Fernando Alonso’s Formula 1 career has been a failure. It pains me to say this. I was hugely excited at his rise in the mid-2000s. He became the only person ever to truly challenge Michael Schumacher (apart from Mika Häkkinen, who had retired in 2001). And not only did Alonso challenge Schumacher — he beat him. By 2006, Alonso had become a two time world champion.
He is one of the few drivers whose driving is so expressive that it comes across clearly on TV. All while still probably being the fastest as well.
It was enough for me to want to be a lifelong fan. But the intervening 12 years have been challenging to that on several fronts.
Alonso had established himself as one of the very best drivers on the grid. He has retained that reputation ever since. Yet, he has never won a third world championship.
I wrote the following back in 2013, when his relationship with Ferrari was beginning to sour in public:
The Spaniard appears to be at a crisis point in his career. His massive talent is clear for all to see, and his championships in 2005 and 2006 were richly deserved. Back then, I don’t think anyone would have guessed that by 2013 he would still only have two titles to his name. Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel, a driver six years younger than Alonso, is set to have double his tally.
Five years on, Alonso remains stuck on two championships. Vettel is indeed on four. Moreover, so is his fierce rival from the 2007 season, Lewis Hamilton.
Even so, it might seem odd to describe a double world champion as a failure. But the fact that the person many see as the best driver on the grid has been unable to convert that undoubted talent into actual success is damning.
Yes, Alonso has come painfully close to winning more championships. He is a mere 8 points away from being a five time champion. F1 is a team sport, and much depends on the machinery as well as the driver. Still, the best driver in the world should at least win a championship here and there across a span of 12 seasons. Alonso hasn’t.
Alonso’s politicking backfired on him
It takes much more than raw driving talent to be a successful driver in the political world of F1.
Team-building is a vital skill. It is said that Michael Schumacher excelled at this, and is part of the reason for Ferrari’s hugely successful spell between 2000 and 2004.
Fernando Alonso has failed at this. We could go over the rights and wrongs of the 2007 season and how he handled working with Lewis Hamilton. His public pronouncements against Ferrari while racing against them probably ensured an early exit from the Scuderia. Meanwhile, his complaining about the Honda engine at McLaren has got the team precisely nowhere, with a lot of upheaval in the process.
Being good at politics also helps. This benefited Ayrton Senna a great deal. Much has been made of his ability to pull strings behind the scenes.
Fernando Alonso has certainly attempted this. But instead of using politics to achieve his aims, Alonso seems mainly to have annoyed important people, to the degree that he is essentially a persona non grata at any front-running team (or, perhaps, any team that isn’t McLaren). See Christian Horner’s recent comments.
Knowing when to move teams is perhaps the most important non-driving skill of all. For instance, Lewis Hamilton has played this to perfection. Whether that was by skill or chance we can never know. But Hamilton jumped ship from McLaren to Mercedes at precisely the right moment, when many observers thought he was crazy to do so.
Alonso has certainly tried to move teams to gain an advantage. But arguably he hasn’t been in a car capable of winning a world championship since 2007.
When Alonso left Ferrari, he complained that the red team was always finishing second. It’s true that Ferrari have not won a championship since Alonso left, so his feelings weren’t exactly wrong there. But his move to McLaren ensured that he would never get anywhere near finishing even second again.
It is for these reasons that Alonso’s career has failed. For several years, his options have narrowed to the point that his only real option to remain in F1 was with the freefalling McLaren.
Finding a greater challenge
With Fernando Alonso’s future in F1 limited to the middle of the pack, he has sought other challenges. In doing so, he has taken control of the narrative around his career, despite the embarrassing predicament he faced in motorsport’s top tier.
The triple crown involves winning three motorsport’s three most prestigious races, each in different categories. Only one driver has ever achieved it — Graham Hill. It is such an unlikely feat, particularly in the intense modern era, that people have seldom talked about it.
Alonso isn’t the first F1 driver in the modern era to race in Le Mans while still active in F1. Nico Hülkenberg did that in 2015 — and won the race.
But for 2017, Alonso went a step further to actually take a race off in F1 to enable him to compete in the Indianapolis 500. His stateside trip captured the motorsport world’s imagination.
While he didn’t win the race, he raced magnificently until his (Honda) engine expired. It was an inspiring effort that made people wonder if the triple crown was indeed attainable.
This year, Alonso has taken the extraordinary step of competing in the World Endurance Championship alongside his commitment to racing in F1. As part of this, he has already won the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Two legs of the triple crown are now complete. Alonso “only” needs to win the Indy 500 to join Graham Hill as a unique type of motorsport legend.
I really admire how Alonso has turned a disappointing F1 career into an opportunity to create and seek a greater prize.
And it says something about the state of F1 at the moment that Alonso has chosen to pursue it, and turn his back completely on motorsport’s top tier.