Let’s be brutally honest: Fernando Alonso’s Formula 1 career should not be ending this way.
Rewind to the same stage of the season in 2007. Alonso is a double world champion, winning two consecutive titles for Renault before switching to McLaren. It was the right move in many aspects, as he was once again fighting for the championship while Renault picked up just a solitary podium all year.
Outscoring teammate Lewis Hamilton by five points would be enough to secure a third straight drivers’ championship and move him level with Ayrton Senna at the age of 26. At that point, Alonso had a record of 19 wins from 103 races. Little did anyone know before the lights went out in Brazil that there would be just 13 further victories in the next 208 starts.
Three of those came in the final six races of 2010, and returning to Abu Dhabi this weekend, there will always be the reminder of the third title he should have had. His being stuck behind Vitaly Petrov’s Renault for more than half of the race allowed Sebastian Vettel to nip in and steal the first of his four consecutive championships.
The 2012 campaign could have finally brought that third success for Alonso, but he again fell agonizingly short despite having produced one of the most complete seasons ever produced by a driver in F1. And after that, it all started to unravel.
Even at that stage, you’d have been brave to bet against Alonso winning another championship, and you’d have probably been the subject of an intervention if you’d said there would only be two more victories in the following 114 attempts. But that’s how it has panned out, and barring a miracle on Sunday, Alonso will retire from F1 stuck on 32 wins and two championships, just as he has been since 12 May 2013.
From that point on, Alonso lost faith in Ferrari, had his bluff called by the team when it signed Vettel, and then didn’t get the dream ending he craved with McLaren-Honda. He’s often asked whether he regrets his move from Maranello, but as he points out he wasn’t under contract with Ferrari by the time the Scuderia got truly competitive again.
His history with Hamilton – and the subsequent volatile relationship Hamilton had with Nico Rosberg – always precluded a move to Mercedes, while Red Bull has constantly promoted from its own young driver program. Upon leaving Ferrari, McLaren was a risk worth taking. He’d have been no nearer a championship anywhere else that was available to him.
But Alonso’s reaction to the struggles that followed are central to the disappointment with which we’ll see him bow out of F1.
The memory should not be of his outbursts at Honda, or his ongoing need to tell the world how good his performances are – “self praise is no praise” as one other F1 driver currently on the grid put it – because of an uncompetitive car, or some of his bizarre claims regarding the sport’s predictability, but of one of the best ever, performing at the highest level.
His F1 machinery in recent years has prevented him truly displaying that ability, but he’s jumped in too many different cars and excelled – think of his performance at Indy, or that night stint at Le Mans – to ever doubt it.
Alonso will leave as the second-most experienced driver in F1 history, his 311 starts to date only bettered by Rubens Barrichello’s 322. But his record of starts should arguably be much lower, and his win ratio definitely so much higher.
It’s something that the Spaniard himself clearly knows. It’s why he’s so often compelled to talk up his own performances, or even on occasion belittle the achievements of others. But it’s also why Sunday might not be the last time we see him in a Formula 1 car…
The hints had been coming for a while, with initial digs at the sport giving way to an admittance he was less likely to leave if given a more competitive car, and then more recently clearly stating that a 2020 return is a possibility despite having originally said “right now, I’m thinking it’s a goodbye” after announcing he would leave F1.
Now that next year’s Indy 500 is confirmed alongside the rest of the World Endurance Championship season and potentially another Rolex 24 at Daytona appearance, Alonso says he has no time for a full-time commitment to any category in 2019. But all options are open for 2020.
“There’s going to be a couple more challenges than the Indy 500,” Alonso told Chinese outlet Xinhua at the WEC 6 Hours of Shanghai last weekend. “I feel I need to recharge my batteries a bit next year, but in 2020, of course it can be a possibility to have a full season in IndyCar, a full season back in F1, or a full season in another series.”
And for the very same reason, if it’s sometimes hard to take Alonso’s complaints about the sport or descriptions of his qualifying laps seriously, then taking his retirement with a pinch of salt is probably the right approach, too.
At 37, Alonso is as good as ever. And his 2005 and 2007 title rival Kimi Raikkonen has shown that there is not necessarily a drop-off the closer you get to 40; the Finn having this year put together his best season since returning to Ferrari.
Racing for McLaren at Indianapolis means Alonso will stay very much part of the McLaren family, and it’s a team that knows it has hit rock bottom in F1 and is committed to turning things around. Gone are promises of podiums and breaking into the top three overnight, and in their place is an atmosphere of change, a fresh young driver line-up and technical restructuring. It’s not foolproof – far from it – but it’s the right approach.
If there’s clear progress in 2019, perhaps F1 would be a more attractive proposition for Alonso to return to a year later. Or, fresh regulations in 2021 could pique his interest. He’d still only be as old as Raikkonen is this year, and you can’t see a Zak Brown-led McLaren turning down his services at any stage.
And as unlikely as a McLaren return looked post-2007, could the doors at Maranello be reopened to Alonso if Vettel were no longer there in a year or two’s time?
Alonso left Ferrari with unfinished business, to rejoin a McLaren team with which he had unfinished business. And none of that business is finished yet.
Abu Dhabi will be a chance to celebrate Alonso’s achievements, his immense talent and his place among the F1 greats. But when the lights go out he will almost certainly be left scrapping in the midfield for a points finish at best, extending his run without even a podium to 85 grands prix.
His F1 career shouldn’t end this way. Hopefully it won’t.