Earlier this year in May, we had the pleasure of attending a McLaren media session with Fernando Alonso at the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix. We say pleasure, because it was exactly that " a brutally honest chat between the maverick racer and the media with no words minced " on the grand occasion of his 300th race start.
Fernando Alonso. AFP
That Alonso was fuelled by passion for racing was evident " as was the fact that he was frustrated in a sport that seemed to be unwilling to acknowledge his value. Towards the end of the session, moments before the team whisked him away, Alonso declared: "After the race, it will be easier to figure which strategy was the best one." The words stuck with us. And it almost seemed ominously representative of Alonso, the racer and the rollercoaster of a career that he has had in his 17 years in Formula 1.
The 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is going to be an emotional one for several reasons. Apart from the fact that it will draw curtains on one of Formula 1's most memorable seasons of this era, this race could also be the last one for Marcus Ericsson, Sergey Sirotkin, Stoffel Vandoorne and even Brendon Hartley. That it could be Fernando Alonso's last Formula 1 Grand Prix is tougher to accept " despite the many months of prior intimation.
Alonso, the un-achieving world champion
Those who have been watching Formula 1 for long enough will find it difficult to remember a time in the modern era of the sport where Alonso did not "prevail" on the grid with his talent, personality and off-track antics. In a sport that is perpetually hungry for heroes " and villains " Alonso stepped up as both.
In Alonso's racing, we learned absolute car control, placement and outright pace. His twin World Championship wins with Renault (2005 and 2006) halted the seemingly invincible Ferrari-Michael Schumacher domination of the early 2000s. After Schumacher's first retirement in 2006, Alonso was the talent to watch out for. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel were yet to win their first world titles. Today, as Alonso checks out of Formula 1 with 32 Grand Prix wins and two championships, the statistics seem to do scant justice to the potential and the promise that he once carried. This leads us to wonder: can Alonso be labeled as an underachiever?
Wrong team, wrong time, all the time
It is ironic that Alonso was often hailed as the most complete driver in the sport " when in fact this is probably a myopic view to the definition of "completeness" in the world of Formula 1. If Alonso is the master of placing his car at the perfect spot while on track, he certainly is the best example of where bad career advice can lead one to.
It seems almost funny that he has been in the wrong team at the wrong time for a majority of the last decade. Strangely enough, most of these teams have been former World Champion teams, which prompts us to be a little less judgmental of Alonso's choices and apportion a part of his not-so-happy ending to the Formula 1 chapter to bad luck. Through Alonso's career decisions, we learned the importance of relationships, patience and above all else, team-work. After all, talent alone isn't sufficient when one aims to attain legendary status in any walk of life.
Let's also remember that Alonso is possibly the only driver to have enormously annoyed three major car manufacturers in the world of motorsport " Ferrari, Mercedes and Honda. So much so that while teams are eager to hire the Spaniard for his exploits in the car, they have kept away given his attitude.
There's something about being Alonso that has made teams choose other arguably lesser talents to race their cars. This is despite his tremendous fan appeal " one that prompted Liberty Media to try and convince the former World Champion to not walk away from the sport. Ultimately, his career has been reduced to little more than a perfect example to young drivers of what to do when in the car and what not to do when outside of it.
A career full of what ifs...
Alonso's career summary includes more 'what ifs' than that of any other driver of this generation. What if Alonso's personality and attitude didn't come in the way of his talent? What if he had kept things clean in Hungary in 2007 and won his third title with McLaren? What if Ferrari didn't make mistakes in 2010 and 2012? What if Honda didn't misfire with McLaren in the last few seasons? And finally, what if Alonso raced for Ferrari in 2017 and 2018? But life is not built on what ifs " which is why fans are left surprised with the fact that the man who beat Michael Schumacher in his prime will retire from the sport as only a two-time World Champion. His last World Championship win dates back to 2006!
If the above 'what if' cases turned in favour of Alonso, rather than against him, there are high chances that the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix wouldn't be his last one. And even if it were, the records and statistics alongside his name would definitely be far different. It isn't for no reason that Hamilton recently termed Alonso the best driver he has raced against.
Will Formula 1 miss Alonso?
There is little doubt that Formula 1 will miss the legend of Alonso. In 2018 too, Alonso's talent is what kept him fighting for the best of the rest till a few races ago. Even now, there is a high chance that Alonso might finish in the top-10 in the Drivers' Championship " an achievement that his fans and the media will celebrate more than the driver himself.
McLaren's 6th place in the Constructors' Championship too must be credited to Alonso's early season performances. He has scored more than four times the number of points than his teammate, Stoffel Vandoorne, has and it is without doubt that McLaren has been the second-slowest car on the grid for nearly 2/3rds of the current season; basically deserving of only 9th place in the Constructors' Championship.
Given the recent downturn of form and performances by McLaren and Alonso, it is tough to figure whether the team is holding on to their star driver or vice-versa. However, one thing clear: they are both out of favour currently and are happy to huddle with the other as they await the good times.
In McLaren's case, Alonso is the only big name willing to back them as they struggle to regroup and bring their Formula 1 operations in order " which is why their decision to back Alonso's Indy 500 bid seems puzzling. McLaren know that they are better off supporting and benefitting from the positive chatter around Alonso's zest to achieve the Triple Crown of Motorsport " irrespective of whether he claims it or not. As for Alonso, despite their fall-out in 2007, it seems that McLaren is the only major team he is yet to piss-off. In fact, the sense one gets is that Alonso has made full use of McLaren's out-of-favour status by getting them to back his bid for the Indy 500 crown next year. The person in-charge of putting together Alonso's campaign for racing in America will be former Force India man and a close aide of Vijay Mallya's, Robert Fernley.
Triple Crown of Motorsport
The Triple Crown of Motorsport is an unofficial acclamation in the world of racing and it is somewhat telling of Alonso's choice to chase this record since official titles in Formula 1 are far out of his reach. While we wish Alonso the best in his quest for the Triple Crown, here is also hoping that the next generation of drivers aim to be as mobile as Alonso in terms of choices and not restrict themselves to one racing series alone.
Finally, as Formula 1 fans, we certainly believe that Alonso didn't give the sport enough to celebrate as a driver of his calibre and talent should. But irrespective of how the Fernando Alonso story progresses in the world of motorsport, let's hope that the new-age Formula 1 fans remember him for his gutsy drives rather than the memes and humourous radio messages.