On Thursday evening, a particularly funny incident played out for us. While we were entering the F1 paddock, a bevy of photographers suddenly started frantically clicking photographs of us. We quizzically looked at each other (with Mithila wondering if Kunal had suddenly attained celebrity status) until we realised that THE Fernando Alonso was ambling in right behind us — and suddenly, it all made sense.
Around here at the Spanish Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso is the man of the moment. The kind of love he commands from fans is undeniable (even veteran journalists swoon in his presence) as is his clout in the sport.
Interestingly, the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix comes at an interesting inflection point in his career. Last weekend, Alonso won on his World Endurance Championship debut at the 6 Hours of Spa (along with other former Formula 1 racers — Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima). In sharp (and painful) contrast, success continues to elude him in Formula 1. The 2018 Spanish Grand Prix marks five long years since Alonso claimed the top step of the podium — and in the nimble-footed world of F1, five years is an eternity (or in this case, an era).
For any self-respecting sportsperson on top of his game, winning is important. It’s what keeps you motivated, respected and relevant. While reflecting on his recent win at the WEC in Spa, Alonso said, “I kept the motivation (level high) because I’m a competitive man. I love to win. It was definitely quite a very good moment for the whole team and for me as well, after a long time of not being on the podium.”
Much has been said about Alonso’s motivation levels over his string of dismal seasons. The sight of Alonso sinking into a deck chair after a short-lived qualifying performance (Interlagos, 2015) and fuming at McLaren-Honda’s GP2 engine over the radio (Suzuka, 2015) illustrated his troubles. In 2017, Honda hinted that Alonso had deliberately ‘parked the car’ in Spa when there was nothing wrong with it. However, Alonso maintained all through that his motivation levels were unaffected.
Take the instance of him pushing his broken McLaren to the pits after yet another engine failure (Hungary, 2015) — he vocally said that it showed that his “passion” for Formula 1 was intact. Perhaps it is a case of him being forced to grasp at straws — as he said to the media, “I will never probably do a race as I did in Baku (2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix), and I finished seventh. It’s difficult to see from the outside but (you’re) extremely proud and motivated every time you do a one-off performance.” Without a doubt, triumphs at alternate series will give him the fillip he needs on a personal level which is hard to come by in Formula 1.
From a larger paddock perspective as well, Alonso’s WEC victory is crucial. There’s been a lot of chatter around him striving to achieve the ‘Triple Crown’ of racing. When he chose to skip the 2017 Monaco GP in favour of racing at the Indy 500, many eyebrows were raised in the paddock. Despite being a strong title contender (including leading for many laps of the race) a broken Honda engine (yes, his Indy race was impacted by Honda’s engines too!) meant heartbreak. In that sense, Alonso’s Spa win finally lets his driving do the talking. It renews his relevance in a paddock where younger talent is constantly clamouring to be noticed.
Interestingly, Alonso played down the significance of his victory at Spa, saying, “The win last weekend in Spa will not change anything. I think it’s two different series and two different worlds. It will not change anything for me.” At the same time, he clearly outlined where his future lay, admitting that he would rather win at Le Mans than at his home Grand Prix, “Now that I have won a couple of times here at the Spanish Grand Prix, obviously for me I would rather win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, because it’s the biggest race in the world.” It seems clear that his aspiration lies elsewhere — and that he’s painfully realistic about his Formula 1 chances.
With respect to Formula 1, it is hard to say what will run out first — Alonso’s time or his patience. 36 years old is not old, but no longer young either. He is the second oldest driver on the grid now. Just for the sake of comparison, Kimi Raikkonen is just two years older than Alonso, but everyone expects him to retire every year. To win in this sport, you need a fast car. Unfortunately, there is no place for Alonso at the top teams unless a miracle strikes — he has too much baggage with Ferrari, too much baggage with Lewis Hamilton to be welcome at Mercedes, and Red Bull Racing has a clogged driver pipeline that punts on ‘young’ talent. His only chances of chasing elusive Formula 1 success is a miraculous turnaround at McLaren, or a surprise move to Renault, once the project picks up pace. In Spain, he repeated his displeasure about Formula 1’s predictable nature to the media, “The biggest thing here (Formula 1) is how predictable everything is. We can put on a paper now what will be the (result in) qualifying here on Saturday. Or what will happen in Monaco, or in Canada and or in Silverstone, so that’s something you need to take into account for future decisions. This is sad, in a way, for Formula 1, the direction in which everything went.”
With all these facts on the table, it becomes increasingly evident that as much as we may hope, it may be that Alonso’s days of glory in Formula 1 are behind us. And just maybe, his triumphs in other racing series will be our only opportunities to see the true potential of this racer in action. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to start celebrating Alonso’s success irrespective of the series it comes in, and not with respect to Formula 1. Because a win is a win, and the champagne tastes just as good.
Updated Date: May 12, 2018 15:31 PM