Why Alonso — and not youth — was the answer for Renault


He's soon to turn 39 and isn't known for tolerating a mediocre car. So why did Renault hire Fernando Alonso over a younger driver? asks Chris Medland

Fernando Alonso celebrates winning the 2006 F1 championship at Interlagos after the Brazilian Grand Prix

Alonso celebrates his second title with Renault in 2006

Thierry Bovy/DPPI

He always said he might do it. In fact, you always got the feeling he was going to try and do it, but you never quite knew if anybody was going to give him the shot.

Now we have our answer. Fernando Alonso is back in Formula 1, and back at Renault.

In many ways, it’s a very romantic story. One of F1’s greats – in fact, motorsport’s greats given his Le Mans and Daytona wins – returns to the sport he left with unfinished business, looking to add to his two drivers’ championships with the same team that gave him both titles and made him the youngest world champion at the time.

But not everyone sees it in the same way.

Alonso’s return certainly divides opinions. The fact that he didn’t win another championship after 2006 meant he appeared more frustrated with his lack of return with each passing year. After the McLaren controversy in 2007, big opportunities slipped by in 2010 and 2012 – although the former was largely due to a strategic error in the final race, and the latter was a stunning season in a car that didn’t really deserve to be in the fight – and then it all turned sour.

The return to McLaren to lead the second coming of the iconic McLaren-Honda partnership as part of a dream team alongside fellow world champion Jenson Button did not go to plan, and Alonso understandably tired of the sport. A dismal 2018 despite the switch to Renault power sealed his departure.

Fernando Alonso, Bahrain GP 2019

Alonso’s final stint with McLaren was not a totally harmonious relationship

Charles Coates/Getty Images

And it turned out McLaren had been tiring of him too. Not consciously, I must add, but the atmosphere changed instantly within the team when Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris became its drivers. It was like a cloud had been lifted.

There was such a desire to deliver a car worthy of Alonso’s talent, and such pressure from the Spaniard to do so as he neared the end of his F1 career. So when that was replaced by two young drivers who were full of optimism and not weighed down by the frustrations of the past, the whole team could reset.

That’s not a slight on Alonso in any way, it’s just a different dynamic. It’s one that Ferrari is now chasing by pairing Sainz and Charles Leclerc, relieving itself of the pressure of a multiple world champion driving an under-competitive car.

Alonso has gone away, chased other targets (and continues to as he goes after the Indy 500 in August), but always seemed set on a return. Of course he wants a winning car, and he was targeting the 2021 regulations that might shake up the field, but will have to wait for another year to see if that’s the case, and likely do it in the midfield.

The question many are asking is why bring back a driver who is about to turn 39 and did not take well to driving a midfield car towards the end of his last stint?

Well, quite aside from the fact that he is a world class driver, Alonso is also one of the two best options available to Renault right now. The other is Sebastian Vettel, and who knows if Vettel was interested in the project.

Yes, Renault has a young driver academy, and yes we have seen some excellent youngsters step up to F1 in recent years, but that doesn’t mean every one is going to be the same.

Guanyu Zhou, Austrian GP 2020

Renault Acadmey drivers such as Guanyu Zhou show promise but lack experience Alonso will bring

Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Guanyu Zhou could be a good option in future, but right now he has not delivered the goods. He has shown good pace, that he can win races in F2, but hasn’t put it all together, Christian Lundgaard is also a talent at that level, but he’s only 18, finished sixth in F3 last year and needs plenty more time.

Jack Aitken left for Williams because he rightly didn’t feel Renault would promote from within if needed, and of course one of the brightest talents from the academy who was also racing in F2 – Anthoine Hubert – tragically lost his life at Spa last year.

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So why turn down Alonso for drivers that have yet to prove they’re ready for F1, just because they might be further down the line?

Don’t forget it’s Daniel Ricciardo that Alonso is replacing, as well. The team has already invested in youth in the form of Esteban Ocon, and the Frenchman will be with Renault next season. It’s the older, more established driver that needed finding.

I don’t buy the argument that Ocon doesn’t count as Renault promoting a young driver because he’s a Mercedes asset, either. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the best talent at the time gets the seat, so I’d much rather see Ocon in there over one of the Renault youngsters if the latter was being chosen just to justify the academy’s existence.

Renault also helps youth through its Formula Renault categories, and has plenty more talents coming through the ranks such as 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup champion Oscar Piastri, who won on his debut in the Formula 3 championship on Saturday.

I’m all for giving young drivers a chance. It’s so exciting watching people like Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon, George Russell and Norris coming into F1 and excelling. But almost all of them stepped up with huge reputations that made them impossible to ignore.

Esteban Ocon, 2020 Austrian GP

Will Alonso’s return steady the Renault ship or will the team buckle from expectations?

Clive Mason - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

We were almost spoiled by that crop of talent coming through all at once, and for various reasons, there isn’t one waiting in the wings that exists right now.

Renault has aspirations of winning races and championships in future, and 2022 is the first realistic opportunity for that. There isn’t a young driver that Renault is overlooking as a realistic option who would be any more capable of doing so than Alonso.

The only question mark will be how Alonso will react if Renault struggles massively next year or the year after. The years out might have given him a fresh perspective and renewed energy, or it might leave him even more desperate for success. But then it’s not like he has been snatched from a race-winning car to return to Enstone, so the ‘what might have been’ aspect isn’t there. And it might be a blessing in disguise for a young driver that they are not subjected to that environment if it were to go that way.

Love him or loathe him, whatever happens, it’s going to be compelling viewing. And that’s exactly why it’s the right move for Renault, and for F1.