The best kind of sport is so often about respect, especially between its giants. And this afternoon there was plenty of that between the outgoing Fernando Alonso and his old sparring partner Lewis Hamilton.
The two of them sat between 2019 rookies-to-be, George Russell and Lando Norris, and the mood was one of positive reflection, as an era came to an end, and humour.
Alonso could not resist deliberately choosing one of his least satisfying memories when asked to share his best, as he smirked impishly and said, “The 2007 season with Lewis!”
“But, you know,” he added, more seriously, “more than the races or the victories, in this time I have spent in Formula One it is the people I have worked with and shared half my life with – I’m 37 and I have been here for 17 years – who have made the difference. I have worked with a lot of talented engineers, designers, drivers and media, and have seen a lot of things. These are the best things when you remember. How you approached the races, the philosophy, the racing, the discipline. When you race in the WEC (World Endurance Championship) you realise that Formula One is a step higher, where you always try to find perfection.”
And did he ever find that?
“Maybe there were a few of them, the perfect races, and maybe the highest was Valencia in 2012.”
There Alonso battled up from 11th place in his Ferrari to move ahead via some excellent strategy and forceful driving, when Sebastian Vettel’s leading Red Bull retired with alternator failure.
“Normally you would never be able to win that race again if you repeated it 100 times. It was a good example of excellent strategy, good overtaking and a lot of risk. The car was not fantastic and we were not even in Q3 after qualifying. We were not dominant, but we were still able to win. So, probably, that race was my best.”
Interestingly, as Hamilton sat grinning beside him, Alonso nominated Michael Schumacher as his ‘best rival’.
“It’s difficult to choose just one, but I would have to say Michael. When I got to Formula One Michael had been dominating the sport, I had seen him winning as I was coming up.
“My first race was with Minardi, which was almost bankrupt until Paul Stoddard rescued it. I remember when I first left the pits in Melbourne, my first race in 2001, there was a queue of cars at the end of the pit lane and I nearly crashed into them because I could not activate neutral. Then to find myself racing wheel-to-wheel with Michael when I was at Renault; those battles were the best!”
Hamilton, meanwhile, was gracious about his sternest rival.
“I don’t recall too much ever having a personal issue with Fernando in 2007,” he said. “It was more how the team was run and how the situation between us was managed. We never really had an issue between us, except that we were trying to beat each other. It used to be quite harmonious. Now that we are old men the respect is higher than it’s ever been and I do hope that I get to see Fernando around in the future, and wish him the best in his future endeavours.”
Alonso admitted, again tongue-in-cheek, that the thing he would most miss was the press conferences, but added: “I will miss driving the cars. No matter whether you are 14th, fifth or fighting for victory or the podium – which would be an extra celebration – these cars are very special. The technology in them is difficult to replicate. But other aspects have been more negative – you have no friends, no family, no free time, no privacy, no kids…”
And once again, he did not rule out a possible return, if he could get into a competitive car.
“Right now I definitely think that the door is not closed. I have been doing this for my whole life and maybe in May or July next year I will be desperate on the sofa, and find my way back. It might not be for any particular reason, but more how I feel in the middle of next season.
“I like Formula One and will always love it, whether that might be as a father or maybe the FIA boss or whatever, I will always feel that.”
The legacy the great Spaniard leaves is difficult to define, but those he would like to choose are trying to help young drivers with dreams and talent, and the pride he has in seeing how many of his countrymen, and his Asturians, now follow a sport that was not televised until 2003, when he won his first grand prix.
“I feel really proud about how Asturians now react to F1, and to me that’s a bigger achievement than two world championships,” he said. “It’s about changing people’s lives and introducing a lot of people to one sport. That’s bigger than any trophy.”
Later, Max Verstappen was less graceful as he reiterated that he did not regret his actions with Esteban Ocon in the immediate aftermath of their clash which cost him the Brazilian GP last time out.
“Not really, because I was after an apology and I got a bit of a different response,” the Dutchman said. “We are all emotional and at the time I had lost a victory, so I think from my side I was really calm. It could have been much worse.
“And what do you expect me to do? Shake his hand and say ‘thank you very much for being second instead of first’? I think it is quite a normal response.
“You guys don’t hear what is said on the scales, you just see me pushing. But if you understand the whole conversation you will see it as a bit different. He said something I didn’t expect to hear. It doesn’t matter what it was at the end of the day, because it clearly pissed me off.
“It is easy to say of other people ‘you should have done something different.’ I don’t expect to crash with a backmarker. If you get hit like that, I honestly don’t understand what I should do differently.”
Once again it was left to a sporting elder to summarise the situation, however, as Sebastian Vettel, himself quite a hothead in extremis as seen in Baku in 2017, gave a measured response as he said, “We have emotions. We are human beings and emotions go both ways. They go full of joy when something great happens and you’re happy and they probably swing the other way if you are not happy or are upset.
“We are here to fight for something that means the world to us. We all started racing when we were small kids in go-karts and to be in an F1 car is the dream we all had. To race an F1 car, and then to fight for a win, that is something big at stake. It is not that you get a piece of cake when you have done well, or don’t get it if you haven’t.”
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