Fernando Alonso: The Spanish Samurai

Introduction

In the second part of my series on F1’s greatest drivers, we look forward from Ayrton Senna 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 already had one version, for when it was announced he would run in the Indy500 in 2017. It will also probably have a final edit when he retires from the sport. But with the news of Toyota’s (and Fernando’s)  win at this 2018 LeMans, I feel now is the time for an update. Now, Fernando is one step closer 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. Only the Indy to go!

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

At current age of 36 Fernando’s F1 career is far from over, if Raikkonen is anything to go by, but his unsuccessful Indy500 venture and winning LeMans 24hr outing (the latter being part of a season racing for Toyota in WEC) is an indication that he knows that he is running out of time to achieve his elusive 3rd Formula 1 world title. Fernando is formidable and deserves to win; if he must go elsewhere to achieve that, then so be it.

 

It is strange to write a tribute about a driver who has not finished his career. Therefore, I will only make slight judgements on his 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 future “driver posts” I plan to follow the same format, but in a way it is a very 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 chronologically, we can judge if that is indeed the case. At any rate, regardless of your thoughts about the 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.

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 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 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.

Renault: 2002-2006
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 controlled. 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 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 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 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 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 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.

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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. 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.

McLaren: 2007
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 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.

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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 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’ 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 (pictured) by a solitary 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 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 (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 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 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.

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

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 viewed Alonso’s victory as “dirty win” that compromised the entire 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. 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 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 the second coming of McLaren-Honda was. I have also commented extensively on how terrible it was to see Fernando at such an uncompetitive team so I will refrain from going into that too much again and merely stick to the facts.

During McLaren’s years with Honda, Alonso’s highest finish in a race was 5th, which he has achieved three times: once in 2015 at Hungary and twice in 2016, at the Monaco and US Grand Prix. Whilst that does not seem too bad, the bigger number of 17 retirements and only 82 points (half his haul in his final season at Ferrari, in what was considered a bad car there) over the entire 3 years is the more shocking stat.

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McLaren had a woeful Honda reunion; I doubt this car will be going near Fernando’s Museum.

Fernando was incredibly outspoken during these years: laughing at the Honda engine which he deemed “amateur” and no better than “GP2”. 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 committed with high hopes for a drastic improvement into 2017.

Yet, 2017’s challenger didn’t prove much better. From 8 engine failings in testing to only 17 points in the whole season; the car was flawed from the start and was not deserving of Fernando’s over-performance: he regularly out-qualified young team-mate Vandoorne by nearly half a second to the tune of a 16-3 long season rout. A  heroic 7th placed quali in Spain and a 6th placed race in Hungary were Alonso’s highlights.

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McLaren this season; having returned to proper Papaya when they left Honda for Renault

But for 2018, something had to change to keep Fernando on board and the McLaren brand competitive. So, the team decided to change to Renault; Alonso’s long-time allies in the world of F1. Things started off well for Fernando with a 5th placed Australian GP and then three back-to-back 7th finishes. Whilst progress appears to have tailed off recently, I will refrain from judging this season until it is all said and done.

In all, I imagine Fernando will be rueing his decision to join up with McLaren again, especially from 2015 to 2017. Perhaps Fernando had images of emulating Senna (to whom he has been compared) at a new McLaren-Honda. Instead it was McLaren who owed Fernando a lot during those hard years. As I wrote once “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 so, the team repaid him by letting him race in the Indy500 and then Le Mans. Whether or not this kindness, or the new McLaren-Renault partnership, will convince Alonso to stay with the Woking side is to be seen.

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, if he goes anywhere at all, to give himself a real shot at bagging his 3rd F1 championship.

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

Perhaps, in truth, leaving the paddock now, to race in IndyCar to get that final leg of the “triple crown” 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 still 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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