As someone who shares their opinions with the rest of the online F1 fan base, and desires even a thin veneer of credibility, I am aware there are few greater taboos than to allow personal biases to obscure your objectivity.
However, I will offer no apologies for declaring Fernando Alonso the greatest Grand Prix driver of the modern era.
The Spaniard’s career in the top flight was, at first, unusually-pedestrian. Much like Niki Lauda and John Watson, Alonso featured in an uncompetitive 2001 Minardi during his debut season, and consequently finished the year with the same tally of zero points as his journeyman teammate Tarso Marques.
The lack of ground between them in the championship standings did not tell the full story, though, and actually did Alonso a great disservice, as he routinely out-qualified the more experienced Brazilian by several seconds. Which, in F1 terms, is a lifetime.
Alonso’s quietly impressive arrival piqued Benetton’s interest, who by this time had been repackaged by Renault, and were being overseen by Alonso’s manager Flávio Briatore – a man who had quickly identified a young Michael Schumacher at the back of the grid and promoted him in a similar way a decade prior.
Alonso’s 2003 arrival at Renault was when he really emerged as an exciting prospect as he trounced Jarno Trulli like no one had ever seen before. This was the youngster’s introduction to racing at the sharper end of the grid, and it saw him bag his first win at the Hungaroring, as he successfully held off the relentless Kimi Raikkonen, and tenacious Juan Pablo Montoya in their faster McLaren and Williams.
Fernando finished the season with a haul of two pole positions, four podiums, and the aforementioned win, which dwarfed Trulli’s modest, single podium.
2004 did prove to be something of a difficult second season at the French team for Alonso, though. Mindful of how such a trouncing had damaged his reputation, a resurgent Trulli’s second wind saw him lead Alonso for much of the first half of the season. This included a dominant win from pole at Monaco, where Alonso had qualified right behind him, only to compromise his race with a clumsy scuffle with Ralf Schumacher early on.
Trulli was regarded as an amazing qualifier, who struggled on Sundays. The formula of refuelling and overtaking being impossible favoured him, and Alonso knew this.
Pole position at the French Grand Prix sparked Alonso’s emphatic final third of the season, as it was followed by three podiums in four races. This, combined with Trulli’s deteriorating relationship with the team, saw the Italian sacked with three races remaining. He was replaced by an over-the-hill Jacques Villeneuve, only for him to be thrashed by Alonso, who saw out the season again ahead of his teammate.
At this point, Alonso had a monopoly over Renault – the car’s package was strong, his manager was calling the shots, and he was the undisputed number one driver. Unsurprisingly, it was here where Alonso thrived.
Although Raikkonen’s 2005 McLaren was the faster car, it simply couldn’t perform consistently. Alonso capitalised on this fragility. He was able to take three wins from the first five races, and still stole podiums at the other two. This included a third win at the San Marino Grand Prix after a successful duel with Michael Schumacher, which would act as a precursor to the great title fight that would follow the next year.
Raikkonen, meanwhile, retired as many races as he finished, and by the time he could mount any kind of comeback, Alonso’s machine-like consistency had afforded him such an advantage that he was able to cruise to the finish line with his championship lead intact. Six podiums in succession were rounded off with a dominant lights-to-flag victory at the final race of the season, in China. In doing so, Alonso became the youngest champion in F1’s history, at the tender age of 24.
The following year was a tough one for Alonso’s main rival, Raikkonen, as McLaren’s reliability woes continued, only on a more amplified level. This suppressed Raikkonen’s 2006 championship impact, and allowed for the reemergence of the revered Michael Schumacher.
The F1 legend’s Ferrari team had, at this point, started to come to terms with the new regulations employed the previous year in order to suppress their dominance. Renault, contrastingly, had already found themselves slipping down the pecking order at the end of 2005, which meant Alonso would have an uphill battle should he endeavour to successfully defend the crown he had worked so hard for.
After a promising pre-season, Schumacher drew first blood with pole position in Bahrain. However, Alonso won the desert showdown on the Sunday, after a race-long battle with the sport’s towering tour de force.
Alonso did an incredible job of negating Schumacher’s advantages when he could, and was able to dominate the first nine races of the season, with six wins and three second-places scoring him almost maximum points.
The double trio of wins were impressive, but perhaps more impressive were the instances in which Alonso would simply refuse to give Schumacher the chance to catch up. The seven-time world champion claimed victory in San Marino, for example, but even then, Alonso was in relentless pursuit immediately behind, and finished in second after an encounter of an eerie similarity to their tussle at the same track the year prior.
After the nine races of consistent supremacy, Alonso suffered a dip in form, which coincided with Schumacher’s own run of immense dominance at the US Grand Prix. This saw Ferrari’s demigod driver stomp his authority with five wins coming in seven races, and at this point, with two races remaining, the two drivers led the championship equal on points, despite being at different ends of their respective careers.
Amidst Schumacher’s renaissance came the tearful announcement of his retirement at the Italian Grand Prix.
That weekend could have proven pivotal in the title fight, as Schumacher cruised to victory after Alonso was controversially relegated five places on the grid for blocking Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in qualifying, only for his misery to be compounded by an engine failure.
Alonso, who it is easy to forget was only 24, hardly showered his adversary in glory, as he chose to shoulder the blame of his plummeting title chances on the FIA, as he felt they were favouring both Ferrari and Schumacher.
“Michael is the most unsporting driver with the largest number of sanctions in the history of formula one. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he has been the best driver and it has been an honour and pleasure to battle against him (…) Things will be more equal now.” – Alonso’s assessment of Schumacher after announcing his retirement. (Radio Marca)
Perhaps ironically, after Alonso’s accusations of political favouritism hindering him, the defending champion found himself on the right side of circumstance during the penultimate Grand Prix of the season, when a leading Schumacher’s engine gave up the ghost for the first time in six years.
Alonso, who had been a steady second, some nine seconds behind Schumacher, was then able to cruise for the final thirteen laps, to a crucial victory that all but confirmed him as the season’s world champion.
As the year came to a close, the extent of the duo’s dominance could be observed. In an 18 race season, Alonso and Schumacher won 14, with seven apiece. The combined points total of their teammates barely equated to the sole haul of either champion.
The most incredible part of it, though, was that in winning the championship, Alonso had managed to do something no one else before had ever done. He had managed to stand toe-to-toe with the most awe-inspiring driver in the history of the sport, and deny the great Schumacher the perfect storybook ending to his biblical career.
At this point, Fernando Alonso was unquestionably the king of the mountain, and at just 25 years old, no one was expecting that to change anytime soon.
As an onlooker, the prospect of Alonso never winning another world championship for the remainder of his career would appear unthinkable as he climbed atop his all-conquering Renault R26, with a vanquished Schumacher shaking his hand as an adoring Briatore looked on in awe.
While time must have stood still for Alonso during this moment of immense pride and celebration, nuclear fallout awaited him.
Amidst his Renault term, Alonso had quietly signed a deal to drive for McLaren in 2007, in what would become F1’s worst-kept secret.
The move, which saw him distance himself from the blue-and-yellow-clad family he shared his greatest triumphs with, would prove to be a well-timed move as far as jumping ship at the right time was concerned. Renault’s heavy reliance on wind tunnel development meant that when the car’s real-world results differed to the simulations, they had no answer, and slumped hopelessly into the slippery-sided pit of the midfield.
The McLaren MP4-22, meanwhile was ferociously quick, and was not even remotely challenged by anyone other than Ferrari during pre-season.
Naturally, from a pragmatic perspective, McLaren and their fans had every right to feel confident: they had the fastest car, and the finest driver. But what would stand in the way of this, was a principal-driver-driver dynamic of truly poisonous hostility.
Alonso’s arrival at the team coincided with McLaren’s promotion of academy graduate Lewis Hamilton, who had been handpicked for the team by Ron Dennis after taking him under the wing of the McLaren development team at the tender age of 13.
As an established member of the McLaren team, Hamilton enjoyed testing luxuries long before Alonso traded in his blue overalls.
The story has been told a thousand times now: Hamilton walked into the team and spectacularly embarrassed the reigning double world champion in his rookie season.
However, to simply call Hamilton ‘a rookie’ at all is slightly disingenuous.
Hamilton was probably the best prepared ‘rookie’ in the history of the sport. He did twice as many test laps as the McLaren race team did in 2006. By the time the Australian Grand Prix came around, he knew the McLaren inside and out. Alonso, on the other hand, was unable to enjoy such luxuries, owing to his contract with Renault. Everything was new, and his testing was very limited compared to Hamilton. Which led to some surprising mistakes for the reigning champion during the season.
Regardless of how you look at the situation, though, Alonso was encountering his toughest internal adversary in the history of his career at that point. Hamilton claimed third in Melbourne, becoming one of just a handful of debutants to stand on the podium of their first race, and he continued to carry this momentum for the next six races, culminating with his first win at Montreal – a track he would become synonymous with. By this time, Alonso meanwhile had already suffered a number of uncharacteristic slip-ups, including an anonymous performance in Bahrain, and a limp home to seventh in Canada after clumsily attacking Hamilton for the lead into turn one, and consequently attempting to keep up, when in hindsight perhaps he should have conceded defeat, taken the podium, and lived to fight another day.
Going into Monaco, everything seemed to be going well for McLaren and Dennis, who were leading the Constructors’ Championship by a healthy margin, and had their young, home-grown British prodigy leading the championship, with Alonso two points behind. Undeniably the order they would have preferred.
Alonso did throw a spanner in the works during the Monte Carlo race, though. After denying Hamilton pole, Alonso was able to masterfully control the race to win his second consecutive Monaco Grand Prix. By this stage, internal relations had already started to sour. Alonso was growing increasingly disenfranchised with a team who refused to back him ahead of their own inexperienced product, whilst Hamilton ended the weekend questioning whether his team had denied him the opportunity to tussle with his teammate for the win.
It would appear at this point as though Dennis had started favouring Hamilton for the title, against all sense or strategy. This, along with the fact that Hamilton had been continually testing with McLaren in 2006, meant his beating of Alonso wasn’t as surprising as you would first think. However, through sheer tenacity, and a little underhanded tactics, Alonso was able to claw back the points disadvantage the circumstances had manufactured for him.
Come mid-season, victory at a peculiar French Grand Prix signalled resurgence for Raikkonen, who would eventually go on to win the championship. Hamilton took his eighth podium in as many races, while a mature recovery drive saw Alonso pick up some valuable points after a gearbox issue crippled his qualifying.
The next handful of races saw Hamilton make his first mistakes, as should be expected of a rookie. His maiden Nürburgring Grand Prix ended pointless after a race-long battle against the conditions, several spins and crashes. Alonso, meanwhile, started racking up with wins, and was again breathing down the neck of his teammate in the standings.
The internal bad feeling culminated at the Hungarian Grand Prix, during the team’s infamous qualifying debacle, which stemmed from McLaren’s limp-wristed handling of Hamilton deliberately disobeying instructions to let the lighter-on-fuel Alonso past so he could go for pole.
This had already left Alonso angry after his first run, and Hamilton at this point was understandably faster as he was on the softer tyres.
Alonso was confident he would better Hamilton’s time, but once he had been refuelled for his final lap, he realised he had not been given the faster, soft tyres, and proceeded to engage in an untimely argument with his engineers while Hamilton was waiting behind.
By the time Alonso left the pit box, there was not enough time for Hamilton to be fed back out, which left him powerless as he watched an enraged Alonso blitz to pole on his puzzlingly slower tyres.
Predictably, this publicly-broadcast team capitulation led to sanctions. McLaren were to be awarded no Constructors’ Championship points that weekend, while Alonso was relegated five places on the grid, thus gifting the controversial pole to Hamilton. To the youngster’s credit, he was able to power through the adversity to claim his third win on the season, while a disgruntled Alonso took fourth in a race in which he raced largely in radio silence.
By this stage, the relationship was in disrepair. Alonso was publicly ridiculing the team, Hamilton was also visibly unhappy, and Dennis had openly admitted they were happy to show their world champion driver the door at the end of the season.
During McLaren’s catastrophic disintegration, Ferrari and Raikkonen has silently continued their resurgence, which saw the Finn close out the season with a string of seven podiums to steal championships from under McLaren’s nose.
Alonso and Hamilton finished the season with 109 points apiece, just a solitary point behind Ferrari’s star. Both drivers lost the championship in very different ways: the youngster’s chances slipped from his grasp when he tripped up at the penultimate race, while Alonso’s seemingly-assured third title was all but thrown away by a team seemingly determined to give their whiz-kid every chance they could.
After a year of such poor mismanagement from one of the sport’s greatest teams, the public humiliation of Spygate, and their subsequent disqualification from the Constructors’ Championship proved to be divine retribution for McLaren. Alonso duly departed.
By no means did 2007 see Alonso disgrace himself as much as the popular narrative suggests. Indeed, he fell short of winning the championship, but by the finest of margins. Hamilton’s debut season was sensational. But in reality, he simply wasn’t as far behind as he would otherwise have been without the unrivalled internal preparation that Alonso lacked while he was busy fighting Schumacher for his second title in the Renault. And because Hamilton lacked those test sessions in 2008 and 2009, his performance deprecated considerably. Alonso, though, was stuck between a rock and a hard place; he could not remain at McLaren and risk the same embarrassing situation again, but there were few suitors at the sharp end of the grid.
Whilst ostensibly he could have found his way into a Ferrari, given the Scuderia’s preferred option for 2007 had been to axe Felipe Massa for Raikkonen, as opposed to losing Schumacher, the reality was they had won in 2007 (just) and didn’t want to upset the boat. Typical of teams. Besides which, Massa’s contract would have needed buying out. For this reason, it was a case of ‘better the devil you know.’ Alonso rejoined the fallen Renault team.
2008 and 2009 were largely fruitless years for Alonso as he found himself languishing in a car undeserving of his talent – a cruel affliction that would plague him for much of his remaining career. A duo of wins saw him end his return season with Renault on a high, although the former – at the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix – was clouded by the controversy of the ‘Crashgate’ scandal after it was concluded Alonso’s teammate, Nelson Piquet Jr, had intentionally crashed in order for the team to benefit from a safety car.
Throughout his Renault reuinion, the number of teams reported to have been pursuing Alonso’s signature was a testament to his quality and wealth of talent. BMW emerged as a potential candidate as they searched for an elite driver to earn them their first win after enormous investment. Toyota and Honda were also amongst the teams mentioned, but Alonso continually flirted with the most romantic team of all – Ferrari.
In late September, it was confirmed that the Prancing Horse would part ways with Raikkonen a year earlier than planned, in order to make way for Alonso to join as Massa’s new partner for 2010. In a similar fashion to his prior move from Renault to McLaren, Alonso’s transfer was labeled one of the worst-kept secrets in the paddock. Despite enduring one of their worst seasons in 15 years, Ferrari were able to hit the ground running with Alonso.
The Spaniard continued his supreme form around the Bahrain Circuit as he won the opening race of the season after qualifying alongside his new teammate on the second row. In doing so, he became the fifth driver to win their Ferrari debut race – a feat ironically also achieved by Raikkonen, the man he replaced.
Victory in Sakhir set Alonso up for the fourth title fight of his career, in a season that would prove to feature more championship contenders than ever before. Alonso then spent the remainder of the season’s first half watching Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber’s Red Bulls exchange wins with the McLarens of Hamilton and Jenson Button, with both rival teams pulling away from the stagnating Ferrari.
Skill, tenacity, and sheer stubbornness, however, had ensured Alonso never dropped too far behind in the points tallies. Although he had to wait until race 11 for his second victory of the 19-race season, the crucial race saw him cut Hamilton’s championship lead to a manageable 34 points. This win at the German Grand Prix, however, was not without controversy, and truly terrible PR for Ferrari.
Having started on the front row, Alonso was overtaken by Massa, who looked the best he had for several years. After a period of exchanging fastest laps, the Brazilian leader found himself caught in traffic, which allowed Alonso to close in, and despite doing his best to fend off the double world champion, Massa was instructed to let Alonso through, in the knowledge that he would be giving up his first win in two years.
The decision left Massa visibly broken on the podium, despite Alonso’s contrived, apologetic gratitude. It is widely regarded as the straw that broke the camel’s back for Massa, and although he would continue to be a great servant to Ferrari for four more years, he was never able to show more than a fleeting glimmer of his original flair and sparkle.
Immediately after the Hockenheim controversy came the Hungarian Grand Prix – again, the hub of Alonso’s palaver with McLaren and Hamilton in 2007. The race saw championship leader Hamilton’s gearbox give up the ghost as Alonso followed Webber home to continue closing up the championship.
A duo of wins followed this for Alonso, which consisted of an emotional Italian Grand Prix triumph in front of Monza’s adoring Tifosi, and then yet another win at Singapore, which was fast becoming Alonso’s personal playground. With four races remaining, Alonso had leapfrogged Hamilton in his faster McLaren, and was closing in on championship leader Webber, with the 11-point gap shrinking with every passing race.
Next time out in Suzuka, Alonso and Ferrari were aware of how difficult it would be to contend with the mechanical grip advantage enjoyed by Vettel and Webber in their Red Bulls. Webber finished ahead of Alonso, but the fact that his emerging teammate had taken points off him in the team’s third 1-2 of the season benefitted Fernando as he lost minimal points to the championship leader.
Going into the third-to-last race of the season, Alonso was gifted with what would turn out to be the last instance of true good fortune in his career. Despite enduring his own pit stop woes, Alonso was able to beat Hamilton to the victory after both Red Bulls met their untimely demise; Webber collided with Rosberg early on, whilst Vettel’s engine failure cruelly stole a potentially championship-winning victory from him in a similar vein as Schumacher’s in 2006.
Alonso now led Webber by 11 points for the championship, with Hamilton a further ten behind, and Vettel a full win away.
Another Red Bull 1-2 followed at the penultimate race in Brazil, which confirmed the team’s status at the top of F1’s hierarchy. But Alonso was again able to minimise the damage by taking the final step of the podium after holding off Hamilton and Button’s mighty McLarens.
This set up the season finale perfectly. Alonso led with 246 points, Webber: 238, Vettel: 231, and even Hamilton still had an outside shot with 222.
Owing to his points lead, Alonso only required a top-two finish to guarantee the title. Vettel drew first blood as he took pole, which was to be expected given how the track played to Red Bull’s strengths. Alonso, however, was right behind him, and would have taken a great deal of confidence from his history as a fast starter. His arch-rival Webber, meanwhile, qualified a lowly fifth.
Vettel started the race with a controlled grip on the lead. Alonso, meanwhile, slipped back to fourth, behind the McLarens, after a sluggish start. The opening stages then saw little change, until Schumacher caught the turn 5 chicane, spun, and was shunted violently by Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi, thus bringing out the safety car.
Several cars in the midfield pack chose to take the opportunity to change their tyres, although the title challengers remained out, only for Alonso to be called into the pits sooner than expected. At the time, he had Webber behind, and Vettel, who was further behind in the championship, was leading, meaning Alonso simply had to maintain fourth to clinch the crown. However, having collected fresh rubber, he found himself return to the track behind Renault’s Vitaly Petrov, and in need of passing. However, the Renault’s straight-line speed, together with the circuit’s sparse assortment of overtaking opportunities, left him stranded helplessly for the remainder of the race as he desperately tried to force his way past in vain.
Vettel controlled the remainder of the race, and claimed the win, thus denying Alonso of a third championship, despite the Spaniard’s best efforts to negate the Red Bull’s season-long advantages. It was another enormous kick in the teeth for Alonso.
The season was not without its positives, however. Given Ferrari’s winless, barren 2009, Alonso’s arrival had sparked the Scuderia’s return to the fold, and had given their fans a truly elite driver to invest their hopes in for the first time since Schumacher. Additionally, from Alonso’s perspective, he had the benefit of a competitive team whose resources were entirely invested in him, at the expense of his subservient teammate – a formula far more suited to alpha-male Alonso than the abrasive McLaren setup had proven to be.
2011‘s raft of rule changes saw Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel pull away from the rest of the field as the RB7 proved to establish itself as one of the most dominant F1 cars of all time. Ferrari, on the other hand, found themselves standing still. This was made abundantly clear to Alonso when he found himself an enormous 1.4 seconds adrift of Vettel’s pole time in Melbourne. Despite the sizeable pace deficit, Alonso still found his way on to four Red Bull-dominated podiums in the first half of the season, which culminated in a spectacular victory at a sopping-wet Silverstone.
Prior to this, Alonso sat a lonely fifth in the standings, far from the untouchable Red Bulls and pacey McLarens, but miles in front of the rest of the chasing pack. Subsequent to his British Grand Prix victory, however, came a run of three more podiums in the next four races, which saw him claw his way up the championship table, to become Vettel’s closest – but still very distant – challenger.
Results tailed off towards the end of the season, which allowed for a thriving Button to take the runner-up spot in the championship. Victory at the season finale in Brazil ensured Webber then snatched the bronze position from Alonso.
Although the season may not have gone how he and Ferrari had hoped after their promising 2010 return to form, it still demonstrated Alonso’s strong claim to being the finest driver of the field. In the 19 race season, he stood on 10 podiums to Hamilton’s 6, although it could be argued how little significance this carries, given how poor the McLaren driver’s season was. Webber, although third in the standings, finished with little over half the points of his championship-winning teammate, which allowed Button to fill the void between the Red Bull driver in what was the most impressive season of his career. Vettel, Button, and Alonso were unquestionably the standout drivers of the season.
Such plaudits would have likely been of little consolation to Alonso, who could see himself slipping back down the steep-sided walls of the faceless midfield. He and Ferrari had to succeed in 2012.
Well aware of how critical a rebound was, the team slaved away to produce a daring, innovative challenger in the F2012. The new, FIA-enforced ‘stepped nose’ ensured the car was an eyesore, but after its unveiling, Alonso insisted this would be of no concern to him provided the package was competitive. Ferrari pushed the envelope with the reintroduction of pullrod front suspension, which had not been seen for more than a decade. A pushrod rear system was also used, as well as a soon-to-be-outlawed feature to manage the car’s ride height in order to maintain control under braking.
Pre-season produced numerous worrying media reports surrounding the difficult, unresponsive handling of the sluggish car, which Ferrari denied at first. However, come the season opener at Albert Park, there was nowhere to hide. Alonso visibly struggled with the car as he wrestled it around on Saturday, veering off in the process. He qualified a distant 12th, and teammate Massa was a lowly 16th.
Alonso profited from several retirements and collisions during the race, and would eventually finish a respectable fifth, albeit little under half a minute behind Button in his winning McLaren.
The second race of the season, in Malaysia, saw Ferrari return to the drawing board as they debuted a new chassis with Massa. The team were under no illusions that their Melbourne result should be chalked down to mere circumstance and quality on Alonso’s behalf, rather than a single ounce of promise in the car. Alonso looked slow in practice, qualified ninth, and the team duly prepared for another embarrassing race.
However, when Sunday came around, the green light illuminated under torrential weather conditions, under which Alonso found it easier to extract performance from the car. It is no secret that wet conditions can mask a bad car’s deficiencies in F1, but when Alonso led the race after the first round of stops, those watching on found themselves in disbelief. The wet conditions proved favourable for the F2012, and after a series of duels with Sauber’s tenacious Sergio Perez, Alonso incredibly triumphed against all odds, to give Ferrari perhaps the most unexpected win in their illustrious history.
Immediately following the surprise win came a predictable downturn in form. The Chinese and Bahrainian Grands Prix denied Ferrari the wet weather conditions they had relied upon to salvage a strong result. But rather than concede defeat Alonso instead chose to run the Ferrari ragged again as he challenged the Red Bulls for fourth in Shanghai. Ultimately, though, the car’s temperament handling made this impossible. Alonso spun, and fell to ninth.
An anonymous seventh in Bahrain – a track previously mastered by Alonso – saw him slip to fifth in the standings. Even this, though, was far beyond the parameters of flattery to the F2012.
Being the first to acknowledge this, Ferrari set off for their Mugello circuit during the in-season testing period, and searched desperately for solutions to improve the car’s woeful traction issues. After some tinkering, the team set off to Catalunya, for Alonso’s native Spanish Grand Prix.
The revisions did seem to have heralded some improvement, and Alonso finished qualifying in a season-best third, only to later be promoted to the front row after Hamilton was disqualified for under-fuelling. In contrast, the second Ferrari of Massa plummeted to sixteenth, which again acted as another reminder of how Ferrari’s competitiveness was owed to Alonso’s brilliance as opposed to any mechanical merit, if anyone had somehow forgotten.
Alonso rocketed past Maldonado’s leading Williams into the first corner, and after a race-long battle, eventually finished second, owing to tyre degradation and traffic. Massa finished 15th.
The podium finish elevated Alonso to a miraculous joint-lead in the championship, which he shared with reigning king Vettel. Massa at this point had just two points to his name, which was a far more accurate reflection of the red car’s performance.
Another impressive podium followed for Alonso, this time at the demanding Monte Carlo circuit. Given the horrendous understeering characteristics of the F2012, Alonso’s ability to drag the car onto the most mechanically-testing podium on the calendar must rank as one of his most noteworthy drives. The result deservedly elevated Alonso to a championship lead of three points, which he then lost during the following Grand Prix at the straight-lined Montreal circuit – shining a light on the Ferrari unit’s lack of power.
Alonso simply refused to give up, though. At this point, he was deeply involved in a title fight his car had absolutely no right to play a part in.
Two wins and a second-place would follow, with the Silverstone podium and Nurburgring victory both coming from pole. Massa, meanwhile, managed 16th, fourth, and 12th from the same races.
As F1 entered the second half of the season, Alonso somehow had an incomprehensible 34-point lead ahead of Webber in the world championship. Vettel was a further ten points behind, whilst Massa had just 23 points.
After the mid-season break, the sport returned in Spa, for the Belgium Grand Prix, where Alonso had managed to wrestle his F2012 to fifth on the grid. At the start, however, he was one of the numerous unfortunate victims of Romain Grosjean’s reckless attack into turn one, which saw him spear Perez’s Sauber into the air, only to miss Alonso’s head by a matter of inches, destroying his car in the process.
Having retired at the first corner of the race, a shaken Alonso then had to watch his championship rival, Vettel, race to another podium as he cut the championship lead in half. This must have been particularly infuriating for Alonso, as he knew his still-uncompetitive car would make it far more difficult to make up the points he had slaved away to amass, which would pave the way for Vettel to ride off into the sunset with the world championship he sorely desired.
Vettel would race ahead with a run of four consecutive wins as his Red Bull hit peak form. Alonso did his best to manage the damage, and to his credit picked up three podiums in as many races as well. But he was still wrestling with such a gargantuan performance deficit.
The duo traded blows for the remainder of the season as they closed out the year with an uninterrupted string of podiums. However, McLaren’s own resurgence, together with some well-timed Raikkonen heroics ensured Vettel dropped two wins, which charitably afforded the underequipped Alonso the smallest of championship chances as they entered the Brazilian finale.
Alonso found himself needing to overcome a 13-point deficit, despite still having the third-fastest car at best. Qualifying produced no surprises as Vettel cruised onto the second row, and Alonso battled his way up to eighth on the grid. However, an awkwardly-wet Sunday’s green light produced a glimmer of hope for Alonso, as he saw his championship rival spin 180 degrees in his rearview mirrors.
A fast start had seen both Ferraris surge up the grid, behind only the rapid McLarens. Vettel, meanwhile, had catastrophically collided with Bruno Senna, which saw him drop to the back of the pack. To add to his misery, the collision had damaged his side pod, which threatened crippling, unfixable issues.
At this point, Alonso seized the opportunity and threw his car down the inside of Webber, to claim a potential podium position that would secure him the world championship, should everything remain the same.
The difficult weather conditions really did no favours for Alonso, as his erratic F2012 squirmed around. He ran precariously wide at turn one several times, which frustratingly cost him a position to Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Soon after, Vettel started his recovery drive, and after a handful of laps, was back into the points to take back control of the championship. Adrian Newey and Christian Horner nervously applauded the move as they sat on the pit wall, clutching photographs of their driver’s badly-damaged car.
A puncture for Nico Rosberg saw the safety car brought out on lap 21, which closed up the pack, with Alonso in fourth as Vettel nursed his dying car immediately behind.
As the track started to dry, teams opted to pit their drivers for dry tyres. Vettel peeled in for new rubber with 20 laps remaining, which dropped him back into the tail end of the points. Alonso held firm, knowing the result would not be final until all 24 cars crossed the finish line.
The hectic Grand Prix dealt another surprise with 15 laps left. Hulkenberg and Hamilton came together during a clumsy tussle at the sharp end. Hamilton’s frontal damage debilitated him, which moved Alonso back up onto the podium, and therefore in control of the world championship.
Sao Paulo’s skies then opened again, and with a dozen laps remaining, Vettel pitted for intermediates in an attempt to make up the necessary positions. After skillfully weaving his dry-tyred Ferrari around a flooded track, Alonso then pitted for his own intermediate tyres. By which point, Vettel had powered through the pack again in his roaring Red Bull, and with just over six laps remaining, a parting gift from his hero Schumacher gave him the all-important sixth position to claim his third world championship.
Fernando Alonso finished heroically in second, both in the race, and the championship. The Spaniard emerged from his car, visibly exhausted, and unable to respond with anything other than a drained, dead-eyed, distant stare.
Whilst I am sure it was of absolutely no consolation to Alonso at the time, it would be this season, not his maiden championship, or second triumph against the great Michael Schumacher, which would cement him as one of the greatest drivers ever. He finished the season just three agonising points adrift of Vettel, and almost 100 ahead of both Button and Hamilton in their far superior MP4-27s.
Alonso’s incessant whining, public mishandling of his unfortunate McLaren situation, and burial of Massa’s Ferrari career had caused a large contingent of the F1 fanbase to resent Alonso. But his efforts in 2012, which it would be understated to call heroic, inspired even his biggest of critics to applaud him.
2013 did little to improve Alonso’s confidence in Ferrari, as he battled to the runner-up spot again, against all odds. This time, however, despite two impressive wins and nine podiums, the gap to Vettel continued to grow as Red Bull reached the peak of their powers with the incredible RB9. Vettel finished the season with a Schumacher-esque display of nine consecutive victories, which left Alonso scrambling some 150 points behind.
Despite nearly a decade having passed since his last World Championship, Alonso was still widely regarded as the best driver in the sport at the time. After a fruitless 2014 saw him experience his first winless season since his unsuccessful Renault return, Alonso’s patience with Ferrari had evaporated, and their relationship deteriorated. He parted ways with the team he had dragged through the previous half a decade, and made the peculiar decision to re-join McLaren – the team he had so publicly criticised during his first volatile term with.
Although what followed was undeniably the most trying period of Alonso’s career, I think in some way it should be regarded as the most ironically fitting. It was another example of Alonso’s ostensible inability to make a good career move.
Having watched his long-time adversary Hamilton cut ties with his team and go on to conquer the world, it would appear that Alonso was hoping for a similarly-unforeseen change in the grid’s hierarchy when he made the McLaren move.
However, instead he was forced to watch as his old Ferrari team gradually fought back to their current, championship-vying position, all while Hamilton – the man who had joined him as a rookie – continued his run of dominance with Mercedes. Possibly made even more agonising for him when you consider perhaps a move to the Silver Arrows would not have been particularly far-fetched for Alonso, had he pushed for it in advance of Hamilton. Oh, how different things could have been…
I think it is very telling that I have managed to write a small dissertation of Alonso’s journey from Minardi through to Ferrari, yet find myself wrapping up his second McLaren stint in a handful of words.
2015, 2016, 2017, and now 2018 have all seen Alonso relegated to the very back of the grid as his team helplessly clamoured to revive a broken relationship with an all but redundant Honda engine supplier. Each year, he has been partnered with new drivers as those before them either left the team, or were scapegoated and sacked. But Alonso, like a fallen world champion boxer, has relentlessly pushed forwards and continued to pick himself off the canvas in a desperate yet self-assured attempt to revive the career he knew he should have had.
To this day, despite having finished 17th, tenth, and 15th in the past three years, Alonso is still widely regarded as one of the best drivers currently active, and it must pain him so deeply to know all those in front of him are several steps below him.
Personally, I will remember Fernando Alonso as a tremendous world champion who came of age long after he lifted his final trophy.
Image: Renault Sport F1, Twitter.