna in Part 1 to a contemporary figure of the paddock. This time we take a look the career of my current favourite driver: Fernando Alonso. This post has been in the works in my brain for a while now and had been planned for his retirement. But it has been brought to the fore by the recent news that Fernando will race in the famous Indy500 this year with the experienced Andretti Autosport, instead of the 2017 Monaco Grand-Prix.  Despite his various set-backs it is testament to his talent and drive that he has “long held an ambition to win the so-called ‘triple crown’ of Monaco, the Indy 500 and Le Mans” which so far only Graham Hill has completed.

Fernando in contrast has a way to go, with only the Monaco GP on his CV in that list, but this is a step in the right direction. He will likely look at the 41 year old ex-F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who is a twice crowned Indy500 winner in 2000 and 2015, for inspiration in his own quest for this jewelled crown. In terms of Fernando’s prospects for the 2017 race, his stellar talents mean that there is no other driver who has such a good chance at winning that race in their rookie attempt: I have a feeling he will do very well indeed.

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Graham Hill in his victorious Lola-Ford at the 1966 Indianapolis 500.

At the current age of 35 Fernando’s motor-racing career is far from over, but perhaps this Indy500 venture is an indication that he knows that he is running out of time to achieve his elusive 3rd Formula 1 world title. My analysis is that Fernando is shifting his career goals to the infamous ‘triple crown’ before it is too late, as such this could be the start of thoughts about retiring from Formula 1 to pursue new ambitions. If this is true he would be forgiven for doing so: a driver of his calibre deserves to be in the record books even more than he currently is.

Even if I am wrong about his change of thought, by trying to win IndyCar’s most prestigious race this year Alonso is making yet another opportunity to put himself on the market to more competitive F1 teams. At the very least this American adventure will provide him with some sorely missed fun: after all this 2017 McLaren-Honda is quite possibly the single worst car Fernando has driven in Formula 1, but we will arrive to all the talk of current affairs at the end of the following exploration of his career.

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Alonso celebrates victory for Ferrari at his home race in Barcelona in 2013.

It is strange to write a tribute about a driver who has not yet finished his career. Therefore I will only make slight judgements on his entire impact on the sport: instead focussing briefly on each stage of his involvement, not year by year but stint by stint with each team he has driven for. In a way it is a fitting method of analysing Fernando’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. Perhaps by going through his time we can judge if that is indeed the case. At any rate, regardless of thoughts about the man from Asturias the stats are clear: 32 victories, 97 podiums and 22 pole positions have carried him to 2 world titles, as well being excruciatingly close to a 3rd on multiple 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.

Minardi: 2001
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 very 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.

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A young Fernando Alonso in the uncompetitive Minardi.

However, the season was not without merit for Alonso: notable performances over the season earned him some attention from much faster teams. A clear 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 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.

Renault: 2002-2006
Fernando’s 2002 season was spent solely as Renault’s reserve driver behind Jarno Trulli and a young Jenson Button; the latter whom he would later partner for 2 seasons at McLaren. His first full season was when, for many, he truly arrived in the sport: Alonso became the youngest driver to achieve pole position with 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 before lapping him in a race which he characteristically controlled from the front. This ability to absolutely dominate his team-mates is what 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.

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Alonso in pre-season testing in 2004: despite not winning a race, his consistency allowed him to reach 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 the last 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 arguably the finest defensive 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 to 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 belong to Sebastian Vettel; Alonso at the time was absolutely untouchable.

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Fernando’s pure passion: his famous scream after winning the 2005 title is an iconic image in the history of Formula 1.

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 have to do likewise and take evasive action to avoid an accident. Most notably at Monza in 2006 Alonso was reprimanded for potentially blocking Felipe Massa in qualifying: Fernando then 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 paddock.

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Alonso’s penchant for the theatrical: Victory at Canada in 2006.

However you look at it though, Fernando’s first stint at Renault will 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 showed how in demand he was as a driver.

McLaren: 2007
Upon his move to McLaren an early season Autosport post from 2007 chronicles the huge seismic waves Alonso was making in Formula 1. At the time, Fernando’s former manager Marcos Campos stated the opinion 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 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 simply 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. The sky seemed to be a few limits too easy: Fernando Alonso’s potential was infinite, the possibilities beyond all imagination.

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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 the combination of Juan Pablo Montoya and Pedro De La Rosa into 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 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 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’ brilliant reflection summarises.

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Hamilton on track with Alonso at the season conclusion to 2007 in Brazil. Both drivers would miss out on the title to Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen by a solitary singular point.

McLaren and Alonso’s whole season was marred irretrievably following the Hungarian Grand-Prix. On the surface level the rivalry came to a 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 the 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 himself 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 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 needed to beat Raikkonen to the championship. Additional salt was rubbed in the wounds when Lewis Hamilton won the 2008 championship with McLaren. In a way then, Fernando arguably missed out on two titles from this 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.

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Alonso won a surprise victory in Singapore, which came to be known as ‘crash-gate’ afterwards.

I will not try to go into the ins and outs of ‘crash-gate’ as it is very complicated in terms of what was said by all parties. But the upshot of the situation is this: on the 14th lap of the race, the other Renault car driven by Nelson Piquet Jr hit the wall at turn 17, resulting in the safety car. Fernando, who had made an early pitstop, subsequently went on to win the race after everyone else pitted under the safety car. There was a huge scandal which put the whole of Formula 1 into disrepute as “Piquet alleged that he had been asked by the team to deliberately crash to improve the race situation for Alonso” and the young Brazilian was subsequently sacked by Renault. The team themselves did not get off scott-free either, with Flavio Briatore the team principal and Alonso’s manager banned from F1 events for life.

It is still unclear to this day whether Fernando himself knew about the apparent plan to fix the race, but it would seem he was oblivious. Either way, Fernando still won the race with most of the laps to go still in fair conditions, as well as winning the next race in Japan for his first back to back race wins since 2006. Due to the controversy and relatively poor performance from the team, with 2009 only contributing 1 more podium, his return to Renault was not befitting of what Fernando needed. When in September 2009 Alonso confirmed his move to Ferrari, it was indeed his big chance at getting back to where he should be.

Ferrari: 2010-2014

Fernando Alonso and Ferrari should have been a match made in heaven and they so nearly were. The stats from Fernando’s time at the Scuderia were 44 podiums, 11 victories and 4 pole positions, bringing him 2nd place in the standings 3 times and excruciatingly close to a third world title in both 2010 (4 points off) and 2012 (3 points off). From those stats it is also clear to see that throughout his time at Ferrari, the car was not the quickest on the grid with only 4 poles; that in turn makes his near misses at the championship into staggering achievements. Some notable wins include his first ever race for Ferrari at Bahrain in 2010 and a home victory for Ferrari at Monza in the same year. 2011 saw a stunning drive in changeable British conditions at Silverstone for his only victory of the season. Fernando also couldn’t hold back the tears on the top step of the podium after two home victories: one in 2012 at Valencia and 2013 in Barcelona, the former of which he won with a scintillating drive from 11th on the grid.

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Fernando at Ferrari in his final, disappointing, year in 2014.

I think that somewhere in my heart Fernando did win at least one of those close titles. He certainly deserved to. He often dragged the car far beyond what it should have been capable of, which earned him the reputation of a Samurai: a warrior who fights to the end. I also have no doubt that had Romain Grosjean not idiotically caused a pile up at Spa in 2012 which involved Alonso, that those additional points from the race would have won him the championship. Instead, much like in 2010 where he could not pass Vitaly Petrov to get the points he needed to win, in Brazil 2012 he was just found wanting: but this time only by a mere 2.7 seconds as Button won behind the safety car. The emotion, as shown in the photo below, was nearly too much for a distraught Fernando: as a fan it is still difficult to look at now.

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Alonso’s “lifeless stare” following his 2012 miss of the title by just 2 seconds.

Fernando’s time at Ferrari also had controversy, most notably when during the 2010 German Grand Prix the team radioed to Felipe Massa, Alonso’s team-mate, the famous words “Okay, so: Fernando is faster than you, can you confirm you understood that message?” in a poorly coded signal to make him move aside. Ferrari were subsequently fined $100,000 but no further action was taken, much to some disbelief: many had viewed Alonso’s victory as “dirty win” that compromised the sports integrity. But all in all Fernando had a very good stint with Ferrari and because of that he is seen as the kind of tragic ‘nearly man’ of those world championship years. But in the end, Alonso and Ferrari parted ways relatively well with no titles to prove for their efforts: he was replaced by his championship nemesis Sebastian Vettel.

McLaren: 2015-Present

And so we reluctantly turn to the present and Fernando’s return to McLaren, which simultaneously coincided with McLaren’s disastrous return to Honda power in 2015 following their years with Mercedes. Now I have spoken extensively throughout the blog about how terrible McLaren currently are and how they need to ditch Honda as soon as humanly possible, or sort it the heck out. I have also commented extensively on how terrible it is to see Fernando at such an uncompetitive team so I will refrain from going into that too much and merely stick to the facts: if you are interested just check my race reviews.

So far Alonso’s highest finish in a race has been 5th, which he has achieved three times: once in 2015 at Hungary and twice in 2016, at the Monaco and US Grand Prix. 2015, Honda’s return to the sport, was reportedly going to be a difficult season from the start as they joined late into the hybrid action: as such, Alonso finished a mere 17th with only 11 points. Furthermore, he was incredibly outspoken along the way: laughing at his car’s Honda which he deemed “amateur” and no better than a “GP2” engine. Whilst the laughter continued in 2016, it was less caustic than before and there seemed to be a relative upturn of fortunes with Fernando finishing 10th with 54 points. Both driver and team seemed more committed with high hopes for the prospects of a drastic improvement into 2017: even talk of podiums was not enough.

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McLaren have had a woeful reunion with Honda; things have not improved much since Alonso drove this car in 2015.

Yet, 2017 so far has been a pitiful start for Alonso’s team: starting with a woeful pre-season that included around 8 engine failings in testing alone. More than that, the car is both unreliable and slow: clocking a measly 314kph in qualifying down the huge back straight of China. Jenson Button will hardly be jumping for joy that he is contractually obligated to fill in for Alonso when the Spaniard misses Monaco. Yet, despite the terrible car Fernando is still over-performing: he has regularly made it to Q2 whilst his team-mate Vandoorne has never made it out of Q1 (EDIT just today on the 13th of May he managed to qualify a genuinely heroic 7th in Spain) and at all races he has been running regularly in the points until unreliability has forced him to retire.

Fernando does not seem to be slowing down and is still regularly outperforming drivers in cars superior to his own as he has done for the majority of his career: indeed that is all he can do with his current equipment. As such, he is seemingly trying very hard to market himself for a different seat in 2018 declaring himself “fastest through the corners” at China, whilst calling his performance there his “best ever race”.

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Alonso during an impressive 7th placed qualifying at his home Spanish Grand Prix

Whilst hindsight is 20-20 inside he will be rueing his decision to join up with the legendary McLaren-Honda team. Perhaps in his mind Fernando had images of emulating Senna, to whom he was compared in 2007, which influenced his decision. Instead it is McLaren who actually owe Fernando a lot during these hard years, as I wrote in my last race review “without Fernando at the team who even are McLaren-Honda? They would just be a famous name, a name who are technically bottom of the standings and have been languishing down there for two whole years” and perhaps by letting him race in the Indy500 they are repaying their debt.

The End?

With his career certainly entering his twilight years, Fernando still clearly has the quality: the real obstacle for him will be where he can go after McLaren to give himself a real shot at bagging his 3rd championship. There seem to be problems on all grounds:

Mercedes? This is clearly Fernando’s preferred option having spoken to them about their vacancy before 2017. He also has not had a chance to burn bridges there in the past, which many in the paddock argue is a hallmark of his career. However, Lewis Hamilton has stated that Alonso joining him for 2018 is just “not going to happen”Whether or not Hamilton’s refusal to share the team comes from fear, which would be understandable given that Fernando is one of only three drivers ever to match Hamilton, is irrelevant. This one seems a no go, unless Hamilton for some mystical reason vacated the team.

Ferrari? A return to the Scuderia perhaps might prove a more lucrative possibility for Fernando. The team and he enjoyed a successful spell together from 2010 to 2014, nearly winning the title twice. But again, there are issues here as Ferrari throughout their history are infamous for running a strict ‘number 1 driver’ policy and Sebastian Vettel is the current immovable incumbent of that role and will doubtless be renewed beyond his contract end this season. Furthermore, the German was the ‘number 1’ they chose to replace Fernando in the first place so there is no reason to assume they would consider swapping back. Yet, if Kimi Raikkonen should choose to retire there would be a free seat at Ferrari, but even before a lot of stiff competition from the likes of Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean, I doubt that Fernando would settle for anything less than number 1 status in his quest to reach a 3rd title.

Williams? It is fairly accepted in the paddock that the Williams team are far from winning races, having seemingly gone backwards since two consecutive 3rd place finishes in 2014 and 2015. Yet the team is still an historic fixture in Formula 1, as well as consistently running high in the points so far this season with Felipe Massa. Lance Stroll is likely to be contracted further due to the money he brings to the team, but should Massa again retire at the end of this season then Williams will have a free slot. Even though their prospects might not be the highest, Fernando could do a lot worse than join them. Furthermore, Williams would highly benefit from the publicity that signing Fernando would bring: he would also obviously bring a huge amount of talent and allow them to keep their Martini sponsoring which requires one of their drivers to be over the age of 25.

Renault? Fernando might want to make another return to where it all started for him: the Renault team have rejoined the sport last season and are looking to forge ahead and be ambitious over the next few years. As a wannabe competitive factory team to whom he has ties, this could well be a serious option for Alonso: even if they seem off the pace currently they are certainly showing more promise than McLaren. Questions are also being drawn over Jolyon Palmer almost every-weekend, so that seat could be up for grabs: indeed rumours that Alonso has spoken to Renault for 2018 are already spreading through the paddock. However, Nico Hulkenberg the French team’s new ‘number 1’ driver would have to be convinced that having Alonso would benefit his own interests. Additionally as Abiteboul remarked, Renault fully understand they won’t compete for titles quickly and so are more concerned with having “a final line-up that will be the right one for the future” and Alonso may not fit into that category anymore.

McLaren? The only other team option for Alonso would be to wait it out. This would require hoping against all hopes that McLaren either force Honda into competitiveness or that they change engine manufacturers to another outfit, one which could instantly provide them with the speed and reliability they need to win races again. This is the riskiest option at this point and the one that should be least attractive to Fernando: Honda have promised time and time again to sort the mess out and it’s been 3 terrible years. But even if they changed engine supplier, as has been reported might happen, it is logical to suggest that a whole lot of work and time would have to happen before the team would even threaten win a championship. Could Fernando even stomach this team any longer?

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A smiling Fernando in 2015: little did he know the years of toil ahead.

I cannot see many of these scenarios happening which leaves us with only one sad conclusion: Fernando retires from Formula 1 sooner rather than later. This would give him the time to chase his ‘triple crown’ and look for other titles in World Endurance Championships, Sports Cars or American Racing. If this is the case I will certainly still follow Alonso’s career with great interest, in the same way that I will be glued to the TV during his 2017 Indy500: a ‘podiumpost’ may even follow that even though it is not F1.

Perhaps, in truth, leaving the paddock now would suit Fernando better: whilst he is still the best in the business and also a legendary ‘would be 5 times champion’ for all but a few points here and there, the sport is leaving him behind. The simple fact is that all competitive ‘number 1’ driver seats are locked out for the future and as we all know: time waits for no man, not even Spanish Samurais who fight to the bitter end.

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