So, Alonso, why did you think you were pitting in on lap 12?
A year ago, Fernando Alonso won the 'Crashgate' Grand Prix. His name has been cleared – but questions remain. David Tremayne witnesses the former world champion under fire on his return to Singapore
Saturday 26 September 2009
Of all the dramatis personae in what is now widely accepted as the greatest sporting scandal of them all, Fernando Alonso has emerged the most squeaky clean. Flavio Briatore's fall was spectacular. Pat Symonds, Renault's chief engineer, is in exile from Formula One. Nelson Piquet Jr, who crashed his car deliberately, was granted immunity but must now wait to discover if there is a team bold enough to hire him.
Meanwhile Alonso, the hero here 12 months ago, returns to Singapore, a year after the "Crashgate" race, his evidence accepted by the World Motor Sport Council and his name cleared. He has not been stripped of his victory here last time. He has retained his personal sponsorship deal with Mutua Madrilena, one of two sponsors to have ended their deals with Renault. And as for the rumoured move to Ferrari, few can see any reason to think it has been derailed.
But first he has to deal with this weekend, still caught firmly within the eye of the storm, confronted by a growing number of people who are having trouble accepting that he had no knowledge of his team's elaborate plan to fix the race in his favour.
Surely it had to have crossed his mind that something odd was afoot when he was brought in to refuel after only 12 laps, dropping from 11th place to 20th and last? "Never," he snaps. "But we move on again from that incident."
Easy to say, harder to do. He of all people should know that controversy does not blow away just because you'd like it to. Alonso was invited to appear at the WMSC hearing because it was believed his direct explanation could be of assistance. Subsequently they issued the statement that they had not been presented with any evidence whatsoever suggesting he knew of the crash plan or knowingly assisted in its execution, and they accepted his evidence. On the one hand, it is difficult to see what role he would have needed to play in the deception, apart from obeying his team's orders, as he would have in any case. But the belief persists in some circles that he must have known.
"I don't read," he snaps again when asked whether it angers him to see such allegations. "I am very lucky that I don't read newspapers and I don't read comments of the people. I live in the present and I live in the real world. People can read, and they can read what the FIA have issued – the resolution. It is quite clear. If it's not understood there, then they have a problem of reading."
Okay, but what about his feelings about the situation? Increasingly irritated at the persistence of the media, he becomes more aggressive: "To be clear, and probably to finish on what happened last year – because the next question will be about 2009 or if not we switch language – I was in Paris to co-operate with the FIA, to help in the investigation with my team as well. I am happy that everything is clear now, and I am happy also that it is clear I was not involved in the incident and had nothing in that matter."
Still the questions come. After Piquet and Symonds were offered immunity, did he feel there was a witch-hunt against Briatore, the man who built his career at Renault? "No comment."
He is a member of Briatore's driver management team, set to be forcibly disbanded by the WMSC which says it will not license any Briatore driver. "It doesn't change at all anything on me," he insists. "My manager was Luis Garcia, who is here with me always. My manager next year will be Luis."
Is he surprised that Symonds was so deeply involved in this affair? "Nothing to say. Everyone will have his opinion and again, there is too much talk about last year. I think it's time to move on and at least me and the team will move on. If you keep asking questions about last year, sorry, but I will not answer anymore."
Who is Witness X, the anonymous source who sealed Briatore's fate, and believed to be a race engineer from Renault? "Nothing to say."
Without doubt, Alonso is a fine driver – the best currently out there, along with Lewis Hamilton. He is also a master at playing the ingénue. Yet in his first title-winning year with Renault in 2005 he complained he felt abandoned by the team, that it is important for him to work very closely with his engineers, and that when this did not happen he felt "like an island within the team." At McLaren, he liked to exercise strong political influence when he had an upstart rookie named Lewis Hamilton as his team-mate, in 2007. During qualifying for that year's Hungarian GP, for example, Hamilton did not let Alonso pass, as requested by his team under an ongoing agreement about which driver had priority. Alonso got his own back by holding up Hamilton during their final pit stops – the Englishman did not have time to complete a final flying lap to challenge for pole. Asked to quantify the amount by which the chequered flag prevented him from starting a final lap, Hamilton said: "I missed my second quick lap by about the same amount of time I was held back in the pit stop..."
Alonso raised his hands and feigned innocence. "I was waiting for instructions after the second stop," he said. "It was the same as the first: someone times the gaps between us and cars on the track. On the first stop they told me to go, but we had the blanket thing. And there was a delay while we were changing the front wing. The second time, we didn't lose anything."
Observers counted at least five seconds between the lollipop being raised, the signal that the driver is free to go, and Alonso actually leaving. McLaren, clearly embarrassed by the mounting tension between their star drivers, explained this was because Alonso's engineer was still studying the GPS signals of rival cars to choose the optimal moment to release him from the pits. Privately, some thought otherwise but were too diplomatic to voice their opinions.
"You can ask the team this question," Alonso said, "because although I am always monitoring the stops by the radio and they do the calculations and find the gaps. I just drive the car. I am always ready to go. Sometimes we wait for five seconds, 10, 40..."
"Two or four seconds, maybe," Hamilton responded with clenched teeth. "Not 40..."
In a tough sport that is not the playground of saints, Alonso is no white knight. Needs must, and all that. You won't find anyone in senior management at McLaren who buys the little boy lost act, even if circumstances currently deny them the opportunity to put their opinions on record. Yet, fundamentally, he is still a country boy from Oviedo. A kid who just likes to race. But a kid whom trouble seems to stalk.
"I'm a really ordinary guy, more than people realise," he says. "Too ordinary and not very funny at all." That's how he likes to define himself. "Once I leave the circuit, I don't think about racing any more. It's just a job."
He maintains that the hoopla off the track and the fame bore him. He doesn't think of himself as worthy of the world's interest. "It's all a bit of a circus and a joke until you get into the car. Everyone deals with the circus in his own way and all I think about is enjoying my racing. I don't like fame. I've never lived in a fantasy world, have never had idols or have never really admired anyone. I've never asked anyone for an autograph and when I'm asked for mine, I'm happy to give it but I feel uneasy because they come and ask you full of enthusiasm and nerves and you say, 'Relax, mate. I'm not anyone important'."
He is guarded when talking about his future, but concedes that the question of which driving uniform he will wear next year was a good one, to which he will hopefully know the answer soon. "But if you keep asking questions about last year, sorry, I will not answer anymore."
There are complications to a deal with Ferrari, but few doubt that a deal was done two years ago, just as Kimi Raikkonen did his 2007 deal with the Scuderia in 2005. The indications are that Ferrari are juggling their three-into-two problem with Alonso, Raikkonen and the recovering Felipe Massa in the best way that they can, and that they are likely to defer a decision until they know the Brazilian's full level of fitness. "Winning for Ferrari is easier than becoming champion against them," he says. Of course Alonso will go there, sooner or later.
Meanwhile, as he waits, his beleaguered team crumbles. Renault have lost their title sponsor Dutch bank ING (a £40m-a-year backer) together with Spain's Mutua Madrilena insurance company. The former was due to go anyway at the end of the season, but both cut their losses rather than risk stigma. It is an indication of Alonso's Teflon coating, however, that Mutua Madrilena will continue their personal sponsorship deal with him.
Whether Alonso likes it or not, the facts remain that he has been at the epicentre of two of the most significant scandals in F1 history, with Renault, and when McLaren were found guilty of espionage against Ferrari in 2007's "Spygate" affair. And with the demise of each team's principal: Briatore and Ron Dennis. But he insists it has not affected him personally. "Last year I was not involved and two years ago with McLaren we were all helping the FIA. That's all."
He does, however, concede that "Crashgate" makes him despair for his sport, though he is uncertain what effect it will have. "I don't know. I am not an expert of that. I only know what is about me, and what is about this weekend – which is the only thing that really matters, getting some results on Sunday afternoon.
"But this is everybody's fault, from the drivers, from the teams, and from the sport itself. There are more sports that are hit by scandals, and sports that are more quiet. And F1 is so big and so famous that anything that happens has a big repercussion."
Fernando Alonso: Life at full throttle
*25 September 2005
Wins his first World Championship whilst at Renault, becoming the youngest ever driver to do so – before Lewis Hamilton took that record.
*19 December 2005
Signs for McLaren for the 2007 season in a deal worth a reported £20m-a-season.
*22 October 2006
Retains the world title in the last season of his first stint at Renault. Still holds the record as the youngest driver to become a two-time champion.
*4 August 2007
Dropped from 2nd to 6th on the grid at Hungarian Grand Prix, after holding up Lewis Hamilton in the pit-lane during qualifying.
*13 September 2007
Implicated in 'Spygate' scandal after emails sent by him showed that he knew of Ferrari's pit strategy.
*28 September 2008
Nelson Piquet Jr's crash at Singapore Grand Prix. Alonso had no knowledge of Flavio Briatore's race strategy, but did benefit from it by winning the race.
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