The evolution of Fernando Alonso: how F1's all-rounder has added another level

F1

Third was good enough to secure Alonso his maiden F1 crown but the driver today is worlds away from 2005's champion

Fernando Alonso, 2005 Brazilian GP

Alonso stands as world champion in Brazil back in 2005

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It was 16 years ago that an emotional Fernando Alonso assessed his achievement in the post-race press conference in Sao Paulo

He had won the 2005 World Championship, dethroning Formula 1’s undisputed king Michael Schumacher in the process by ending his unprecedented dominance of five consecutive titles.

“I think I came from a country with no traditions in Formula 1,” said Alonso who was, at that stage, the youngest title-holder in history. “I fought alone because I had no help from anyone for all of my career. I think this title is the maximum I can achieve in my life, in my career.”

To have done so aged 23 just four years removed from his rookie campaign with Minardi and it’s easy to see why Alonso estimated there was nothing more he could achieve in F1 greater than that.

Of course, he went on to defend his title, beating Schumacher in a direct fight for the championship in 2006 and the world was seemingly at his feet. He had long before agreed to switch allegiances to McLaren for ’07, setting himself up to become the first man since Juan Manuel Fangio to defend their crown with a different team.

Alonso never recaptured the Formula 1 drivers’ championship — at least up to now — and yet the title-winning traits that helped shape a man who is arguably one of F1’s all-time greats have only continued to grow

The raw elements were already in abundance when Alonso arrived in F1 at the beginning of 2001. There must be a few dozen tales of Formula 1 rookies promising their team boss the world, but to do so at Minardi is Alonso all over – supreme confidence, bordering on arrogance. He was denied any points-scoring finishes in that rookie campaign though team boss Paul Stoddart is sure his driver would’ve grabbed a point or two with the scoring system of the modern F1 era.

Alonso’s abilities had already impressed experienced heads well-versed in upstarts arriving on the scene in the paddock.

Fernando Alonso, 2005 Brazilian GP

A scream in parc ferme after taking the title with the Enstone team

ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP via Getty Images

No space for 2002 meant a year on the sidelines for Fernando, but 2003’s racing return left nobody unsure of who the fresh-faced Spaniard was.

His maiden F1 win came in style, lapping reigning champion Schumacher on the way to a dominant Hungarian Grand Prix victory to become F1’s youngest race winner.

The subsequent year was not what he or his team hoped for as Ferrari eased to both titles at a canter, but 2005 would be Alonso’s year.

There were several highlight moments in that title-winning ’05 season. One of the stand-outs came in the fourth round when Alonso kept Schumacher at bay around Imola after an onslaught by the Ferrari man in the closing stages. A cerebral Alonso managed the gap expertly after the seven-time world champion had stormed up to his gearbox but found no route through for the win.

“I thought it was a chance for Michael if I was too close to the car in front and losing some downforce,” he said. “I was backing off in some of the corners that I knew he could not pass me like the last two, and tried to open up the space again with the cars in front. So we kept the two-seconds [gap] with [Mark] Webber.”

His racecraft was already beyond his years and to have soaked up so much pressure from Schumacher of all drivers further proved the ceiling was high in terms of his ultimate talent levels.

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He finished off of the podium just twice all season, such was his consistency in the championship battle. He finished fourth in Monaco and 11th in Hungary while a DNF in Canada and the DNS at Indy courtesy of Michelin’s tyre fiasco were the only blotches on an otherwise impeccable record.

“Being world champion isn’t just about trying to win every race,” Bob Bell, former Renault technical director said of Alonso to Motor Sport. “It’s much more subtle than that, and he demonstrated that very well in 2005 and 2006. He’s got all the know-how to do very well.”

Alonso carried that consistency into ’06 and defended the crown to become the youngest double champion in history. It wasn’t until round 10 of the 18-race season that Alonso finished lower than second, a run that included six wins, four of those consecutive. It was some sequel.

The genius was clear. He’d proven more than capable of a world class performance on track to back up all his talk off of it. And he’d do a fair bit of talking during his career.

Alonso arrived at a McLaren on the cusp of a title and in need of a star driver to get it across the line over the course of a season. Unfortunately for the Woking-squad it got two all at once in the form of the reigning champion and some rookie called Lewis Hamilton. It proved to be one of the most tumultuous periods of his career.

A McLaren insider who was at the team during the 2007 season described Alonso as, ‘the most disruptive and divisive figure I have ever had the displeasure of working with.’ Here was the beginning of a path which separated Alonso from almost certain championship glory in subsequent years.

If he learned anything that season, it was how not to galvanise a team around him and spearhead a title effort. It was more than noted by Alonso himself.

His 2008-2009 return to Renault brought refuge but just two victories, both in ’08. Yet his stock was still comfortably high enough to warrant Ferrari extending an olive branch and bringing him into the fold for 2010.

It was at Ferrari where the finer qualities of championship-calibre Alonso really came to the fore.

The unmatched consistency, never-say-die attitude and utter belief he could win when others could not put Ferrari into championship contention once more.

An announcement after a British GP non-score in 2010 that he would win the title despite sitting fifth in the standings some 47 points down on first place demonstrated his unshakable belief in himself to achieve his ambitions.

“I think we will win. I think we lacked points in Valencia and Silverstone, but these are some moments of the championship where we needed to show that we want the championship and that we are a contender. I am more convinced than before this race that we will win the championship.”

Japan12_ALO

Things didn't click for Alonso at Ferrari...

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...and he lost a further two final day deciders

A madman he was not as by the time the paddock arrived in Abu Dhabi for the finale, he led by eight points yet Ferrari bungled the chance, letting Sebastian Vettel steal it away at the 11th hour.

No matter. Two years later and Alonso put together arguably his finest season to date, taming the wild F2012 and galloping into a title showdown and rematch with Vettel.

Following the summer break, Alonso was a constant presence on the podium and while he couldn’t add to his tally of three race wins from the first half of the season, clawed his way into another final day decider against the odds.

Once again things went the way of the Red Bull driver and it was a championship that elevated the German above Alonso in the eyes of statisticians. The breakdown of another relationship was underway. 2013 was dominated by Vettel while 2014’s regulation change was squandered by Ferrari. The team building lessons learned from his initial McLaren spell were cast aside, disappointment crept in and Alonso’s form for picking the wrong place at the wrong time was truer than ever.

“The problem with Fernando,” Luca di Montezemolo told Mark Hughes in a Motor Sport interview, “was that in his comments he gave the impression that if he was in the Mercedes he would be winning every race. That was very dispiriting for the team. In the car he was fantastic, probably even the best. But that attitude is why I began looking at Sebastian [Vettel] as a better solution for us.” Di Montezemolo’s hiring of arch-rival Vettel stung as did the fact it was Ferrari that pushed him away before he could jump.

The return to McLaren started with promise, a reunion between F1 superpowers in McLaren and Honda was perfect on paper, but fallow years watching rivals Vettel and Hamilton dominate the sport hurt.

Fernando Alonso, 2015 Japanese GP

“Embarrassing” – Alonso’s honest and very public assessment of the McLaren-Honda reunion

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It exposed one area in which Alonso might not have been a master of: the rebuild. Lacking the patience to stick with the project nor the faith that Honda would come good eventually, relations soured between all three parties as the winless run transformed into embarrassing episodes race after race.

It wasn’t just the sharp radio messages decrying the Honda power unit, but his enthusiasm was weakened for Formula 1 racing. His curtness earned him enemies for life in and out of the paddock and have come back to haunt him already on multiple fronts. No phone calls from Red Bull ever emerged as it sought out a new lead driver. No Honda power was forthcoming for an Indy 500 attempt following his famous “GP2 engine” performance during the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix.

“Alonso’s overpowering need is to be winning and his emotionally-driven reaction to things standing in between him and that aim have in the past been simplistic, heavy-handed and ill-advised in the extreme,” Mark Hughes surmised last year in Motor Sport. “There is no diplomacy about how he expresses what he sees as obstacles to the agenda – which is always for him to prevail.”

There was little in the way of learning through positive reinforcement once again, but it was the harsh lessons and realities he faced during those McLaren-Honda years that will count now.

And so he sought out something new, a break away from F1 and a break in a toxic cycle of career mis-steps that meant he had gone a decade without another title.

In those two years, he found disappointment at Indianapolis as he unsuccessfully tried to achieve motor sport’s Triple Crown, yet there was no scathing public decrying of McLaren or Andretti despite its at times farcical preparations.

He stood atop the podium at Le Mans twice alongside team-mates and former F1 drivers Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima, feats that put him at the centre of a team capable of winning, yet requiring team work to ensure its efforts were not wasted.

Alonso then took a swing at the Dakar Rally in his efforts to become a more complete driver. The experience earned him a best stage finish of second and 13th overall, though he had impressed many experienced heads on his debut.

The trident of extra-curricular motor sporting activities have combined to make him a far greater threat than he would be solely as a multiple-time world champion.

He has evolved. A frightening prospect for rivals should Alpine nail the 2022 regulation changes but somehow one of F1’s most complete drivers has added another level during his brief absence. Where there once was tempestuousness or impatience, there is now maturity and acknowledgment of his team’s current plight. There hasn’t been anything like the very public dressing downs over team radio a la McLaren Honda era. Instead, there is a serious work ethic that has shone through despite Alpine’s relative lack of competitiveness.

He has lost nothing of the ‘samurai’ that made him a formidable prospect on track in wheel-to-wheel battle. In fact he may be hungrier than ever to prove his abilities against the next generation of F1 drivers and those old rivals still around.

His current capabilities were most clear at the Hungarian GP earlier this season as he held old foe Hamilton at bay in in the closing stages. Wily old Fernando can still outfox and outbox the toughest of opponents.

“I thought honestly that I could not hold him more than one or two laps,” Alonso said of their battle. “But on the last couple of corners, he seemed to struggle a little bit to follow me. Then it was enough to open a gap on the straight and defend. I think he learned a couple of different lines in the last three corners after the 10 laps behind me. He was able to pass Carlos just in one lap, applying those new lines.”

Fernando Alonso, 2021 Hungarian GP

Surely his finest performance since returning up against a familiar foe

FERENC ISZA/AFP via Getty Images

In that same 10-lap window along with ‘teaching Hamilton a racing lesson’, Alonso effectively won the race. While Ocon took to the top step, his holding up of Hamilton earned Alpine the victory. A selfless act he took great pleasure in despite his podium near miss in fourth as he waited to celebrate with the Frenchman in parc ferme, team spirit well established.

Ocon’s win was the first for an Alonso team-mate since Hamilton took victory at Fuji Speedway in 2007 and while team orders may have played a role in one or two races in between, Alonso’s sheer speed and consistency counts for much of it.

His experiences at Ferrari and McLaren have formed his decision to return to F1 to a team not yet at the peak of F1 but one Alonso clearly feels has the capabilities of making it to the summit.

Speed and consistency from his early days are now combined with the consistency that put him into unlikely title fights, while disappointments now form a wiser, calmer driver capable of playing the team game that will no doubt fall in his favour should a title challenger emerge from the Enstone/Viry connection in 2022.

“You need people like that; you can’t have an attitude of ‘just good enough’ in a top F1 team,” Rob Smedley told Mark Hughes of Alonso. “He doesn’t want to just take part, he just has that single-minded motivation for 365 days a year.”

Alpine needs that as it hopes to recapture the essence of the 2005 and 2006 World Championship-winning team. Whereas before Alonso would present himself as the superior part of the driver/team combination, he now has the bigger picture in mind.

“That is our strength as a team, to score points every Sunday,” he said post-Monza. “We don’t have probably the fastest car on the midfield, but we seem to have the best team on the midfield, so that allowed us to score points every Sunday.”

And he’s been doing all of this with a metal plate in his jaw from a pre-season cycling accident in a midfield car. A third world title is far from impossible, only overdue.