As we head into Indy 500 weekend, one driver who was creating plenty of headlines at Indianapolis in recent years is now not creating very many back in Formula 1.
Fernando Alonso’s return to F1 with Alpine — the new name for the former Renault team with which he won his two drivers’ championships — has been an underwhelming one so far. At least, it has in terms of results and performances…
But as the Spaniard tells RACER during an exclusive interview in Monaco, there’s been nothing underwhelming about how much enjoyment he has taken from being back in the F1 paddock.
“The emotions were high, and it was not about proving anything,” Alonso says. “I was quite satisfied how everything went in my Formula 1 career, but I really enjoy racing. I discovered that passion even when I was outside of Formula 1, the way I enjoy all the challenges that I did even surprised myself a little bit about how much I needed to have a steering wheel in my hands. Even two weekends free at home, I was preparing a go-kart race or something because I needed to drive.
“So after finishing Dakar, I had this possibility of coming back to Formula 1. I considered other series, but I think Formula 1 was the only one healthy enough after the pandemic to be sure that you can have a competitive championship and races and weekends with some kind of normality. So that was the motivation behind the comeback, and the love for racing and for Formula 1.”
There’s still plenty that isn’t normal about F1 at the moment. Alonso is leaning against the side of the Alpine motorhome, where the decking remains empty of guests and media, even in Monaco, There aren’t any fans allowed along the side of the harbor either, where they would normally be two or three deep pressed up against a fence shouting for autographs, photographs or just simple acknowledgement.
But once you get in the car, that’s when things are more familiar. The lack of razzmatazz doesn’t have an impact once you’re out on track, and that’s where Alonso finds himself in a bit of a contradictory situation.
“I think honestly the amount of joy and the amount of excitement is probably higher than what I anticipated,” he says. “I’m really enjoying every lap out there. And I’m enjoying the preparation, I’m enjoying the meetings about the setup of the car — I’m enjoying things that before, were the worst part of the weekend. Now I’m really enjoying even that about the weekend. Not only the track time, the off-track I’m also enjoying a little bit more than the past. So I’m surprised about that, because you cannot plan what you will feel when you come back.
“Then on the driving and the results…” — at this point, Alonso takes a deep breath — “Maybe I found it a little bit more difficult than I probably anticipated. It’s not that I took it for granted that the results were coming automatically. I knew that the preparation was needed and the hours in the simulator and the 2018 tests in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi were needed, so I anticipated this, but I’m still struggling to maximize the potential of the car.
“I think it has something to do with the Renault/Alpine philosophy as well. Most of the drivers that came here, in their first year they were struggling. So there is something that, we think we have some idea what the cause of it is, but it needs maybe more time than when I signed last year to come back. I thought that within three or four races I would be at 100%, and I think it’s going to take eight or nine.”
To cut Alonso some slack, though, it’s not about those eight or nine races. His comeback was never about the potential of finishing fifth in the drivers’ championship or third in the constructors’ with Alpine this year. It was about the promise of 2022 when F1 is set for a major reset thanks to a radical change in regulations.
“That’s the reason, exactly, why I came back this year,” he says. “My biggest motivation was the new regulations, but they were postponed, and to come back immediately into 2022 was a bigger challenge, I thought, to adapt quickly to everything.
“So, 2021 is a season where we want to achieve big things, but at the same time, we have to prepare the team for the big thing that can happen in the future.
“If we are in a position to fight for the championship, hopefully in 2022, or 2023 or 2024 or whenever, we need to be ready as a team to take that pressure, to take that heat in some of the crucial moments of the race, and have a methodology that is a valid proof in some of the stressful moments. We are trying to do this in parallel to the 2021 campaign.”
Alonso has experience of Minardi, Renault, McLaren and Ferrari from his previous spell in F1, and while he enjoyed success at various stages he has also gone through tough times with big teams. From that, he feels he can identify certain aspects that might need attention,and is well-placed to judge how prepared Alpine is to be successful if — and it’s a big if — the team can deliver a competitive car next year.
“I think it’s 90% ready,” he says. “I think there are things you always need to improve. We saw, even in the top teams now like Mercedes or Red Bull, I remember one of the pit stops of Mercedes in Germany was 30 seconds — the famous one — and things like that.
“So there are things you need to fail in a way in different things during a weekend or a championship to learn from; those things that happen and then (you) make small changes into that structure and that organization, and be better next time.
“We are not making too many mistakes already, so I think the team is in quite good shape, but there are always things we learn every weekend, and we are making better for the next one. So during the season and the 18 races remaining, I think we will make another 18 smaller steps in that direction.”
He’ll be watching proceedings from the Brickyard on Sunday from afar, but those small steps are Alonso’s primary focus right now. And even if the results aren’t yet the ones he was hoping for, he’s enjoying putting the building blocks in place to try and secure better ones come 2022.