Despite being one of the all-time greats in Formula 1 and despite still being in his prime, Fernando Alonso hasn't won a race in over four years. It's time, says David Malsher, for this legend to start finding career satisfaction once more.
Dear Mr. Alonso,
Millions of racing fans have long considered you one of the greatest ever F1 drivers. We’ve marveled at your dedication to duty in the garage, tenacity on track, racing judgment, bravery and skill.
We’ve admired your ultra competitiveness that turned you terminally resentful at McLaren first time around, 2007, when you encountered F1 rookie phenomenon Lewis Hamilton as your teammate.
We knew that partnership wasn’t going to end well, because of how irritated you’d been on the two or three occasions when your Renault teammate Giancarlo Fisichella managed to outqualify you or just happened to be in your way. Jarno Trulli’s one-lap pace you’d learned to deal with; you pretty much knew you’d demolish him on raceday because of your in-built warrior spirit.
And that has always been your defining characteristic. In terms of refusal to quit, you’ve belonged up among the gods of grand prix racing with Tazio Nuvolari, Stirling Moss, Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna, and it’s an attribute that has a truly galvanizing effect on all who work with you. It explains why former McLaren director Ron Dennis in 2014 carefully rebuilt the bridges the pair of you had burned in ’07, and lured you back.
And yet now there are strong rumors, which you’ve only half denied, that at Spa-Francorchamps you parked a healthy car. No, not a fast one, not one that was going to produce a points finish on a ‘power track,’ but nonetheless, a functioning car. And it’s not the first time those rumors have surfaced over the past two seasons. True or false, there was a time not long ago when such gossip would have had no validity.
Your fans will see your despair as the ultimate indictment – along with the points table – of this pathetically unproductive partnership between McLaren and Honda, second time around. Some may even say that this is proof that you don’t care about the money; that having a competitive car means everything to you. Your critics will say that, for what you get paid, you should drive your racecar come what may.
I guess I’m somewhere in the middle, in that I don’t like the idea of a driver capitulating while driving an operational racecar. Nigel Mansell did it in his final F1 start for McLaren, the 1995 Spanish GP, and it signaled the end of that ill-conceived partnership.
On the other hand, most people would understand your despair. We sympathized when you finished runner-up in the championship in both 2012 and 2013, despite having a demonstrably inferior car to the Red Bull of champion Sebastian Vettel. Many of us felt you had at least proven that you were still the best.
The fact that the stat books can’t – and never will – confirm this assumption is a source of irritation to your fans, so one can only imagine how mortifying the situation is for yourself that your last championship came 11 years ago, your last race win more than four years ago.
Since the start of 2014, your best results have been three fifth places; over the same period you’ve seen erstwhile teammate Hamilton rack up 37 wins and two championships, the now-retired Nico Rosberg take 20 wins and a title, and even your replacement at Ferrari, Vettel, has achieved seven wins at Maranello and may become champion for a fifth time this year.
If Formula 1 provides so little satisfaction – beyond demolishing your highly-regarded rookie teammate, Stoffel Vandoorne – what are your options for 2018? You’re locked out of Ferrari for now. Mercedes is likely to remain the domain of Hamilton, with the equable and quick Valtteri Bottas as an extremely cheap No. 2 (or No. 1.5, to be fair) that allows the team to 1) plow what would be your retainer into developing the car and 2) maintain harmony in the ranks.
Red Bull’s performance is roughly the same as Ferrari’s when you left. It pains me to point out that Williams hasn’t built a race-winning car in years. McLaren’s only alternative to Honda is Renault, which might make its cars more reliable and a little faster, but would still leave you struggling for podium finishes, let alone wins. Renault, Haas and Toro Rosso aren’t going to spend zillions to hire you, because they know that even your monumental talent isn’t going to bridge the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari.
Now hear me out, señor. If you’re prepared to take a colossal pay-cut – think $4.7m rather than $47m – there are teams and sponsors who’d trip over themselves to make it happen.
At the Indianapolis 500 this year you were loved and appreciated by IndyCar, IMS, Honda, Andretti Autosport, McLaren, the media and the fans. Gratifyingly, we saw the sentiments reciprocated. Those who know you well or deal with you regularly in F1 admitted that at the Brickyard they saw you happy for the first time in years. This quite alien environment had intrigued you and taxed your brain and so you’d thrown your heart and soul into it – and been rewarded for that effort by being a frontrunner.
Now, the idea of you applying your mind and talent to all the tracks on the IndyCar calendar is one that would fill every racing fan with a similar sense of intrigue. Doing it at a time when your knowledge deficit to your rivals is reduced by everyone having to start over with the new universal aerokits surely adds to the appeal.
Without manufacturer-built aerokits, the Chevrolets and Hondas should be relatively evenly matched across all tracks. And while Team Penske will likely remain the gold standard in terms of sheer depth of financial and human resources, those guys can get beaten on any given weekend by almost any other team in the field. That's just the way IndyCar is.
Fernando, just think: for the first time in God-knows-how-long, you could join a high-speed open-wheel racing series where once again you are the difference maker, where your talents and relentless drive can take you to victory, where your natural feel for a car’s handling and tire life, and your capacity to think while driving at the limit, will immediately put you in the top echelon of drivers.
And it would enhance your reputation once you proved your versatility. It’s a cliché regularly trotted out by IndyCar fans (and media) that the series' schedule of road, street, short-oval and superspeedway courses offers a unique blend of challenges. But in this case, the cliché is true.
People weren’t amazed at how Juan Pablo Montoya and before that, Mansell, adapted to Indy car racing’s tracks that involved left and right turns. In both cases, that was expected. What blew people’s minds was this pair's ability to fathom the short ovals.
Your Indy 500 teammate Alexander Rossi says those tracks are still his weakness, but he joined IndyCar at a time when the cars have way too much grip compared with power output, and are therefore far removed from everything he has encountered before. Short ovals with the manufacturer aerokits have required only a downchange rather than a lift off the throttle for tight turns.
Remember, that will change next year; according to 2018 aerokit testers Montoya and Oriol Servia, an IndyCar’s pace on ovals will be far more determined by the talent of the guy in the cockpit, as the downforce gets reduced, and the differential between terminal speed on the straights and turn apex speed is increased.
It’s all part of what we hope will be the Verizon IndyCar Series’ collective drive to turn the emphasis of the series onto the drivers – and you could be part of that. Sure, you’d have a metaphorical target on your back, but that’s because of your world class reputation, which comes with the territory of 1) everyone in the IndyCar paddock acknowledging you’re one of the greats, and 2) your being a frontrunner once more.
Wouldn’t it feel good to be in that position again?
So there you have it. Yes, it would be wonderful if you brought the hallowed McLaren marque with you: the series will always welcome another prestigious team, particularly one with a brief but successful history in Indy car racing. Many might see it as logical for you to return to Andretti Autosport, which appears to be heading back to its former greatness, or to at least stick with the Honda brand, since Honda Performance Development’s engines appear to have an edge over the Chevrolets (for now).
But the truth is, you’re in the happy situation of having the power, money and status to make such decisions completely on your own terms, knowing there’s not an IndyCar team that wouldn’t want you.
So next time you’re classified 18th because your power unit’s MGU-H or MGU-K has turned into a POS, or next time a Mercedes goes past you so quick that it feels like you’re in a GP2 car, try and recall the immense gratification you felt on those distant days when you were able to stand on the center step of a victory podium.
No, IndyCar isn’t Formula 1… but there’s a far greater upside to that than downside. It’s surely time to make yourself happy again and there’s only one way an ultra-competitive, ultra-talented winner can do that.
See you in St. Pete. I hope.