How Fernando Alonso reinvented himself as the most popular driver in F1
By taking on challenges outside the F1 bubble, Alonso has become a huge fan favourite
Cast your mind back to the middle of the 2010 Formula 1 season. Specifically, lap 48 of the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.
Felipe Massa had led the majority of the race, with his Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso running second.
But the little Brazilian was about to receive the infamous “Fernando is faster than you” radio call - a thinly veiled instruction to move over for his teammate that even came with an apology from his race engineer Rob Smedley.
On lap 49 Felipe dutifully allowed the sister Ferrari to assume the lead. Alonso went on to secure the win, with Massa taking P2.
Neither Felipe Massa nor Fernando Alonso look thrilled on the podium at Hockenheim in 2010 (Pic: Sutton)
We may not have known it at the time, but this moment was arguably the low point of Alonso’s reputation. It was not the greatest charge against him – he had already been at the heart of two enormous scandals – but it confirmed a negative view of the Spaniard and left him among the least popular drivers on the grid.
How things have changed.
ANOTHER PR NIGHTMARE
Many fans were disgusted at Alonso’s orchestrated victory at Hockenheim. After all, no one watches F1 to see cars swap the lead at the instruction of the pitwall – they want genuine racing.
What’s more, Massa was a popular driver in a position to win a grand prix less than a year after a near-fatal accident in Hungary. That this opportunity was taken away because Alonso stood a better chance at the title left fans furious.
And it’s worth remembering a little about Alonso’s previous misdemeanours. Three years earlier he had been embroiled in the “spygate” controversy that threatened to destroy McLaren, during which Alonso allegedly tried to blackmail Ron Dennis and sabotaged teammate Lewis Hamilton’s qualifying at the Hungaroring.
Just 12 months later Alonso was at the heart of another controversy. The 2008 Singapore Grand Prix fixing scandal – dubbed “crashgate” when it was exposed the following year – saw Alonso win after his teammate intentionally hit the wall to bring out a safety car.
Nelson Piquet crashes at Singapore - we later discovered he did it on purpose to help Alonso win the race (Pic: Sutton)
In the aftermath team bosses Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds were banned from F1, but Alonso was cleared. It led to him being dubbed “Teflonso” – because nothing sticks.
A REPUTATION REBUILT
Today, Alonso is a rehabilitated character. You could argue that he is the most popular driver among committed F1 fans. If not, he’s undeniably the most respected man on the grid.
But he has not added to his two world titles during this period. In fact, he has not won a race in almost five years and hasn’t stood on an F1 podium since the midway point of the 2014 season.
Instead, Alonso has rebuilt his reputation among F1 fans by racing outside F1.
Of course, we can’t ignore what he has done since 2010 in grand prix machinery. His 2012 campaign was a champion’s performance in all but its end result. He’s been relentless at McLaren, too, wringing every last drop of speed from a woeful package and somehow maintaining his motivation (the odd radio outburst aside).
But Alonso truly rebuilt his reputation last May, when he skipped the Monaco Grand Prix to contest the Indy 500. Just as we can now look back at Germany 2010 as the moment he hit rock bottom, Indy in 2017 will come to be seen as the event that returned Alonso’s reputation to the stratosphere.
A REAL RACER
Alonso performed well at Indy. He was in the mix to at least score a podium when his engine Honda expired (no change there), but he did a superb job of engaging with the American fans. The applause he received from the grandstand as he stepped from his smoking car was testament to this. Keep in mind that many of the 300,000-strong crowd didn’t even know who Alonso was before he arrived at the Brickyard.
But they weren’t the only ones who had been won over – the F1 fanbase loved what Alonso did in May as well. Once seen as arrogant, he had stepped out of his comfort zone and challenged himself to a new form of racing. That takes not only guts, but also humility.
He’d entered a race that several of his F1 rivals declared to be too risky. Indy is indeed a dangerous venue – in qualifying last year, Sebastien Bourdais suffered a fractured pelvis in a monster crash.
More over, Alonso had appealed to fans’ keen sense of nostalgia. When not racing in F1, legends of the past like Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart would run at Indy, at Le Mans, and even in F2 machinery. They stepped out of the F1 bubble and embraced motorsport more broadly.
Put simply, they were pure racers. Alonso’s Indy run cast him in the same light.
MORE ADVENTURES TO COME
Now the Spaniard is preparing to contest his first endurance race, running for McLaren boss Zak Brown’s United Autosports team at the Daytona 24 Hours.
This too has enhanced his reputation. Alonso isn’t simply rocking up at Le Mans to contest the biggest endurance event on the planet. He’s dipping a toe in the water at a smaller (though still major) race to get a feel for 24-hour competition.
He’s unlikely to be as competitive at Daytona as he was at Indy. Whereas Andretti Autosport are the established kings of Indianapolis, Alonso and co. are lacking the optimum chassis/engine package at Daytona.
But that doesn’t really matter. Fans see a driver who wants to race every weekend, be it in a grand prix, on an oval or at a 24-hour race. Like him or not, everyone can respect this level of passion.
A LESSON FOR ALL
As F1 has grown ever more commercial, drivers have become more guarded and are often wrapped in cotton wool by their teams. Alonso has broken free of this.
Of course, he has the profile and the talent to make things happen. But perhaps more drivers will now follow his lead and explore other areas of motorsport when they’re not on F1 duty. And perhaps – though this is a longer shot – their teams will encourage them do so.
It’s certainly done wonders for Alonso’s reputation. Once the most controversial driver on the grid, age and experience have turned him into one of the most popular, and certainly the most versatile.