If a part of Michael Schumacher’s success was his ability to mould a stellar team around him then a part of Fernando Alonso’s failure to return the same kind of dividend on a talent just as rich might be explained by the Spaniard’s deficiencies outside the cockpit. Alonso was just as political as Schumacher but in critical moments allowed emotion to overpower reason, with ruinous consequences for his career.
Alonso gave Formula One something new, a market leader from the Iberian peninsula. Not only was Alonso an exceptional pilot, he was brilliant for the business of F1, attracting big players to the sport like the Bank of Santander, and for a time even a second grand prix in Spain around Valencia’s newly-developed waterfront.
When he ripped around the outside of Schumacher at Suzuka’s famed 130R corner in 2005 en route to his coronation as F1’s youngest world champion, Alonso was confirmed as Schumi’s successor, the sport’s new reference point. So good was Alonso, McLaren team principal Ron Dennis made him an offer he could not refuse in the Brazilian paddock while the champagne was still flowing in the Renault garage.
Alonso would see out his contract at Renault in 2006, reclaiming his title before heading up a new pairing alongside Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2007. What should have been the dream enterprise, the double world champion handed the keys to the quickest car on the grid at a prestige team desperate to end a championship drought stretching back to 1999, ultimately morphed into a career-defining catastrophe.
Had Alonso handled better the urgent thrusts of a team-mate as ambitious as he was audacious, and the consequent management challenges that Hamilton presented, he would have had a hat-trick of world titles, and maybe more in a car that should have won the championship in 2007 had the team not imploded, and did in 2008 with Hamilton at the wheel.
Hamilton was immediately quick finishing on the podium in third on debut in Australia, one place behind Alonso. At the second race in Malaysia, he was again on Alonso’s tail finishing second in a McLaren one-two. At the third race in Bahrain, Alonso was pictured on a paddock bench deep in conversation with Dennis. Having been courted by Dennis, offered the no.1 role, the man to bring back the lustre to McLaren, Alonso wanted assurances that promises would be kept and Hamilton made to understand he was not racing for the title that year.
Hamilton’s rapid rise
Hamilton wasn’t listening. He duly out-qualified Alonso in Bahrain and finished second to Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. With Alonso back in fifth Hamilton was in a three-way share of the championship lead with his team-mate and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. It would get worse at Alonso’s home race in Barcelona, where Hamilton finished second to Massa again to lead the championship outright. You can imagine the atmosphere heading to Monaco.
It was here at F1’s signature race that the tensions became manifest, Hamilton ordered not to push leader Alonso and to accept second place. Hamilton told the world what he thought of that with an outspoken turn on the mic in the post-race press conference. He was not in F1 to finish second to Alonso or anybody. The problem was none knew how good Hamilton would be. Alonso was not expecting a bruising arm wrestle with a kid fresh from victory in the GP2 championship and Dennis was not expecting the management trauma
History tells us that Dennis made a mistake in not keeping Hamilton back in that first season. Alonso’s error was to fall into prima donna mode. When a cool head was needed his temperature gauge turned red, before finally blowing in Hungary where he blocked Hamilton during qualifying.
The subsequent press conference might have passed for an episode of Eastenders with Alonso attacking a pear as if he were tucking into the head of Dennis. Alonso had lost all orientation and in a meeting in the team motorhome afterwards threatened Dennis with the release of information relating to the Spygate controversy, the espionage case involving the illegal passing of Ferrari technical data to McLaren, that had been running in parallel during the summer.
There was no way back from that. Alonso’s relations with the best team in the paddock was broken, as, so it would prove, were his career prospects. Ferrari would take advantage of the political shift to win the drivers’ title in the last race with Raikkonen and Alonso relocated temporarily to Renault before his move to the Prancing Horse.
By then the zeitgeist had passed to Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel. Alonso was right to move to Ferrari but chose the wrong time to leave. Though the Scuderia have not won the title in more than a decade they have a winning car once more, and one that that in Alonso’s hands might already have returned a championship laurel.
His loss, our loss, Formula One’s loss, an outcome that demonstrates how talent alone is never enough, and how even great champions are not guaranteed happy endings.
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