Fernando Alonso must make a huge decision on his Formula 1 future after the summer break, with the two-time world champion claiming he will either remain with McLaren in 2018, convince a ‘winning’ team to sign him up or leave the sport altogether.
Judging by his previous career choices, we’re in for quite the saga. ..
“I saw some covers of magazines today – ‘wasted talent’,” a disgruntled Alonso told reporters ahead of this year’s Russian GP. It is a tag that has followed him for much of his 16-year stay in Formula 1, but particularly through recent seasons.
“I’m super happy with my career. I was always in a competitive car, thank god, and I had the opportunity to reach things [others haven’t],” he said in April.
But while Alonso has indeed served the sport’s most prestigious outfits – from Renault, to Ferrari, to McLaren-Honda – there has always been the nagging question of ‘what if’ when it comes to the Spaniard.
A double world champion, but could and should he have won so much more?
The early years: A talent breaks through
As soon as Alonso started impressing through the national karting championships in Spain, he was building a racing reputation that would stick in his later years. Alonso was a fiercely quick and determined teenager, always a few years younger than his competitors and always making the most of his amateur equipment.
F1 2017: Half-term report
He enjoyed his karting so much that even when presented with a rare free opportunity to take to single-seater racing in the Euro Open, he told former F1 driver Adriano Campos that he “would prefer to stay in go-karts”.
Alonso was eventually persuaded and though he was combining a debut season with Campos Motorsport with karting, he won the championship in 1999. And that was also the year he would meet Flavio Briatore, a man Alonso describes as a “key part of my career.”
A path to super-stardom was set out by part-manager, part-talent scout Briatore, who had guided Benetton to a maiden constructors’ title in 1995. Alonso tested and shone for Minardi in 1999, finished fourth in the Formula 3000 a year later and had a full-time F1 seat by 2001. At that time, the Minardi rookie was the third-youngest driver in the history of the sport.
Despite finishing 23rd in that years’ championship, Alonso was brought in as a Renault test driver in 2002 and once again had Briatore to thank as, the following season, he was handed another shot at F1 by the French team. Only this time, it was in a vastly more competitive car.
“It was one of those things where you found yourself in the best place at the right moment – without being properly prepared,” Alonso told Sky Sports F1’s Damon Hill.
“At that time, we were not ready, I was 22 years old and I found myself fighting for podiums and for pole positions. It was a fantastic opportunity and a fantastic time.”
By 2005, not only was Alonso’s stock rising in rapid time – quickly filling a void soon to be left by Michael Schumacher as F1’s leading light – but race wins were coming in their droves.
Those frequent victories meant a historic championship was soon on the horizon, but they also had rival teams sniffing around the sport’s next big thing.
And before landing his first title, Alonso also had his first big career decision to make.
Leaving Renault for McLaren: The first wrong turn?
Alonso was crowned as F1’s youngest ever world champion at the 2005 Brazilian GP where, just before heading onto the podium to celebrate, his head was first turned by McLaren’s Ron Dennis.
“We all thought the door (to Alonso) was firmly locked,” Dennis recalled later. “I might have said ‘congratulations on the world championship’ or something. And his response was along the lines of ‘Well, the thing about you guys is that you make it so difficult because you keep developing your cars’.
“I said ‘You could be part of it’. And he just said ‘I’d like to be’. I was just stunned. I said ‘Are you serious?’ and he said ‘Yes’.”
Three weeks later and the deal was signed – though Alonso would wait until 2007 before driving a silver McLaren car. Before that he would win another title at Renault, but he still believed it was the right time to leave.
“I felt that my time there was coming to a point where it was no longer enjoyable,” Alonso says. “We won two championships, the team was struggling a little bit with performance, there were some things where we were clearly on a different trajectory and I said I need a new motivation.
“I thought – what happens if I win a world championship with another team? McLaren were very strong with Kimi [Raikkonen] in 2005, they were getting better and better in every single race with Kimi and Juan Pablo [Montoya] in 2006.”
But rather than teaming up with Raikkonen or Montoya, Alonso would be partnered by talented rookie Lewis Hamilton in 2007.
Alonso expected to be a No 1 driver at McLaren but Hamilton’s impressive speed from the outset made that impossible. Alonso feared his team weren’t helping him claim a third successive title, and felt let down.
“In that moment, I changed my career,” he admits. “I was hoping for better.”
F1’s dream team-driver pairing were on a collision course, and it was an August Hungarian GP qualifying session that really lit the fuse in their plagued relationship. Alonso’s penalty for blocking Hamilton in the pits led to ‘Spygate’ leaks and a $100m fine for the Woking team.
Hungary 2007: Hamilton v Alonso
There would be no coming back from that, with Alonso’s three-year contract ripped up at the end of his first season.
“Let’s say we clashed,” he says. “It was not a good understanding between all of them. It was not a problem with Lewis, it was just Ron and the high side of the team. We collided too many times, we worked differently.
“In that moment it didn’t work and it was the best solution for all of us at the end of the year to go in different ways.”
Renault were happy to bring their protégé home.
Back to Renault and then on to Ferrari – the right place, wrong time?
Alonso was a driver in his prime back at Renault but, as he expected when he left the team in the first place, they could no longer compete for titles. The Spaniard would only win two races over the next two years, with another scandal – ‘Crashgate – the major talking point of his return.
If Alonso wanted a third world championship, he would have to leave again.
While McLaren clearly weren’t an option, there were still plenty of suitors for Alonso despite his troubled off-track past. Brawn even claimed he turned down a drive with them in 2009 – a year in which Jenson Button eased to an emphatic title.
But it was Ferrari, F1’s most successful team, where Alonso would end up next.
He agreed a deal during his first season back at Renault but wouldn’t replace Raikkonen until 2010. What was described as F1’s ‘worst kept secret’ was out of the bag.
“Driving a single-seater for the Prancing Horse is everybody’s dream in F1,” he said. “And now I have the chance to make this dream come true.”
It may have been a dream, but once again, it seemed as though Alonso joined the right team, at the wrong time.
Benefiting from an excellent aerodynamic package and chassis, 2010 to 2013 was undoubtedly Red Bull’s era.
Sebastian Vettel would win four successive driver titles with Alonso, despite driving the wheels off fairly unimpressive Ferrari cars, finishing second behind the young German three times.
“We were just missing the championships by a little,” Alonso says. “Those years I was in Ferrari, you were in a Red Bull or you had no chance to win the championship.”
Midway through a 2014 season which Mercedes and Hamilton dominated, Alonso decided enough was enough. He had two years to run on his Ferrari contract and was even offered an extension, but was still desperate for another title.
“The feeling with Ferrari was that good that it was better to stop it there,” Alonso explains. “If not, it would get worse and worse.
“It’s the same thing in Renault, after I won the two championships. After five years in Ferrari I knew that in the next two years – 2015 and 2016 – they were not able, in my opinion, to produce a winning car.”
Alonso was proved right, but his next career move was quite the shock…
Back to McLaren for the Honda project
Personalities clashed, jobs were lost, reputations were in tatters – this was the story of Alonso and McLaren in 2007. But seven years later, Dennis and Alonso were side by side in Woking again, beaming as they gushed about the team’s new era.
McLaren and Honda were back together in reprising of one of the sport’s most successful and historic team and engine partnerships. This, Alonso believed, was an opportunity not to be missed.
“It seems Honda drew Fernando Alonso back to McLaren,” said Sky F1’s Ted Kravitz at the time, with the multi-world champion impressed by the firm’s resources and staff upon visits to Japan.
Alonso and Dennis concurred that this was an engine formula where only ‘works teams’ could win championships – though there were other motives for his return.
The optimism was certainly there and it has looked much more harmonious both off-track and on camera between the two parties than it was in 2007.
But the rekindling of this relationship has undoubtedly been a momentous error for Alonso and his career.
With a failing engine, Alonso could have done little more to make this project work once making his decision. Indeed, there is widespread recognition that he has been driving at his very best.
But when a driver has failed to finish a race on more occasions than scoring points over three years, it’s clear he has made the wrong choice.
His three-year contract is running out and without huge improvements or a change of engine supplier, surely Alonso’s time with McLaren is up. But what next?
A big decision
One way of looking at Alonso and his career choices is that he has been incredibly unlucky.
He may have argued with team-mates and bosses, as well as being embroiled in not one, but two F1 scandals – but since claiming back-to-back championships he has spent over a decade signing with top teams as they veer on dramatic downward trajectories.
All the while, relatively new outfits such as Brawn, Red Bull and Mercedes have enjoyed success.
“I have always done what I thought was right at that moment,” Alonso told Gazzetta dello Sport, in which he was described as a ‘prisoner of his choices’, last year.
“I’ve driven for Renault, McLaren Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren Honda. How many drivers would sign up for a career like that?
“Certainly I could have signed for Red Bull when it was just an energy drink. But nobody has a crystal ball.”
Alonso is right, of course, and many other drivers who are nearly but not quite as talented as him would give anything for just a fraction of the 97 podiums he has enjoyed in that time.
But while his 2007 and 2010 moves to McLaren and Ferrari looked sound and could have been masterstrokes, the way in which he agitated out of his Scuderia deal to jump ship to unproven and untested Honda power was alarming.
It’s now up to him to choose the best next path to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
A win-by-September ultimatum issued by Alonso to McLaren earlier this season was never going to happen, but the team have been encouraged by recent meetings with him and his entourage.
But where else could a door open? Certainly not at Red Bull, where Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen are tied down, while Mercedes and Ferrari look set to hand Valtteri Bottas and Raikkonen new contracts.
Ferrari rule out Alonso for 2018
Renault are a more achievable option, and Alonso has proved he would be willing to rejoin a former team, but the French team have already admitted they won’t be winning races next year.
The other alternative would appear to be another racing series – something the 36-year-old is keen on after his Indianapolis 500 venture – but that does not seem to match the hints Alonso has been dropping in recent months.
After all, as recently as the Azerbaijan GP, he said the weekend “has been very positive” in terms of his future in F1.
What will Alonso do next?
Judging by his previous career choices, nobody can be so sure. But it’s certainly going to be an important summer…