Matters of moment: October 2018

It doesn’t take much to get our features editor Simon Arron scrambling for a notepad and pen, but the news that Fernando Alonso would be leaving Formula 1 at the end of the season and replaced by Carlos Sainz had him scribbling with greater alacrity than usual.

The reason for his eagerness became clear a few minutes later when he tore off a notepad page and announced triumphantly: “I knew it. 1981.”

Written down was a list of McLaren driver line-ups through the decades. The reason why he had alighted on 1981 and its significance is explained eloquently in his story on our website www.motorsportmagazine.com. All I will say here is that it makes uncomfortable reading for any fan of the Woking team.

Of course, much was made about Alonso’s departure from F1. The consensus seems to be that his was a great, yet ultimately unfulfilled, talent; a driver whose career was banjaxed by bad decisions – leaving Renault after winning two world titles, reportedly turning down a potential drive with Brawn in 2009, joining Ferrari just at the moment Red Bull began its era of dominance. But it is his run-in with Lewis Hamilton and the McLaren management at the 2007 Hungarian Grand Prix that to my mind offers the best insight into the flawed nature of this most naturally gifted racer.

As a reminder, the race took place against a backdrop of increasing frustration for Alonso as his number one spot in the team came under threat by the rookie Hamilton. Things boiled over in the pits during qualifying, with Alonso delaying his getaway, holding up Hamilton and denying him enough time to complete a final qualifying lap. The episode lit the touch paper on the McLaren-Alonso relationship, which would ultimately combust. It also marked his card with many.

As Mark Hughes identified in his comment piece immediately after the news and also available on our website, the episode was “a mis-step from which his career would never fully recover.”

He goes on: “Imagine he’d stayed at McLaren first time around for the full three years of his contract. Both Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton made several crucial errors in their 2008 title fight – and it’s difficult to imagine Alonso would have. Then he’d have been in place in 2009 to have witnessed the rise of Red Bull – and maybe had the opportunity of joining Sebastian Vettel there from 2010 onwards. Had it happened that way, would anyone have come close to Alonso’s career stats?”

But for all the talk about Alonso’s unfulfilled promise, it is worth noting that his departure is a major loss for F1. Alonso is one of only two true box-office superstars on the grid. Sure, other drivers may boast better stats but in terms of raw, bums-on-seats charisma, only Hamilton comes close. For a sport desperate to broaden its appeal and find a way of being heard amid the hubbub of 24-hour sports channels, his is a devastating loss.

What’s more it is hardly a surprise. Ever since Alonso began dabbling with IndyCar and Le Mans, a permanent move has been on the cards. This should have been flashing red on F1 owner Liberty Media’s radar and it should have done everything it could to ensure he stayed. Rumour has it that Dorna – the ruling body of MotoGP – has long been proactive in ensuring star riders such as Valentino Rossi remain with the sport. Could Liberty have made similar moves for Alonso?

Perhaps less controversially, F1’s owner might consider that, at its most basic level, it has lost a star driver because the sport is just not competitive enough. Put simply, when you have a situation where only two or three teams out of 10 can win races, then you have a problem. Competitive, ambitious drivers who don’t have a seat with the top teams will look elsewhere.

I HAVE NEVER bought into the idea of bucket lists – mainly because they always seem to consist of things that don’t interest me, swimming with dolphins, say, or throwing yourself out of a perfectly good aircraft.

However, if I did then watching the 1000 Lakes Rally would certainly be on my list. A couple of years ago I interviewed Ari Vatanen and he spoke movingly about his childhood in Finland and the extraordinary beauty of the country. I now know what he means.

The rallying isn’t bad, either. I travelled as a guest of Toyota Gazoo Racing and thanks to Chris Rawes, who guided us through the forests, down little-known tracks to spectacular viewing spots, managed to get about as close to a gravel-spitting WRC car taking a corner flat-out as I ever hope to be again. Ott Tänak won, much to the delight of a legion of fans from neighbouring Estonia, who made it feel like a home victory. But it was the Finns who made it so memorable. Along every road and past every isolated mountain homestead, entire families and young children were sitting on the verge watching the cars journey between special stages. It reminded me of what Vatanen had said when I asked what his clearest memory of the sport was when he was growing up.

He said: “The first time I saw a rally was 1964 in the middle of June, when one came for the first time to Tuupovaara. At 2am, in June, it is a fantastic light, half night and half day… and in that fantastic light they came... I waited until 10pm when the rest of the family had gone to bed then went by bicycle. I got to a bank on a long left-hand corner and waited four hours before the first car came. And then in the summer Finnish light the first Volvo 544 comes with the drum brakes glowing hot as it goes around sideways. That night my spirit went with the car and my body stayed on the bank.”

I came away from Finland exhilarated by the event, and wondering how many future rally drivers and champions I had unknowingly passed along the side of the road.