It goes without saying that Fernando Alonso is one of the finest Formula One drivers in recent history. He is revered in paddocks, grandstands and living rooms the world over but it has been what feels like an age since he was given a car able to challenge for victories and championships. His two titles, supreme speed and controversial comments make him a popular figure with fans but will we ever again see him at the front of the grid where he belongs?
Alonso’s supreme talent and sheer will to win promised much in the early days of his career. Indeed, when he succeeded in wrestling the world championship from the vice-like grip of Michael Schumacher in 2005 and successfully defended it the following year, you would have been forgiven for predicting that he would go on to collect many more race victories and world championships in a probable illustrious career.
His early days at Italian minnows Minardi put his obvious talent in the shop window and the eventual move to Renault would only serve to confirm the notion that he could cut it with the best. He was the real deal and beating seven-time Michael Schumacher’s prancing horse and the ice-cool Kimi Raikkonen to his mid-2000s double looked to be the foundations on which the future accumulation of silverware would rest.
There was so much promise. His replacing of Raikkonen at McLaren, the team of childhood hero Ayrton Senna, would in all likelihood see the Woking-based squad place him in such high esteem. The car would be built around him and he was the hero that would ride the chrome chariot to glory. An era of Alonso domination seemingly loomed, especially as his rookie team-mate would surely support him in his 2007 championship bid whilst he learnt the ropes.
You know the story. His rollercoaster year and acrimonious departure from the team led to a two-year stint at former team Renault, although the team was not what it once was and he was limited to just two race wins in as many years. Next came the move that would hopefully rejuvenate his career and deliver the titles he was craving: he became Scuderia Ferrari’s latest star driver. The Tifosi welcomed him with open arms at the start, resting the burden of their country’s hopes upon his shoulders. His time at the Maranello-based marque got off to a dream start with a debut victory, however, the car lacked pace for most of the early exchanges of the season and although he still had a chance of snatching a third drivers’ crown in Abu Dhabi he missed out.
He showed his class during his period with the Scuderia, asserting himself as de-facto number one and comprehensively outperforming the highly regarded Felipe Massa. His time with the famous team, however, would be characterised by frustration and although he consistently and amazingly out-drove the car, his dreams of becoming world champion in the Scarlet overalls were not realised. Some incredible stand-out performances only rose his stock further, but his luck abandoned him as he was forced to compete in second or third best cars. There is no doubting the man’s abilities but in F1 if you don’t have a car capable of consistently challenging at the front you can forget about championships. The dream marriage of Alonso and Ferrari that promised so much did not deliver, and the two eventually parted ways after the relationship soured somewhat. A pattern was starting to form but he hoped the next move would buck the trend and launch him to his former heights.
Of course, he did not have a crystal ball and the grid is in a constant state of flux but to make a wrong decision again would be deeply exasperating. If the moves to join McLaren and Ferrari were miscalculated, his decision to re-join McLaren from 2015 is sadly nothing short of disastrous. The partnership between McLaren and Honda has thus far been fruitless in its attempts to rediscover the glory days and in fact the tie-up has seen them slide even further backwards. His occasional team radio outbursts have given us a glimpse into his frustrations and they the level of criticism aimed at Honda has been increasing as time has passed. Likening the car’s engine to that of a GP2 car in their home race was a low point for the team and the Alonso in the grey car was a million miles away from the one taking the championship a decade before.
Throughout 2017 pre-season testing, Alonso has on numerous occasions publicly lambasted the Japanese engine manufacturer for pitching up with yet another woefully slow and unreliable Power Unit despite. Honda’s strategy of throwing money at a problem is not working and Alonso is cutting a disenfranchised figure at present. His knack of extracting every ounce of performance from the equipment he is given almost paid dividends in Melbourne though, as he was on course to score a point before a suspension failure put pay to his hopes. Even when the engine doesn’t let him down, another issue rears its ugly head. You can’t fault the man. He may not be at the right end of the grid but he’s driving the legs off his car and still demonstrating his abundance of skill.
The Motorsport network reported that he is currently top of the pack in terms of popularity after presenting preliminary findings from their 2017 Global Fan Survey, however this will do little to satisfy the hunger and frustrations of a champion obsessed with returning home to the podium. In one respect he is like his peers and is in Formula One to do one thing: win.
His time at McLaren-Honda epitomises everything his career following the titles should not have been. The man who was destined to march to more championships, possibly even become the most decorated ever, has on occasion forced to seek comfort in the form of a deck chair or trackside camera to distract from the on-track heartbreak inflicted by an unceremoniously underperforming car.
For how much longer can he stomach the pain? With every passing retirement and embarrassment, his legacy and tolerance is eroded, the image of race victories and world championships distant memories drowned out by a sea of recent horrors. He can perhaps take solace from the fact that many see him as the most accomplished and complete driver on the grid, pound-for-pound at least as good as fellow champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
It looks as if 2017 has in store a potentially titanic struggle for the championship between Hamilton and Vettel, yet the absence of Fernando Alonso weakens its allure somewhat. His rightful place is at the front with those two, all three of them undoubtedly the cream of the crop in F1 terms. Others are close but among the crowd reside a special few and Alonso is one of them. Picture for a moment Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso going toe-to-toe week in, week out in front-running cars. Don’t pretend you don’t wish it to be the case, you’re not fooling anyone.
It is to the sport’s detriment that we are not witnessing Fernando Alonso at the height of his powers in an able machine, yet the circus rolls on anyway. There is little room for sentiment in F1 and being a champion he will be all too aware. At the time of writing, rumours are circulating that Alonso’s time at the pinnacle of Motorsport could be nearing its conclusion. He is at his wits’ end and the possibility of a mid-season departure looms large.
We can remain hopeful that however unlikely, Fernando can again take his seat at the top table and contest the crown that once sat atop his head.
In the likely case that he does not return from the Formula One wilderness, I want to leave you with a photo that perfectly captures how his legacy and impact upon the sport ought to be remembered.