The long-locked, fresh-faced youngster stormed onto the Formula One scene after becoming the sport's pole sitter and race winner in 2003. Two years later he had knocked Michael Schumacher from the top of the F1 heap as the sport's youngest World...
The long-locked, fresh-faced youngster stormed onto the Formula One scene after becoming the sport's pole sitter and race winner in 2003. Two years later he had knocked Michael Schumacher from the top of the F1 heap as the sport's youngest World Champion in 2005. And after a year-long battle with the German, he prevailed again to repeat in 2006. Yet now, Fernando Alonso returns to Renault in 2008 nearly a forgotten man, spending 2007 in one of the most tempestuous driver/team relationships in F1 history.
Flavio Briatore's prot?g? signed on as a test driver in 2002 following a fantastic debut season as a teenager with Minardi in 2001. Four racing seasons at Renault saw indeed the two titles, but after his first Alonso had signed to McLaren-Mercedes unconvinced Renault's long-term place in the sport was secure. The potential split of the Grand Prix Manufacturer's Association from the FIA, which never happened, created rumors that Renault was not in F1 for the long haul and thus led Alonso to make the switch.
But 2007 would prove a disastrous season to most in the business, as Alonso's number one status was usurped from under his skin by rookie revelation Lewis Hamilton, who stunned the establishment with his pace, poise and maturity. After its involvement in the Nigel Stepney "Spy-gate" scandal, McLaren was stripped of all its constructor's points and fined $100 million (later reduced to $50 million). And after all that both Alonso and Hamilton tied on points but each was one short of eventual world champion Kimi Raikkonen.
"It's not easy to sum up a season with just a grade or a number," Alonso commented on his year at McLaren. "What is certain is that 2007 has been a very good year for me in spite of what people think. I don't like that people forget that 20 laps before the race lap in Brazil I still could have won the world championship. Then, Kimi overtook Massa and Kimi, with this victory, scored the number of points he needed to be World Champion. When you take this into account, at the start of the season I would have put my signature for being able to fight till the last laps of the season, for a new World Title, I would have been more than happy."
The saga of the off-season was where Alonso would drive for 2008, his options limited after a mutual agreement to see him end his McLaren career. "Options. Well, to tell you the truth, we do know that's not easy. I'm one of the 22 privileged people who get to drive a Formula 1 car each year and I'm even more privileged to be one of those who can afford leaving one great team and end up in another great team," Alonso said after re-signing with Renault. "The decision hasn't been an easy one to make. Like I said before, I chose Renault in the end considering their commitment to the sport and because of their strong track record." A far cry from the words echoed by the Spaniard after winning the '05 crown.
During the off-season, much of the focus has been on the new regulations, the banning of traction control, a test of slick tires at Barcelona to see if they will return to the F1 circus, and on Schumacher's return to the cockpit for the first time since his retirement, as Ferrari's "super advisor" and part-time but not official test driver. Since Alonso re- signed with Renault, it's almost as if he has flown under the radar.
"The team is completely different to the one I left in 2006," Alonso noted. "There have been some big changes, they have improved a lot of things and strengthened so many areas, so in one sense it is a new adventure with a new team. At the same time, it is impossible to forget the six years I spent as a Renault driver, and my memories of that time are still strong."
Alonso finds himself in a similar situation as he did one year ago, with a rookie as his teammate. This time around it is Nelsinho A. Piquet, although he was runner-up to Hamilton in the GP2 Series in 2006. After the dynamics of the previous champion-rookie teammate situation last year dissolved, a repeat shouldn't be in order this year.
As Alonso sees it, more was made of the internal battle between the two by the media. "I said last year that too many false things were written, but I understand that is what sells newspapers," he quipped. "I haven't really gotten to know Nelsinho yet, but he seems to me to be a normal, nice guy who wants to enjoy his time in Formula 1: no different to Marques, Button, Trulli, Fisi, Montagny or McNish, all of whom were my teammates, all of whom I got on well with and who are still friends. For 2008, I don't anticipate problems with anybody, and Flavio has always demonstrated that he can manage these situations very well." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to note the major omission from that group.
The new car's launch will be January 31 in Paris and so far Alonso has a couple days testing in last year's R27. "I was a bit tentative to begin with because it has been a long time since I have driven an F1 car, but I could not wait to start working with the team," Alonso said at this week's test in Jerez. "Of course, this was the first time that I have driven without traction control, but towards the end of my runs I started to gradually take a few more risks with the car."
To this point, the switch back to the team that nurtured his early career and where Alonso enjoyed his greatest success seems beneficial to both parties. Alonso is upbeat about his chances for race wins and possibly another run at the title in '08. "At the start of the season, the only thing I want to do is work hard, and to give maximum effort to achieve my potential. I know I can do this successfully with ING Renault, because we have managed it in the past. I want to give everything I can, and I know the team will do everything to win; this is always our approach to the sport."