On the 25th November when the dust of Abu Dhabi settles and another Formula One championship draws to a close, one of the greats of the sport will hang up his gloves for what will almost certainly be the final time. Fernando Alonso may have hinted that the door is still open post-2019 if McLaren up their game, but the fact is that at 37 years old, these last 12 races are his F1 swansong.
Seventeen years after a fresh-faced Spaniard made a big impression with the back-of-the-grid Minardi team, Alonso will leave the sport as a true fan-favourite and one of the most gifted drivers to have got into the cockpit. Yet he departs with just two world championships to his name – this despite spending five years with Ferrari and a highly controversial season with McLaren when they were still a championship-winning outfit.
He will leave as the second-most experienced driver in history, the second-oldest driver in history and a one of the most-loved drivers in history, and yet there is a sense of an unfulfilled destiny that surrounds his departure.
There are the positives: Alonso became the youngest race winner and world champion in 2003 and 2005 respectively before being usurped by Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen, and he also conquered the great Michael Schumacher over the course of an entire season – only three others can say that since the seven-time champion clinched his maiden triumph 14 years ago.
But if Alonso is such a gifted driver – and he really is – why has he not added to his double-championship triumph in 12 years?
His personal drought can be put down to a series of falling outs, poor decisions and speaking his mind once-too-often, which has inevitably meant that when at the peak of his driving powers, he has not been in the best car. As history shows, that’s the important bit.
Schumacher was the perfect example of this, as despite winning two titles with the dominant Benetton team, he realised that greener pastures awaited at Ferrari which he helped transform into an era-dominating team. Hamilton, too, has shown this as he made the decision to leave McLaren at the end of 2012 to join Mercedes. As staggering as that was at the time, who can now blame him?
Vettel did something similar in leaving a Red Bull team that was just about to lose its grip on the sport due to engine changes, and while he is yet to get back to the summit of the championship, he is getting closer and closer with the Prancing Horse.
There is an unending argument that Alonso may be a more naturally gifted driver than those three, given some of the breathless drives he has produced for so long over his career, and his case is backed up by the way he slotted straight into an IndyCar to lead the Indianapolis 500 last year before his Honda engine expired – quelle surprise – as well as joining the Toyota World Endurance Championship outfit this year to win the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Yet Alonso has also managed to talk himself out of jobs that he should really be in for a driver of his skills. His 2007 move to McLaren saw him leave the championship-winning Renault team for a car that was more than capable of dominating that year. But a breakdown with the team at that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix when he deliberately blocked teammate Hamilton in qualifying triggered the beginning of the end, with the ‘Spygate’ scandal finishing off his first stint at McLaren under a cloud of disgrace and shame.
Two fallow years back at Renault – and another controversy when teammate Nelson Piquet Jr deliberately crashed at the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix under instruction of team bosses to hand Alonso the race win – were followed by the big move to Ferrari, but this also coincided with the emergence of Red Bull and a young and hungry Vettel. The first year together should have produced a title, only for a tactical cock-up in the Abu Dhabi finale costing Alonso dear and handing the young German the spoils, and from then on it was clear: Alonso and Ferrari were a match made in heaven on paper, but the car to be in was the Red Bull.
Again, Alonso grew frustrated, angry with the car’s reliability that would be a sign of things to come for his days with McLaren and the dreaded Honda engine, and the less said about his last four seasons in F1, the better. There have still been a handful of sublime drives in the McLaren, but they have been for fifth, or sixth, or simply to score points – not where a driver of Alonso’s calibre should be.
Poor choices, poor results. They go hand-in-hand.
But the one saving grace is that this early announcement – even if he had decided “months ago” as he revealed on Tuesday – means we can savour everything that Alonso has left to offer. The man may not always be right but he is box office, a daring overtake through Eau Rouge here, a sarcastic radio quip there. He will leave F1 to continue his quest to win the Indy 500 and the Triple Crown, yet despite teasing a possible return, there’s a reason why drivers don’t re-enter the sport at 39 years old.
And as Alonso embarks on his 200mph drive into the sunset, he will be remembered for being a true great of the sport that refused to toe the line – and boy, wasn’t it fun watching?
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