Alonso departs to end marriage of inconvenience

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The Independent Online

The confirmation yesterday that Fernando Alonso has left McLaren, brings to a close one of the most disappointing and acrimonious driver-team relationships in history.

When, almost two years ago, it was announced that the Spaniard, then world champion for the first time with Renault, would move to McLaren for 2007, it took the Formula One world by complete surprise.

A chance conversation between Alonso and the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, at the trophy presentation for the 2005 Brazilian GP – in which third place for the Spaniard behind the conquering McLarens of Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen had been sufficient to cement his title – led quickly to an agreement that December.

Having dropped the ball in 2006 after challenging for the 2005 championship with Raikkonen, McLaren regrouped over the winter and came up with a much better car, the MP4-22 which, contrary to popular opinion, owed nothing to Ferrari's F2007.

Alonso's sole concern, which he expressed to some members of the team when Lewis Hamilton was first confirmed as his team-mate for 2007, was whether the rookie would help him to score enough points for McLaren to win the world constructors' title.

However, from their first race together, the Australian GP in Melbourne, it was clear that the young Englishman would be a title contender. Alonso became increasingly unsettled, especially since Hamilton held the lead in the drivers' world championship from the Spanish GP in May onwards. Only months earlier, Alonso had universally been regarded as the best driver in Formula One, one who did not make mistakes and had the strongest head.

At Monaco the team brought Hamilton in for a refuelling stop three laps earlier than he had expected, thus ensuring that Alonso won the race, following complaints from him that the 22-year-old had been favoured up until that point.

No matter what steps Dennis, one of the fairest-minded individuals in the sport, did to assuage his doubts, Alonso continued to express his belief to the Spanish media that he was an outsider. When he had encountered stress at Renault, he had said much the same thing.

Things reached a head in Hungary when, allegedly, Alonso attempted to blackmail Dennis into favouring him for the remainder of the season – or else he would inform the sport's governing body, the FIA, that the disgraced chief designer, Mike Coughlan, was not the only man who knew the secrets of Ferrari's F2007; both he and test driver Pedro de la Rosa were privy, too.

A shocked Dennis called Alonso's bluff by reporting his own team to the FIA, which set in train the events which led to McLaren's exclusion from the 2007 constructors' race (which they were leading) and a $100m (£50m) fine. Dennis and Alonso have not spoken since then.

A split was inevitable even though Alonso was contracted until 2009, but it was not discussed until after the final race of the season, since it was felt that any such discussion could seriously have disrupted the team's and Alonso's championship challenge.

"Since I was a boy I had always wanted to drive for McLaren," Alonso said, in an ironic echo of Hamilton, "but sometimes in life things do not work out.

"I continue to believe that McLaren is a great team. Yes, we have had our ups and downs during the season, which has made it extra-challenging for all of us, and it is not a secret that I never really felt at home. I know there have been suggestions of favouritism within the team and people say a lot of things in the heat of battle, but in the end I was always provided with an equal opportunity to win. Today's decision allows all of us to focus on 2008, and I wish the team the best for the future."

In a prepared statement, Dennis said: "He is a great driver but for some reason the combination of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and Fernando has not really worked out. We all believe that our joint decision to part company is for the best."

Alonso's freedom throws the 2008 driver market wide open. Negotiations between the Renault chief, Flavio Briatore, and Telefonica have yet to bear fruit that might enable Alonso to return there. Laudatory comments by the Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo, about Alonso after the Brazilian race gave credence to suggestions that he will partner Raikkonen at Ferrari from 2009.

Alonso's name has also been linked with Red Bull Racing and Toyota for a one-year interim deal.

If the Finn Heikki Kovalainen moves to McLaren, Nelson Piquet Jnr would then partner whoever Renault choose as their No 1.

Sulking Spaniard The wit and wisdom of Fernando Alonso

* 'From the first moment, I wasn't completely comfortable. We knew all the support and help would go [Hamilton's] way' - 12 June

* 'I'd be delighted if I didn't carry on with Hamilton' - 1 October

* 'This isn't the treatment a two-time champion deserves' - 6 October

* 'David Coulthard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen. They have all left the team and found a lot of happiness. There must be a reason' - 9 October

* 'When you hear your boss [saying] he feels a paternal sentiment for one of your team-mates, you know you can never have much trust in that person' - On Ron Dennis

* 'If he wins the title because of this I'd be embarrassed for this sport' - On Hamilton's title appeal

* 'I have sensed it a little, but I understand it. It's an English team' - Asked if McLaren mechanics favour Hamilton

* 'Since I was a boy I had always wanted to drive for McLaren, but sometimes in life things do not work out' - Yesterday

Life in the fast lane: Alonso's career so far

* 2001 (Minardi) Became 3rd youngest driver in F1 history, finishing 23rd.

* 2002 (Renault) Joins French team as test driver.

* 2003 Aged 22 becomes youngest-ever driver to win a race. Finishes 6th overall.

* 2004 Established as No 1 at Renault. Finishes 4th.

* 2005 With 7 victories becomes Formula One's youngest-ever champion.

* 2006 Skilfully fights off Schumacher to retain title.

* 2007 (McLaren) Joins McLaren. Is quickly usurped by rookie Hamilton, starting a bitter rivalry.