Taking a backwards glance to Melbourne, two images dwell. The two Ferraris galloping away at the start, and Alonso’s horrific, barrel-rolling smash. The first provided hope for an entertaining season, the other relief that Fernando had miraculously survived.
But it was relief tinged with despair. Despair that here was yet another dire turn in the declining career of a once potentially great champion.
Take a look at this graph and imagine what Alonso must feel like?
The chart shows the 13 F1 seasons since Fernando’s first win in 2003, then plots the cumulative number of race victories for each of the three standout drivers of this period: Alonso (32), Vettel (42), Hamilton (43). Since these three began competing against each other in 2007, they have collectively won 2 in every 3 of all the races run, and 9 of the 11 Drivers’ titles fought for: Vettel (4), Hamilton (3), Alonso (2).
So how on earth has Alonso, an outstanding F1 driver, ended up well behind Hamilton and Vettel having once been ahead by at least 15 race wins and two drivers’ titles? How come at Melbourne, Alonso is party to an almighty crash passing a back marker for P12, while Vettel and Hamilton are up the road disputing victory?
As an Alonso admirer, I had to remind myself, so here is Fernando’s career timeline, from first race victory to near disaster at Melbourne, viewed across four key phases:
2003 to 2006: ON THE BRINK OF GREATNESS
- Youngest ever GP winner
- Youngest ever champion
- First Spanish champion
- Youngest ever double-champion
- Effectively ‘retires’ Schumacher
- Race victories already reach 15
2007 to 2009: CAREER OFF THE RAILS
- Shock switch to McLaren
- Spat with Hamilton
- Too often out-driven by rookie teammate
- Threatens Ron Dennis over ‘spy scandal’
- Departs McLaren early, reputation tarnished
- Rejoins fading Renault Team for 2008
- Smeared by 2008 Singapore GP scandal
- 2009 also-ran
2010 to 2014: NEW BEGINNINGS AT FERRARI
- Joins as undisputed number one
- Wins on Ferrari debut
- Loses 2010 title to Vettel in final round
- Loses 2012 title to Vettel in final round
- Watches Vettel win four titles
- Watches Vettel win 34 races to his 11
- 2014 turbo-hybrid Ferrari a dog
- Watches Hamilton dominate 2014
- Snubbed attempts to join Red Bull or Mercedes
- Departs Ferrari early without illusive third title
2015 to 2017: LAST CHANCE SALOON
- Rejoins McLaren to win coveted third title
- Misses round 1 due to mysterious testing accident
- 2015 McLaren-Honda unmitigated disaster
- Spends season like “a taxi-driver”
- Watches Vettel successes in rejuvenated Ferrari
- 2016 McLaren-Honda better, but no winner
- Starts 2016 with death defying accident
Despite his human flaws, I have always admired Alonso the driver. There was a time when I was certain he would become the next ‘man to beat’ and turn the ‘Magnificent Seven’ (See Analysing Formula 1)…
Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart, Prost, Senna, Schumacher
…into the ‘Great Eight’.
It now lies between Hamilton and Vettel to duke it out and see whom, if either, will join that illustrious band.
For Alonso, his chance evaporated well before the Melbourne accident. Right place right time and nurturing relationships is all part of greatness, and it is in these particular areas, less so on track, where Fernando fell badly short. His surprise early announcement that he was leaving Renault to join McLaren for 2007 appeared at the time to be the masterstroke of a future ‘man to beat’. Instead it revealed his negative traits, facets that poison team spirit rather than build it into a mighty title-winning force.
Some may say he simply wasn’t good enough. His downfall hinged on his failure to see-off Hamilton in 2007. But only Alonso was capable of beating Schumacher to those 2005/6 titles. And only Alonso, in inferior machinery, could have brought Ferrari so close in 2010 and 2012.
Alonso last won a race in May 2013, almost three years ago. Will he win this year? Unlikely. So everything is now pinned on McLaren-Honda getting the new-for-2017 regulations so right that it fires them ahead of the rest to championship glory.
Realistically it’s a faint hope. And by then he’ll need to beat the likes of Verstappen and Vandoorne let alone Hamilton and Vettel.
And then there’s the accident that kicked off this train of thought. Did Alonso make a mistake? After his ‘taxi-drive’ last year, did he badly misjudge his passing manoeuvre in a McLaren-Honda at last capable of overtaking at the end of a straight? Has it sown seeds of doubt even within this proud Asturian psyche?
For sure, self-doubt is not something to have sitting on your shoulder in a Formula 1 cockpit!