Robin Miller comes up with some catchy nicknames (and some less catchy ones), and on my first year at Indianapolis to cover Fernando Alonso’s debut in the Indy 500, he was pretty quick to give the Spaniard one: “F*****g Fast Fernando”.
By 2019, that had been cut down to “Fast Freddie”, and Robin even made up bumper stickers.
The second visit to Indianapolis didn’t go quite so well, but there was no doubting Alonso’s credentials, nor his stunning ability to wring every bit of performance out of a car.
So say what you want about a team turning to a driver who hasn’t raced in Formula 1 for two years and will turn 40 in the first year of his contract, but signing Alonso was a no-brainer for Renault.
As evidenced by his visits to Indianapolis so far, Alonso is box office. Renault knows it, and F1 knows it. Chase Carey even went as far as putting out a quote to welcome Alonso back, because he knows he brings something extra to the sport.
That’s not to say Alonso is universally loved: a lot of the social media reaction I’ve seen was from people who wanted a young driver to take that seat. The problem is, Renault already gave one seat to an exciting young talent in Esteban Ocon, and it doesn’t have a young driver of its own ready to come through.
The young driver academy at Enstone tragically lost Anthoine Hubert last year. The only other driver in the program with a super license is Jack Aitken, but he opted to move to Williams as reserve driver. As Aitken told me when we were podcasting for RACER, he saw Daniel Ricciardo leaving, but Renault not replacing from within.
And just because he’s right, it doesn’t mean Renault has made the wrong decision. It might not have backed its driver academy right now, but it is backing itself to deliver.
We all saw how frustrated Alonso grew when driving for McLaren as the Honda partnership failed, and then the first year with Renault power brutally exposed the team’s own failings. Renault knows that is a risk if things don’t go well, but then things aren’t meant to be all smiles and celebrations if you’re doing a bad job.
And Renault also knows what it gets if things do go well.
Last year wasn’t great, but Renault still finished fifth in the constructors’ championship and looks to have a car capable of finishing around the same position this year. It’s certainly one with the potential to regularly fight for points, and with many technical aspects being frozen for 2021, you can have a fairly good guess at the team being in a similar spot next year, too.
Give Alonso a car capable of fighting for points, and he’ll score points. If he can get close to the podium, he’ll probably be standing on it. And if there’s a sniff of a win, he seems to somehow find another level. That’s why Renault signed him.
Find me another driver currently coming through the junior ranks that you can say the same of, and I’ll admit I’m wrong.
He might have been chasing the Triple Crown in recent years, and be just one win away from achieving it, but Alonso’s real obsession is with winning a third drivers’ championship in F1. Two doesn’t do his talent justice, and he knows it. But he also knows there have been missed opportunities that came down to his own failings or poor career choices, as easy as that is to see now with hindsight.
It could have gone either way, but two years away from F1 did not convince Alonso that he could find the same satisfaction from elsewhere. Even at the end of his 30s, nothing matches the feeling he used to get from winning in F1.
He returns to Renault knowing it is a project, and one that hasn’t been on a consistently upward curve. He has been through it all before at McLaren now, and in joining a manufacturer team he has put himself in the best place to build something.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to sit quietly and patiently. Alonso hasn’t lost any of the traits he had before leaving F1, as his announcement press conference included a touch of self-praise – “we did a couple of fitness tests 15 days ago and had the best results ever in my career” – and a dig at the sport’s current positioning:
“I’m aware of things, I have not been underground for two years. I’ve been watching and I know only one team will win in 2020, and 2021 probably. But this is for the remaining 19 drivers that we are on the grid, and we try to work with our own team and our own future.
“I think 2022 will hopefully bring some fairness to the sport and bring some close action, with the teams more level and less scope to invent anything that has a large performance advantage.”
2022 is clearly the target. It’s when the regulations change, it’s when F1 is meant to get a major shake-up and Mercedes stands to face the first real threat to its era of dominance. Add in a budget cap and the restrictions on aerodynamic development based on each team’s championship position, and far more teams on the grid will be targeting podiums and even wins in 18 months’ time.
That’s the second year of Alonso’s contract. That’s what it all hinges on. The whole reason he has come back is in the hope that Renault delivers a car that allows him the chance to fight at the front once again, because no other team was going to give him that opportunity.
“There is enough time to work on those projects and to build the momentum that we need,” he said. “Hopefully from today we will see some more motivation, a boost from everyone. I’m happy, I’m relaxed, I’m aware of what 2021 will be, and I’m hopeful for 2022. As I said, this is a matter of building something together, and building something together you trust, that has the capability, facilities, investment, and all those ingredient I found in Renault, so I’m relaxed.”
It makes sense for him, it makes sense for Renault and it makes sense for F1. One of the best drivers of his generation is back on the grid, and whether you like him or not, that can’t be a bad thing. He might not be a new young driver, but he’s determined to prove that age never counts.
“As far as I saw in Formula 1 for many years, the stopwatch is the only thing that matters, not the age,” he said. “I never had a classification in the race based on the passport, the date of birth, always on the stopwatch, so hopefully we’re still fast – faster than them.”