Back in his days of world championship success with Renault, in 2005 and 2006, things seemed very different for Fernando Alonso. He was the popular hero, the plucky Spaniard who finally toppled the great Michael Schumacher. But now that he is Ferrari's team leader, it seems he has adopted the mantle of anti-hero from the German. Controversy courts him, and his ability to emerge from it apparently unscathed has earned him the nickname "Teflonso".
When he went to Ferrari for this year, many expected him to dominate just like Schumacher used to: the best driver in the best team. So what's gone wrong? Why has his season been a litany of modest success interspersed with uncharacteristic mistakes?
It began so well, with a debut victory in Bahrain, then came a brilliant drive in Malaysia as he fought for points despite a recalcitrant gearbox which made the Ferrari a nightmare to drive and led to an engine failure. China saw him jump the start for the first time in his F1 career, then clash with team-mate Felipe Massa as he overtook him in the pit entry lane.
The most significant – and embarrassing – mistake came in Monaco, when he finished only sixth after crashing in practice. But after he had illegally overtaken Robert Kubica at Silverstone his prevarication over letting the Pole back past cost him a drive-through penalty and raised questions over his judgement. Then there was the crash at Spa last time out.
In between came a strong showing spoiled by team strategy in Canada, the controversial "team orders" win in Hockenheim at Massa's cost, and a decent second in Hungary that helped push him into belated title contention.
So he's under big pressure, as if racing for Ferrari on their home ground wasn't problem enough. He denies that this is a make-or-break weekend, but acknowledges that if Ferrari do badly here and in Singapore in a fortnight's time, they will have to abandon their 2010 title hopes and shift the developmental focus to the 2011 car.
"There's no denying that Monza will be very important," he concedes. "At our home circuit we will have to do everything to avoid losing any more points: a good result here would be a great boost. If things go badly, it won't be bye-bye for the championship but it would be a hard knock for team morale. But I have always said that in the season good luck and bad luck tend to balance one another out, so let's hope that from now on it's payback time."
Some say Ferrari have already had that after escaping further punishment earlier this week for the "team orders" affair and Alonso gets snappy when people push that point. "It's in the past for us. All the August break we talked about the Germany incident. I have no special feeling, nothing to say."
It was here four years ago he angrily declared that F1 was no longer a sport after being penalised for impeding Massa's Ferrari, but he seems unwilling or unable to acknowledge the sporting injustice of team orders. Instead he insists that a 2010 title would be as good as his two previous crowns, "Because when you win the title, you win the title."
But if he doesn't succeed this year, will he regard that as failure? "Ah, no," he says quickly. "For sure, every championship you start or every first race you arrive to a new season, you want to become champion at the end. If you cannot arrive to that goal, it's a disappointment for yourself and for the team. But I think the words failure or disaster are a bit too extreme. We are in a very competitive sport, we know our opponents are very strong as well, very competitive and the champion at the end is the one that deserves it most. If we are not champions, it's because we didn't do enough to do it."
He pauses. "This first season at Ferrari, so far, has been incredible. It has been the best of my life and I'm enjoying it. I'm a super-happy man." That's a view, however, that increasingly seems at odds with his scowling expression at races.
Alonso's troubled season
Malaysia, 4 April Problem with Ferrari's downshift leads to the engine blowing up on the last lap. He finishes in 13th.
China, 18 April Jumps start and incurs a drive-through penalty, but recovers to fourth place.
Monaco, 16 May Destroying his Ferrari in practice. Fights back to take sixth in the race.
Turkey, 30 May Car is woefully off the pace as Alonso struggles to eighth place.
Canada, 13 June Long pit-stop costs him dearly and he ends up finishing third.
Europe, 9 May Loses out during a safety car intervention. Finishes eighth and accuses the stewards of manipulating the race.
Britain, 11 July Collides with Massa early on, then incurs a penalty after illegally overtaking Robert Kubica. Later collides with Tonio Liuzzi in a Force India. Finishes 15th.
Germany, 25 July Controversy as Massa slows to let Spaniard past to win. Alonos angers media with turbulent response to suggestions that it has been a hollow victory.
Belgium, 29 August Crashes in the rain.Reuse content