He may have turned 40 last July, but Fernando Alonso has no intention of slowing down any time soon. After using the 2021 season to get back up to speed after a two-year absence from Formula 1 his focus is fully on moving up the grid this year as the new regulations create a fresh start for everyone.
With Kimi Räikkönen now retired Alonso is now out on his own as the elder statesman of the sport, having started with Minardi way back in 2001. The two years he spent away in 2019 and 2020, winning with Toyota in the WEC as well as sampling other forms of motor sport, have given him a fresh impetus after the frustration of his McLaren years.
When his return was announced in the summer of 2020 Alonso made it clear that he was looking at the bigger picture of the 2022 regulations, and that 2021 would be a year of transition and learning.
Nevertheless last season his rebranded Alpine team didn’t make the progress he had hoped for, remaining in fifth place in the world championship, and far behind fourth-placed McLaren. That was in part due to a lack of development on both the chassis and power unit – the team was caught out by the postponement of the new regulations to 2022, a move that left it using what was essential old tech for a season longer than originally planned.
Over the season the two men proved to be well matched, especially in qualifying. They seemed to get on well, recognising that their joint efforts would help to move the team on.
“The most rewarding moments for sure were the highs and the moments that we performed a little bit better,” says the Spaniard. “Obviously the victory for Esteban in Hungary, that was the best moment for us as a team. My podium in Qatar was obviously a very, very nice feeling.
“I will have to do more than other drivers. Because yes, I’m older than them.”
“But generally it has been a good year for me, on track and off track, I did enjoy the time with the team in this comeback. So I was super happy.
“I had the luxury to come back to the sport when I decided. When I decided, I stopped, when I decided, I came back. This is a very high luxury, because normally it’s a very small group of drivers that can drive in F1, and it’s not easy to have this kind of possibility.
“So I felt I felt thankful for this, and also the way that the season has been for me from improving every time and finishing very strong. It was the best way to prepare for 2022.”
The team’s 2021 form followed something of a rollercoaster path, with the cars easily making Q3 one weekend, and struggling the next.
Several drivers who had changed teams took a while to get fully dialled in at their new homes, and it was even harder for Alonso after his spell out of the sport. It took him a while to adjust.
“The biggest challenge was probably the front tyres,” he says. “The philosophy that every team has in terms of front suspension, the power steering feedback that you get on the steering wheel, that’s obviously very unique for each of the teams. And the front tyre construction changed from 2020 to 2021. And that was a challenge, I think, for everybody.
“But it was more a challenge apparently for the people that changed teams, as we saw at the beginning of the year. And for me as well, because I was two years out of the sport.”
Teams had just three days of testing prior to the 2021 season, split between the two drivers. Alonso gained some handy mileage in an old Renault in private testing, but he had hardly any running in the proper car before the first race. He knew that it would take him time to get up to speed once the season started.
“Probably the one day and a half was the biggest limitation,” he says. “If it was a normal winter, that you go four or five days in the car, that was enough, you know, to spot a couple of the problems and to fine tune some of the things that I was missing at the beginning of the year. So that I would say was the biggest challenge, not to have proper winter testing.
“Obviously, for me, it was it not a big issue. But I understand that for some others to have four or five races that I was not competitive, it was kind of a surprise, you know. I came back and even if you are two years out of the sport, people have always high expectations, and think that you will be fast immediately. And I was not fast.
“I was not sad, but I didn’t like if I disappointed anyone. I was convinced that with time everything will be back to normality, as it was at the end of the year. And in terms of points, in terms of qualifying positions, etcetera. I’m happy with the final result.”
His preparation for the season was not helped by a cycling accident that disrupted his training. This time around, and well aware that he now has to work harder than younger rivals to maintain top form, he will leave nothing to chance.
“This winter, I want to do a little bit more,” he says. “Obviously, I don’t train the same now that I am 40, than when I was 23. You have to train more, you have to stretch more, you have to have a different food routine, you have to do many, many other things to be at the same shape, and with the same strength.
“So I’m ready to do so, that’s why I came back as well. There are more sacrifices to do. But that’s the plan for this winter, I will be as strong as I can. I will have to train and I will have to do more than other drivers. Because yes, I’m older than them.”
“Physically, I think the cars of today are not very demanding”
The other aspect of passing 40 is the level of F1 experience he has accumulated, and which was topped up by his ventures into other categories.
“On the age, I feel good, honestly I feel an advantage,” he says. “When I come to a circuit, I know the circuits. Everyone is testing this 18-inch tyre, and I know very well these tyres from the WEC. There is exactly the same behaviour on the tyres and the same way you have to drive the tyre, which is very different.
“So all the things that I am facing, other people are [facing them] for the first time, and for me it’s a second or third time. So this is good. The only problem to be old is that you have to have the motivation to go into a season that you will be 300 days per year away. You know you have to have that desire, you have to have that lifestyle that allows you to dedicate yourself to this sport.
“Apart from that, all the other things are advantages. And then, physically, I think the cars of today are not very demanding, I think 2004-5, maybe the age was a limitation.”
Alonso has never been shy to voice his views. In his third stint with the Enstone team his input was welcomed by an organisation that knew that it had lessons to learn.
“There are always a few things that we are still not on top of. Obviously, with experience and working for different teams, I could see some things where we were weak. Other areas, we were very strong. And you try always to make the team stronger and stronger, and more prepared for 2022.
“I think we are in better shape now than what we were in in March in Bahrain. But there are still a few things that I’m sure we will have to fix. But the most important is if the car is fast in February, and that’s an unknown situation for everybody.”
All now depends on how well the Enstone design team has addressed the new chassis rules, and what kind of step the Viry PU department has made, the French engine having lagged behind rivals in 2021.
“I think we need for sure to close the gap on the engine,” says Alonso. “That’s why there is this new idea, new project, and also we need to close the gap on the aero performance. On that aspect it’s difficult to know what is the gap, and what is the baseline now.
“There is no data that we can put on the computer, so at the moment there are only hopes but I understand that these hopes are for everybody. It’s not only to us, and it’s a completely unknown territory what we will find.
“I’m optimistic, we have the right resources, we have the commitment from Luca de Meo, from Laurent Rossi, all our management they are committed to F1. The budget cap should help, because there is not an unlimited budget for the top teams. Now it’s more or less same budget for everybody.
“And it’s up to us to do a good car. If we don’t do it we will learn from our mistakes. But there are no more ‘we have less budget’ or ‘we have less resources’ or ‘they are using two wind tunnels’. There are not any more of those things. So it’s up to us.”