Fernando Alonso is a pure racer. I suppose you could argue they all are, in a sense: scratch away the modern Formula One driver’s corporate-friendly sheen, peel away his fireproof overalls, and that first lust for untrammelled speed probably resides in every one of them. Indeed, you don’t last long without it. But there’s always been something different about Alonso. In a sport where the gulf between protagonist and onlooker is about as broad as it is possible to be, Alonso somehow makes you feel everything: every ridge in the road, every squeeze of the throttle, every deathly glare at a rival, every last gill of suffering. Racing screeches out of his every fingernail. And it’s why you would still rather pay to watch Alonso than virtually anybody else in the sport.
Now that he is 37 years old, the most experienced driver on the grid, there’s something else there too. You might as well call it lived experience: the shifting sands of almost two decades, every race, every duel, every puncture and every pass worn on his skin like scars.
When you watch him, you’re somehow seeing two eras at once. Even as he chugs around now in his midfield McLaren, you can still see him screaming past Schumacher around the outside of 130R at Suzuka, surging past Massa and Webber at Interlagos, tussling like stags with Hamilton at Spa. With most athletes, memorialisation is a process that occurs in retrospect. Alonso, by contrast, has somehow managed to pass into sepia-tinted legend while still very much active.
There are plenty of miles left in him too, but as of November, not in F1.
After no win in five years, no podium in four, and interminable weekends spent sitting in motorhomes debriefing his latest mid-table finish, Alonso has decided to take his talents elsewhere: possibly to IndyCar, where he still harbours the dream of completing the Triple Crown by adding the Indianapolis 500 to his two F1 world titles and his triumph at Le Mans this June. And yet amid the tributes and garlands to one of the great drivers of all time, Alonso’s retirement should also be giving F1 pause for reflection: on the sort of sport it wants to be, and the sort of sport it has unwittingly become.
Alonso, after all, is not going quietly, and has made no secret of the reasons for his retirement. The dominance of Mercedes and Ferrari, he says, has made the sport “too predictable”. Team orders, internal politics and simple economics have created a rigid hierarchy in which the smaller teams know their place and the smaller drivers simply keep their heads down. Advances in telemetry mean cars are essentially controlled “from the garage”. The spread and sprawl of the calendar has turned the season into a grim treadmill. “The action on track,” he says, “is very poor.”
Above all, you suspect, Alonso has decided to leave F1 because it simply stopped being as fun as it once was. And while many in the sport would dispute some or most of his conclusions, this is perhaps the nub of the issue. Listen as Alonso describes the feeling of getting in an Indy car for the first time. “There was one thing that nothing could have prepared me for,” he writes in the Players’ Tribune. “The raw, unfiltered feeling of power. Indy cars are more simple than F1 cars, so it’s more pure.” And you wonder whether at some point in between its hundreds of Byzantine rule tweaks, F1 has mislaid that most basic of aspects: the pure, simple enjoyment of getting in a car and thrashing it to within an inch of its life.
Nostalgia is a dangerous impulse. Formula One has never been a pure meritocracy, and was never intended to be. There have always been dominant teams and dominant eras. In terms of competitiveness, this season’s three-handed tussle between Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull is a clear improvement on the McLaren procession of the late 1980s. And Alonso’s lament for his own fallow years masks the fact that they are in large part a product of his own inauspicious decisions: the return to Renault in 2008, the decision to leave Ferrari in 2014, a disputed number of rejected overtures from Red Bull (he says six, they say one).
But the wider point is harder to ignore. F1 is not the same sport that Alonso joined in 2001, for better and worse. Advances in safety and reliability have saved lives but come with their own subtle cost. Ultra-degrading tyres mean cars spend only a fraction of their existence being driven to their limit. The impression - rightly or wrongly - is that F1 has become a sport run by engineers, where the drivers are not so much pure racers as managers, pilots, button-pushers, assailed by a constant stream of messages and responsible for everything from fuel flow to battery maintenance. Have you seen the steering wheels on an F1 car lately? They look like children's birthday cakes.
With every passing year, F1 begins to look less and less like a sport and more like a heavily-curated television spectacle, or “an entertainment”, as Red Bull’s Christian Horner puts it.
The stench of entrenched influence pervades throughout: between them, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have taken 38 of the 39 podium places this season. The gifted Esteban Ocon has essentially been bought out of his Force India seat, with the billionaire Lawrence Stroll taking over the team and poised to install his son Lance in his place. An archaic prize money system - in which Ferrari are handed tens of millions of dollars a year for, well, being Ferrari - reinforces existing power imbalances and means smaller teams are less concerned with chasing the podium than with staving off creditors.
And so clearly, at some point, Alonso decided he'd had enough. Formula One simply couldn’t satisfy him any more. The appeal of sweating every ounce of fluid in his body for a couple of points began to wear thin. The prospect of a creditable seventh-place finish after starting 12th on the grid was no longer the sort of thing that inspired him. You might argue that Alonso is simply a truculent victim of F1’s natural churn, a great driver embittered by the fact that his best days are behind him. Alternatively, you could observe that if a formula that considers itself the pinnacle of racing can no longer captivate perhaps the purest racer of all, something has gone quite badly wrong.
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