Fernando Alonso described himself as feeling “300% better” with the Alpine Formula 1 car at the end of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola, a race he characterised as being like a test day.
Alonso is no stranger to post-race hyperbole, but this time he’s not referring to any extraordinary level of performance on his part.
Instead, it’s all about the learning process he’s going through on his F1 return after two years away at a time when pre-season testing was limited to three days split between each team’s drivers.
Alonso has been frank about not yet being at 100% on his return, but the range of situations he faced during the race at Imola helped to accelerate his learning curve, meaning he accumulated more knowledge and understanding of the Alpine A521 than he would in a conventional race.
“It’s triple experience because from lap one to the end, we changed conditions and grip levels so many times,” said Alonso.
“We had one red flag, one standing start, one rolling start, there were a lot of things to practice and a lot of things to go through that normally take four or five races. We compressed it into one race with a lot of activity.
“I’m happy with the learnings. It was the very first time in wet conditions, first time in intermediate conditions, first time in dry conditions only with one narrow dry line.
“[There are] a lot of lessons to take from today, to analyse. Feeling wise, from lap one to lap 63, I felt 300% better in how confident I am with the car.
“But this cannot be an excuse to say [why] we didn’t perform well, why I didn’t perform well. It doesn’t matter if you have little or no time in the car.”
“I’m not surprised, I was expecting exactly what we’re finding now. I was right behind Esteban today, I was in front of him when I retired the car in Bahrain” :: Fernando Alonso
Despite scoring a point, Alonso’s performance at Imola was poor by his sky-high standards.
In qualifying, he was 15th and almost half a second slower than team-mate Esteban Ocon in Q2, blaming that on not being at the necessary level to have complete trust in what the car can do.
He certainly didn’t look at ease during the first part of the race in wet conditions. Even before the race, he went off at Tosa on the way to the grid and damaged his front wing, then survived a brush of wheels with Kimi Raikkonen at Tamburello on the first lap. He then cut across the grass at Variante Alta, and was only running 17th when the safety car was deployed.
He went through the gravel at the Villeneuve chicane on lap 10, allowing Ocon and Sebastian Vettel to pass him, and later spun on the throttle under the safety car after picking his way through the debris from the crash involving Valtteri Bottas and George Russell.
At this point, he was 12th, having also gained a place when Ocon stopped for softs.
This put Alonso in contention for a points finish in the second half of the race. He moved up to 11th when Yuki Tsunoda spun after the restart, then took 10th when Sergio Perez had his spin.
Pierre Gasly passed him during this stint as the AlphaTauri driver was recovering from positions lost through starting on wets, though Alonso didn’t lose 10th place at that point as Gasly’s move coincided with Antonio Giovinazzi pitting for a brief fix to be made on a rear-brake problem.
But on lap 41 Ocon pulled off a DRS-assisted overtake to relegate Alonso to his on-the-road finishing position of 11th. Alonso described this as a normal pass, but he was battling an ERS deployment problem in the closing stages.
Even when Alonso was 300% happier in the conditions at the end of the race, Ocon did have a slight advantage – albeit only finishing a second ahead.
But for Alonso, the focus is on sharpening himself so he’s back at his best, something he isn’t afraid of admitting is taking a little time. His clear implication is that if this is his performance relative to Ocon when below-par, he will assert himself once fully at home in the Alpine.
“I’m not surprised, I was expecting exactly what we’re finding now,” said Alonso. “I was right behind Esteban today, I was in front of him when I retired the car in Bahrain, with a guy that was performing very well and [has] two years in the team.
“It was my second qualifying here, it was my first race here because in Bahrain I only did 30 laps and I’m more or less where I expected to be.
“You always want to be more, and higher up, and you want to be a little more confident in the car and probably I was not confident in Bahrain or confident here.
“There has never been an excuse and it’s not going to be an excuse now. I should be better” :: Fernando Alonso
“I will not be confident in Portimao, this is not a thing that goes from day to night and then you’re 100%, it will take time, but I’m here to work and get better and a race like today helps massively because you can feel the car in very difficult conditions and you can learn a lot more than just a normal race.”
We can take it as a given that Alonso will be back on his best form before too long and for now his own efforts provide a welcome distraction from an Alpine team that has started the season less competitively than hoped. Both drivers report the car handles well, meaning it simply lacks the downforce to be more than a marginal Q3 runner.
All of the drivers who are in new teams this year have, to a greater or lesser extent, encountered difficulties. But Alonso has been very honest about his current limitations and is not giving himself an easy time given the progress that still needs to be made.
We can expect him to be a step better in the upcoming Portuguese Grand Prix because he’s not a driver who will give himself any leeway.
“I’ve changed teams many times, I even changed category in motorsport many times and there is always that period of adaptation,” said Alonso.
“But there has never been an excuse and it’s not going to be an excuse now. I should be better.
“I was not at the right level this weekend, but I will be in Portimao.”