He came, he saw, he conquered, he rufled feathers, he left. By Tom Clarkson
TWO WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS and 32 wins. It was a good knock, but there’s no doubt that Fernando Alonso underachieved in Formula 1. His talent deserved more and he could have won more, had he played a better hand out of the car.
Make no bones about it: Alonso was one of the best drivers of his generation. But his off-track outbursts and politicking alienated him from the top teams, to the extent that they no longer wanted to employ him.
Where did it all go wrong? Alonso had a meteoric rise through Minardi and Renault, culminating in world titles in 2005 and ’06, when he beat Kimi Räikkönen and Michael Schumacher respectively. He also became the darling of Spain, where interest in F1 exploded. More than 10 million people watched every race and Alonso became an A-list celebrity, even marrying a pop star.
But then his obsession with winning became unhealthy and started to impair his judgement.
What happened post-2006 makes for difficult reading.
The first bad call came in 2007, after he’d switched to McLaren. He became embroiled in the Spygate scandal that cost the team $100 million, 40 per cent of which was paid by engine supplier Mercedes- Benz (a shareholder of McLaren at the time). Not only was he ousted from the team, he would never race for Mercedes-Benz again.
Alonso also turned down a contract offer from Red Bull, just as the team was becoming competitive, and committed long-term to Ferrari, who were in a post-Schumacher slump. He quit the Scuderia after five frustrating years in which he finished runner-up in the world championship three times. Then came a second stint at uncompetitive McLaren, the only team capable of paying his salary demands.
His has been a career of two halves, largely of his own making, and his recent struggles shouldn’t take anything away from his stellar moments early on. Think Imola ’05, when he kept Michael Schumacher’s faster Ferrari at bay for 12 laps to take the win by 0.2s; think Suzuka ’05, when he overtook Schumacher around the outside of the fearsome 130R in a drive that saw him leapfrog from 16th on the grid to third.
‘He’s capable of banging in qualifying laps all day long,’ says retired rival Mark Webber. ‘When he had the car underneath him, he was immense. A huge talent, who dished out a lot of medicine on Sunday afternoons.’
A second attempt at the Indy 500 beckons as Alonso strives to complete motorsport’s triple crown, following his victories at Monaco in 2007 and Le Mans in 2018. There’s talk of him taking an ambassadorial role in F1, but that misses the point – it’s his charisma and passion behind the wheel that fans will miss.
And watch out for a resurgent McLaren. Such has been Alonso’s knack of being in the right place at the wrong time that the team will most likely be competitive come 2019…
*Except maybe Lewis Hamilton. Or Max Verstappen. Or Vettel