For years F1 fans asked this question: “Who will finally beat Michael Schumacher?” Finally the answer came: Fernando Alonso.
The 2006 season was unquestionably the high point of Fernando Alonso’s career. With a car that, on balance, no more than matched Schumacher’s Ferrari over the year, he beat the seven-times champion at his own game. He made fewer mistakes, he salvaged more points on the days when his car wasn’t up to the fight, and he defeated F1’s most prolific winner.
That dizzying high was followed by an equally stunning fall from grace in 2007’s season of bitterness. So what is our impression of Fernando Alonso now?
You had to be blind to miss Alonso’s latent potential when he drove for Minardi in 2001. His final performance for the team at Suzuka, beating several far better equipped drivers, is probably the greatest thing a driver ever did in one of the Italian cars.
After a year as Renault tester he returned to action in 2003 and in short order became F1’s youngest pole sitter (Malaysia) and race winner (Hungary).
It was a lean season in 2004 but early on the team threw its weight behind the 2005 challenger and the fruit of their labours – the R25 – was perfectly suited to 2005’s one-off rules that banned tyre changes. With Schumacher’s Ferrari mired in a rare patch of uncompetitivity, and Kimi Raikkonen unable to coax his MP4/20 to the finish often enough, Alonso grabbed his first title in style.
The following season would be much tougher. The opposition from Ferrari grew stronger as the year wore on and we began to see glimpses of a sharper edge to Alonso’s character. He fumed when team mate Giancarlo Fisichella beat him at Indianapolis – though Alonso almost always had the upper hand on the Italian. And when an utterly rotten stewards’ decision went against him at Monza, he voiced his anger quite plainly.
That aside, 2006 was a total triumph for Alonso. He scarcely made a mistake all year long, and his tenacity allowed him to profit from even the tiniest chinks in Ferrari’s armour – squeezing ahead of Schumacher at Istanbul, for example.
Then came 2007 and the fateful switch to McLaren.
It may be some time before we fully understand exactly what happened at McLaren last year. In an interview for F1 Racing this month Alonso said he might tell his side of the story one day.
Alonso is certainly not the first driver to have found the atmosphere at McLaren not to his liking – along with Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya he is in good company.
But there was obviously much more to it than just bad chemistry. All manner of explanations have been put forward: Did Alonso underestimate Lewis Hamilton? Did Ron Dennis promise Alonso number one status with the team and rescind it? Or did Alonso presume that’s what he was offered and discover he was mistaken?
At Hungary next weekend it will be one year since the episode that defined the season – Hamilton refusing to cede to Alonso in qualifying, Alonso blocking Hamilton in the pits, Alonso getting the inevitable penalty, and then (according to Ron Dennis) threatening to reveal damning information about the team to the FIA.
What your opinion of Fernando Alonso is is likely to be coloured by whichever interpretation of the events of 2007 you subscribe to. I think he and Hamilton had entirely equal treatment last year, and the bitterness that erupted from Alonso came from his inability to believe that.
He’s now back at Renault and appears to be merely passing time, gunning for a big result when it’s available, fading into obscurity when it slips away from him. The moment at his home race this year when he spun on the formation lap after qualifying second told you everything about how hard he was trying to pull off a big result in front of his adoring fans.
Alonso would surely be winning races tomorrow if he was in a Ferrari or McLaren, or even a BMW. But his temperament took a blow last year and the kind of mistakes have crept in that we never used to see from him before.
Now the rumours are that he’s heading for Ferrari in the future. Could he recapture his title-winning form there? What do you think the future holds for Fernando Alonso?
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