To many, the most talented racing driver of the modern era of Formula 1 is not Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel, but instead it’s Fernando Alonso. The first ever Spaniard to win the world championship, winner of 32 Grands Prix, holder of 22 pole positions and 23 fastest laps, might be remembered for underachieving, but that would be a poor way to recall a career that holds many, many, brilliant performances.
This isn’t a bio, or a summary of Alonso’s career. Those exist in many forms and places. This is merely my memories of his career, and what I think of him as a racing driver. This is also a long-overdue re-write of a page I first wrote years ago!
I would have to echo the sentiment that Alonso is one of the best there has ever been, and it is a travesty that he only has two F1 world championships to his name. Alonso himself has been philosophical on the subject, saying he has the titles he deserves, but had one decision here, one choice there, been a little different, he might well have more.
His world titles came in 2005 and 2006, at which time he was both the youngest ever champion, and the youngest ever back-to-back champion. His race craft at Renault saw him earn the respect of his rivals, and it was obvious back then he was tremendous, but his skills were definitely enhanced by experience. Alonso may not go on to win another title, but in his remaining years in F1 he would win many more races, and more importantly, he would get results out of his cars that defied expectations.
Perhaps the greatest example of this came in 2012. By this point Alonso was into his third season with Ferrari, having narrowly missed out on the 2010 title (and prior to that, his ill-fated one-off year with McLaren in 2007 had seen him also just miss out). The Ferrari was, at its very best, the third-best car on the grid, but Alonso eked out results, including some big wins, and important podiums, to take the title fight with Sebastian Vettel and the vastly superior Red Bull car to the final round. It remains a pointed example of how a driver is every bit as important as the car, and why the top teams seek out the top drivers. Could Vettel have won races with that car? Maybe. Could Hamilton? Perhaps. Could either of them have competed so hard for the title? I’m not sure they could (and that’s despite the tremendous respect I have for Hamilton).
Alonso was clearly still hungry for success, but Ferrari couldn’t deliver him a competitive car. 2013 started well, with two wins in the first four races, but from then on, the team slid backward, a trend that continued into 2014 and the first year of the new turbo-hybrid engines. Alonso was frustrated and made a fateful decision…
Lured back to McLaren with promises of a strong, well designed car and an exciting project with returning engine suppliers Honda, Alonso soon found himself within a nightmare. The 2015 McLaren was slow, struggling miserably with an engine well off the pace, and was plagued with reliability issues. On several occasions Alonso would vent his ire over the team radio, despite maintaining his commitment to the project elsewhere.
Things did not improve to any significant degree over his remaining years at McLaren. The 2016 and 2017 cars were not much better, but Alonso, despite his grumbles in the cockpit, was determined, and he would often drag the car into points-scoring positions, pulling off some bold and punchy moves in the process. It was a situation that would continue in 2018, Alonso’s final season in the sport. Now with Renault engines, the car remained uncompetitive, but he kept going, kept pushing, and did everything he could to get the most out of the car.
Such is Alonso’s natural skill that when he took part in the 2017 Indy 500, driving a completely different type of car on a completely different type of track, he was agonisingly close to winning it, when his Honda engine (no, not the same type in his F1 car!) gave out. However, Alonso made his mark, and reaffirmed his legacy as a legend of the genre.