Comment: Fernando Alonso has become used to taking the walk-on role - he and Ferrari need a change of script
Alonso was supposed to be the one racking up the titles in a career among the best
“Excuse me, Fernando,” Martin Brundle said as he eased the two-time world champion out of camera shot to get to the winner of the Chinese Grand Prix. Brundle would be back to Alonso in sequence after he had spoken to Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, the lucky boys at Mercedes galloping away with the season.
Alonso is used to the walk-on part. It hardly matters that he is picking over the bones left by Mercedes after four years feeding on the scraps discarded by Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull. That was supposed to be his fate, the youngest driver to win a World Championship racking up the titles in a career that might rank among the very best.
It must make Alonso smile to listen to Vettel’s ill-humoured bellyaching after successive reverses to his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. Not to mention the allowances made for him by team principal Christian Horner, Vettel has four consecutive world titles to console him.
He is, of course, a marvellous driver, a fierce competitor and a sharp manipulator of the political space within a team, just as Alonso was at Renault when he was the one smashing the stranglehold on Formula One held by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.
Alonso was the driver identified by Luca di Montezemolo to return the Scuderia to the dominance of a decade ago. Both are still waiting.
Alonso’s contract at Maranello runs until the end of 2016. There was talk of an extension last year when speculation linked him with an unlikely return to McLaren. You wonder in which direction his private thoughts are taking him as he ponders what will almost certainly be the last big decision of his career.
Alonso is in his fifth year in red. A third world title already looks beyond him in 2014. The season is only four races old yet just one team has tasted victory, the margin of conquest dispiritingly huge. The account he gave of his race weekend when Brundle eventually made it to the end of the podium walk has become the soundtrack to his Ferrari experience.
“Good weekend. We improved the car a little bit. We were more competitive. The race pace was a nice surprise. We didn’t have the start we wanted but we are fighting,” he said, effectively running off a series of bullet points attending failure.
Ferrari have recognised the need to do something by allowing Stefano Domenicali, the team principal, to fall on his sword. In comes Marco Mattiacci, yanked from his bed before the hour had struck 6am by Di Montezemolo, who began the telephone exchange with a line that might start a novel: “This is my idea.”
Figures as powerful as the Ferrari president do not do introductions. Within hours the head of Ferrari North America was running a grand prix team in China, not surprisingly behind the veil of Raybans. Will Ferrari see the light under his command? The answer is unlikely to be revealed on this year’s asphalt. The gap to Mercedes is too great even for a team with as much financial grunt as Ferrari.
The best hope is that the brains trust at Fiorano come up with a solution for 2015 that gives Alonso the chance to resurrect his career and Ferrari to retain his services until the end of his racing days. At 32 he is not done by any means, yet nine years have passed since the first of those consecutive world titles that seemed to presage a future of far greater import.
Alonso was a groundbreaker, raising Formula One to a new level of significance in his native Spain, a country in thrall to love on two wheels, be it automotive or pedal power fuelling the romance. With grand prix meetings in economic retreat across the rest of Europe, Spain added a second race in Valencia to the staple in Barcelona, such was the euphoria that greeted Alonso’s rise.
The McLaren launch in 2007 in Valencia was the last of its kind in Formula One, a lavish affair on the Valencia waterfront featuring the Cirque de Soleil paid for by Spanish money from the vaults at the Bank of Santander. This was all made possible by the brilliance of the kid from Oviedo.
Had Alonso and McLaren’s owner, Ron Dennis, managed each other better then greater control of debutant Lewis Hamilton could have been had and, who knows, the World Championships of 2007 and 2008 might have been the Spaniard’s, too.
That was certainly the idea. The failure of that association proved catastrophic, costing Alonso two further wasted years treading water back at Renault before what appeared the perfect match with Ferrari. It would be some second marriage were Dennis to persuade Alonso to return to McLaren. Don’t dismiss that out of hand. Dennis outmanoeuvred the great Formula One song-and-dance man Flavio Briatore to land him in the first place when the champagne corks were still popping after his first championship success at Interlagos in 2005.
Needs must, and as things stand both Alonso and McLaren are in need of something.
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