The Frustrating Career of Fernando
Two championships is no small feat... but it should have been so much more.
Fernando Alonso is undoubtedly one of the more talented and skilful drivers to grace Formula 1. His ability to adapt his driving style to best accompany his car allowed him to take 32 wins and 2 championships throughout his career. Anyone viewing his story from outside the sport would agree that he has enjoyed incredible success, however, this does not paint the full picture. Alonso has been guided – for most of his career – by passion without the logic to back it up. Take his recent decision to move back to Renault for 2021; a team that he had great success with back in the mid-2000s but in the current day lack the true pace to have the same success, not to mention at the age of 39. Decisions such as these have not worked out for Alonso in the past, for example, his choice to join McLaren in 2015 with the new Honda engines was completely illogical. Therefore, it’s fair to say that a natural talent such as his could have achieved much much more.
Alonso made his Formula 1 debut at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix for the Minardi F1 Team and managed to achieve a P12 finish albeit two laps down from the race leaders. For the rest of the season, Minardi was not competitive and Alonso failed to finish in the top 10 all season. Flavio Briatore – Alonso’s manager – sought to have him placed in the Benetton team for the 2002 season however Alonso decided to join Renault as a test driver with the agreement to be promoted to be a full-time race driver for 2003. Arguably, his time as a test driver allowed Alonso to develop as an all-round driver and also sit back and see how Renault worked as a team.
Renault upheld their prior agreement and Fernando Alonso joined Renault as a full-time driver in 2003 for what would be the first of three times in his career. This year proved to be pretty special one for Fernando, finishing on the podium four times that season with one being a maiden win at the Hungarian Grand Prix after a truly dominant race finishing over 16 seconds ahead of McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen and in doing so became the youngest driver to ever win a race at 22 years and 26 days old. By the end of the season he finished 6th overall on 55 points. He then continued with Renault in 2004 and failed to improve in terms of points mainly because of the utterly dominant Schumacher who took 13 wins out of 18 races. Although Alonso achieved the same number of podiums than the year before, he finished 4th in the driver’s championship.
Like many drivers, Alonso was never going to achieve great success with Michael Schumacher sat in a dominant Ferrari. And his wish was finally granted in the 2005 season where the Renault R25 proved more powerful than the Ferrari F2005 and Alonso won 7 races and achieved 14 podiums throughout the season. His closest rival wasn’t even Schumacher but instead Kimi Raikkonen in the McLaren. With a beautifully engineered car under him, Alonso was able to take the championship by 21 points. And he also made arguably the best overtake of all time on Michael Schumacher going around the outside at 130R. Moving in to 2006, the Renault arguably remained the dominant car and Alonso won six of the first nine races of the season. However, after Renault’s mass damper device was banned, Ferrari and Schumacher began to close the points deficit to Alonso. Alonso and Schumacher were neck and neck heading into the penultimate race of the season in Japan. However, an engine failure for Schumacher meant Alonso could close out the championship at the following race by achieving one point and he did so by finishing second to become the youngest double world champion in history.
So, from his debut up to the end of 2006, Alonso has had a pretty incredible career. In just five years of Formula 1 he has become a two-time world champion with 15 wins and 36 podiums. However, in my opinion, from 2007 onwards is where his career began to take a turn for the worse, and he began to suffer from missed opportunities. For the 2007 season he was signed by McLaren alongside a young promising rookie called Lewis Hamilton. Unfortunately, Fernando was no longer seen as the underdog and therefore had pretty high expectations, especially seeing as the McLaren was a pretty competitive car. The season began and it was clear that Hamilton was special, and that Fernando would struggle more than with his previous teammates. This was the first time he had to compete to become the number one driver in the team and it was clear he was against this. Both drivers traded race wins aswell as Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen however it was the Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying that really showed the internal battles at McLaren because Alonso blocked Hamilton in the pits that would prevent him from setting a lap time. Nonetheless, they carried on as teammates and he lost the championship by one point to Kimi Raikkonen and tied on points with Hamilton. It was clear that McLaren favoured Hamilton, and Alonso moved back to Renault for the 2008 season.
Alonso found himself at a vastly different Renault team that he knew two seasons before, Renault finished the championship in 4th place in 2007 and lacked any real chance for 2008. In the first 14 races of the season Alonso failed to reach the podium however at the following race in Singapore one of the most controversial scandals of Formula 1 took place when Alonso’s teammate Nelson Piquet Jr crashed on purpose to gift Alonso the race win. Nonetheless, it went down as a race win and Alonso continued this to win the Japanese Grand Prix – without the help if his teammate - one race later aswell. He stayed at Renault for the 2009 season aswell however the team took a major step back in performance and he only finished on the podium once, rounding the season in 9th place in the standings.
After two pretty dismal seasons at Renault if were honest, Alonso knew he needed a race winning team to go for a third championship. In the mid-season of 2009 negotiations began with the iconic Ferrari for a race drive in 2010 and by the time September came along the contract was signed and Alonso was off to Maranello. Fernando’s first season in red started perfectly with a win in Bahrain however 2010 seemed an extremely competitive season. At the halfway point at the British Grand Prix, the top five in the championship were split by 47 points and Alonso found himself at the bottom of the pile. However, in the second half of the season Alonso found his form and won four out of the eight remaining races and Alonso led the championship by eight points heading into the final race. Luck was not on his side however and he finished 7th after a difficult race gifting the championship to Sebastian Vettel.
A difficult season in 2011 finishing 4th meant Alonso was running out of time especially as the Red Bull seemed to be getting stronger and stronger. He bounced back in 2012, outdriving his uncompetitive Ferrari F2012 to finish 2nd in the championship once more and only 3 points behind Sebastian Vettel. You could tell that Alonso gave the 2012 season his all by his reaction to Vettel winning the championship at the Brazilian Grand Prix and some say this was the moment that Alonso knew the championship was so so close. If we take a look back at the seasons where Alonso had a proper good chance of winning; we can say that 2007, 2010 and 2012 fit the criteria. Now if we look at how many points more Alonso would have needed to win each championship, (meaning two in 2007, four in 2010 and four in 2012) Alonso only would have needed to score nine more points to be a 5-time world champion. Of course, this is the same for many other drivers however it’s fair to say that Alonso could have achieved so much more.
Nonetheless he stayed at Ferrari for 2013 which proved a stunning season for Alonso however the dominant Red Bull meant Vettel won the championship without much competition 155 points ahead of second-placed Alonso. Due to the lack of performance and lack of promise, Fernando began to fall out of love with Maranello and started to show interest in leaving the team. Consistent poor performances and the rise of Mercedes eventually prompted Alonso to leave Ferrari and take the gamble on McLaren who would be supplied by Honda engines for the 2015 season.
Many saw this decision as make or break because at the time Alonso was 34 years old and if he had any chance of winning another championship this would have to be it. But as we all know what happened was quite the opposite. The romantic decision for McLaren to use Honda engines just like they did in the Senna days was a complete failure, the unreliable and powerless engines caused enormous headaches for both Alonso and McLaren. In the 2015 season Alonso finished in 17th place even behind his teammate Button and the following three seasons improved slightly but still remained utterly terrible for Alonso’s standards.
By the end of 2018 Alonso had had enough of sniping at the midfield and called it quits on Formula 1 for the time being. Instead he decided to pursue the Triple Crown by winning the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans and Indy 500 and become only the second man in history to do so. In pursuit of Le Mans he joined the Toyota Gazoo Racing team and in his first attempt in 2018 won convincingly alongside Sebastian Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima. In pursuit of the Indy 500, he managed to get McLaren to enter solely for the purpose of Alonso. In 2017, he was leading the race for a stint however on lap 179 the Honda powered car of Fernando Alonso slowed with an engine failure and retired from the race. He then came back in 2019 for a second attempt but lacked too much speed and failed to qualify for the race completely. In my opinion, this humiliating failure for Alonso started his interest in returning to Formula 1 because later in the year in December he began speaking to Renault about the possibility of a return.
In terms of Alonso’s decision to return, I would say either there is something we do not know about Renault and their competitiveness or Alonso simply missed the sport as a whole. Most likely it is latter however he did say when he left the sport two years ago that he would only return if he was in a winning car. Nevertheless, it is great to see Fernando return to the sport and the team where he won those two championships 15 years ago.