Fernando Alonso doesn’t want to return to Formula 1 just to add another clutch of minor points finishes to his CV. So why should he be taken seriously as a contender to take the Renault drive, given it is currently an underachieving midfielder and, realistically, hasn’t got a chance of offering him a shot at race wins before 2022’s new regulations at best?
Setting aside uncertainty over Renault’s future, which should be taken seriously given the current financial concerns surrounding the wider company, there’s one very good reason why this option could appeal to Alonso. The bottom line is that he needs to get back in the game.
His F1 hiatus has, so far, been productive despite the infamous failure of McLaren’s 2019 Indianapolis 500 assault. He’s bagged a pair of Le Mans 24 Hours victories, taken the World Endurance Championship title, won the Daytona 24 Hours and acquitted himself well on his Dakar Rally debut. Nobody is in any doubt he remains race sharp – he even won a couple of The Race Legends Trophy Esports races at Indy last Saturday.
But if he doesn’t get back on the F1 grid in 2021, he will have been three years away by the time the following season gets going. At 38, he’s still capable of doing the job for a good few years in F1 yet, but he’s becoming less ‘current’. It would be an exaggeration to say that more than two years away will render him obsolete, but it makes recruiting him less appealing to a top F1 team.
Lewis Hamilton recently touched on this when he talked about how the current pause in F1 is allowing him to have a partial sabbatical he argues would otherwise be impossible.
“There have been times probably in the past five years or so that I thought to myself ‘it would be good for my body and mind to take a rest for a year’, but you can’t step away,” said Hamilton.
“I don’t think that for an athlete in their prime that it’s ever a good thing to step away for a year and then come back. Technology moves so fast, at such a rate, you need to stay on top of this car and the development. To take a sabbatical is just not on the cards.”
While Hamilton is talking about a total break from racing, what he says is relevant to Alonso. Opportunities to drive contemporary F1 cars are vanishingly small, with Alonso’s last appearance being an outing for McLaren during a Bahrain test in April last year. Things haven’t changed so much, but two years is a long time and unavoidably the Alonso databank won’t be as full as it would be were he driving in F1 regularly.
And while being active in other top-level motorsport will keep the core skills well-honed, he’s not maintaining the F1-specific skills he built over the years. He won’t have lost them, and right now it would probably take him very little time to refresh, but the longer the gap, the tougher the challenge. Doubly so given he’s at an age where there is likely to be a little unavoidable deterioration.
In recent times, Kimi Raikkonen spent two years out of F1 in 2010-11, primarily competing in the World Rally Championship but also dabbling briefly in NASCAR, to lead the Lotus team (now Renault) on his return. That was a success, but at the same time Michael Schumacher’s return from three years retired fell short of expectations from 2010-2012.
This doesn’t mean there’s some profound difference between two and three years where everything changes. Schumacher, after all, didn’t compete in car racing during his three years away, occasionally testing a Ferrari F1 car and dabbling in motorcycling prior to a terrible crash at Spanish circuit Cartagena in 2009 that was downplayed at the time.
What’s clear is that with every passing year, the time out of F1 does more damage. Alonso might be perfectly capable of still competing at the top level at the age of 45 were he to return to grand prix racing in 2021, but that doesn’t mean he’d be able to do that were he to come back at that age after so many years away. He’s a truly great driver, but he’s only human.
But this will be of secondary concern to Alonso. What’s even more important is that he shows to the decision-makers at F1’s top teams that he can still do it. Their faith will fade long before Alonso’s confidence does, so it’s getting to the point where he needs to put himself back in play.
This would be central to a willingness to return with an operation like Renault, assuming he doesn’t somehow pull off an impossible comeback with a Mercedes team that still hasn’t confirmed its 2021 line-up. The hope that Renault could realize its potential will probably be secondary to the appeal of jumping into a car and, just as he did in his second McLaren stint, dragging some good results out of it.
If he wants a shot at a third world championship – and make no mistake, that’s exactly what Alonso’s ambition is – then chances are he needs to get into a top team. Yes, with Renault there’s still a possibility of a giant leap forward in 2022, but it seems unlikely – doubly so given the question marks hanging over it. But even if it remains resoundingly fifth, Alonso can use the car to demonstrate to the bosses of the big teams that he’s still capable of delivering. If you want to convince someone to back you, eliminating doubt is a good way to do it.
For Alonso, driving a Renault is not about convincing Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari that they should sign him to replace Hamilton, Max Verstappen or Charles Leclerc – or even go up against them. Instead, it’s about being ready if he’s needed. If Hamilton were to decide he’s retiring at the end of 2021, say, then Alonso would become at worst a very appealing option, and very possibly a necessity.
This is why it might appeal to Alonso to get himself back on the board. Do the job, prove he’s his old self and bolster what is a fading chance of a shot at another title. You have to give it your all and such a move would be a case of cutting your cloth accordingly.
We can’t rule out the possibility of Renault cracking it. Its upward trend from 2016-2018 was decent enough, and 2019 might prove to be a blip. So in Alonso’s position, there would also be the potential bonus of rolling back the years and riding a rising Renault to the title. But if that was likely, why did Daniel Ricciardo choose to sign for McLaren? In Alonso’s position, it’s a long shot and he is the last person to get tricked into believing it’s a sure thing, but you’ve got to be in it to win it.
Alonso’s return would also make sense to F1. He’s a great driver, and even though he has his detractors, nobody can doubt that he is anything other than box office. Having him on the grid would enrich F1, and to see his astounding car control and capacity to adapt to the limitations of any car to extract the most from it is wonderful to watch.
It could also be positive for Renault commercially. Currently, it has no interest in making Alonso a Ricciardo-style $25m a year offer, and any deal appears to depend on a sponsor facilitating it. Whether that would be based on Alonso finding that sponsor or the team doing so doesn’t matter – and both avenues will be explored.
And if a big name like Alonso and associated deals would shore up the uncertain future of a team that has for a long time had vague talks in the background should a ‘continuation’ owner be needed were Renault to walk away, then the deal is a no-brainer from its standpoint.
What is more debatable is whether it’s the right fit for the team in terms of non-commercial matters. Yes, he’ll drive the car fast. Yes, he’ll get the best results the machinery is capable of. Yes, he’ll provide clear direction on how he things the team should operate that could help it sharpen up. But he will also serve to show just how far behind Renault is.
The initial uplift of a big name only makes the disappointment that might follow more bitter. What has happened with Ricciardo proves that. And regardless of whether Alonso starts to make any of his legendary comments about GP2 engines or miracle laps in qualifying to set the 11th fastest time, what he does with the car will serve only to pile on extra pressure.
People talk about emerging teams being ready for a top driver. An extreme example would be Hamilton suddenly jumping into a Williams. He’ll drive it stunningly fast, but there’s a disconnect between the team’s situation and the status of the driver. Other combinations would work better.
Renault might think getting Alonso in the car would get him under lock and key in case it does achieve its ambitious. Well, the same mindset applied to Ricciardo, and look how that worked out. The Australian turned in some (often largely ignored) brilliant race drives, particularly over the second half of the season, but to what end? A fourth place at Monza and a few finishes in the bottom half of the top 10. The car defines the potential performance, the driver extracts it. The former is Renault’s priority right now.
So, curiously, we might have a situation where an Alonso/Renault deal suits everyone – F1, Alonso and fans who want to see him in action – but perhaps not Renault. And if Renault needs him commercially rather than simply needing a sponsor to make a deal possible, then it needs him too.
Whatever happens, we circle back to the initial question. How far is Alonso willing to go to maximize his hopes of one last shot at grand prix glory? It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to conclude that, if circumstances allow, he’s willing to give it a go in the midfield given that’s the best option that he could – and whether it can really happen remains a big question – be presented with.
After all, there’s no point sitting around waiting for a chance you know will probably never come. Sometimes, you have to make something happen. Alonso has always been the kind of man who does that.