Fernando Alonso always had a blunt response to anyone assuming, implying, or even daring to wonder whether his age would be a factor in his Formula 1 comeback.
It started over a year ago when his return with Alpine was first confirmed.
By the time Alonso would race again in F1 he would have spent two seasons on the sidelines and be a few months from turning 40.
But only nine drivers have won a (non-Indianapolis 500) round of the F1 world championship at an age older than Alonso started the 2021 season. And if Alonso wins again in F1, he’ll be the first driver in his 40s to do so since Nigel Mansell in 1994.
…So what? The two-time world champion has always seemed genuinely perplexed by such facts. Last summer he said he’d posted the best fitness results of his entire career and joked that he’s never known a race to be classified by the date of birth on a driver’s passport.
Amusing as it was, as the 2021 season has progressed, Alonso’s point has been proven. The two-world champion’s return with Alpine hit a beautiful stride before the summer break and he is on a six-race point-scoring streak, which is the best of anyone on the grid.
When he spoke to select members of the media, including The Race, on the Thursday ahead of his Hamilton-defying drive in the Hungarian Grand Prix to reflect on the first half-season of his comeback, it happened to also be his 40th birthday.
A question about his age was inevitable. So too was the response, which zeroed in on the confusion he perceives people have over the issue. It contained a glorious Alonso-ism; an exaggeration said with so much confidence that you might even believe he means it.
“What I feel maybe sounds the opposite to the people outside,” Alonso says.
“It seems that the sport and how social media is now, we seem to get confused about the age or the performance that a sportsman can do.
“This is not the Tour De France, this is not the Olympic Games, this is not football where at 23 you are at the peak of your performance.
“If I race myself now against myself of 23, I will beat him with one hand. It’s not the same for myself only, I guess everyone will give you the same answer.
“It’s not the younger you are, the quicker you are. This is not how the stopwatch works in motorsport.”
The upshot is that Alonso sees himself in F1 for a “very long time”. His initial deal with Alpine was not a two-year deal as widely assumed but a one-plus-one. It would seem incredible to think Alpine will not be activating the second year.
But would he really beat 23-year-old Fernando so easily?
If we take him literally, then 23-year-old Alonso raced in F1 from mid-2004 to mid-2005.
That version of Alonso was already sensational: at the time the youngest race winner in F1 history, a Renault icon in the making and, in early 2005, on his way to becoming the youngest-ever world champion too.
Of course, Alonso’s derogatory remark about his younger self – that “I will beat him with one hand” – was an embellishment. It’s a variant of the ‘I am better now than I’ve ever been’ remarks that Alonso has said a few times in recent years, just to remind people how good he still is when his machinery hasn’t let him show it so overtly.
Such Alonso comments are usually rooted in an element of truth, though, and in this case, it’s likely that Alonso sees himself just as fast as ever but with the benefit of having 20-odd years of depositing bits of experience into his bank of knowledge.
So, if we took the peaks of Alonso’s 2021 season, could it be argued that 23-year-old Alonso would have failed to achieve the same things?
The examples that spring to mind are his stunning displays of racecraft in Azerbaijan and Britain, and how he held off the much faster Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton for several laps in Hungary – a crucial defence that meant team-mate Esteban Ocon scored a shock victory.
Alonso’s restart in Baku and his opening lap of the sprint race at Silverstone were masterclasses in reflexes, rapid decision-making in where to position his car, and how to blend discipline with aggression.
He was rewarded for taking risks, which is something his 23-year-old self would have handled in a similar way. But much of the intuition that has benefited Alonso this year is the result of the years of experience that he’d have simply not had early on.
That’s not to say Alonso’s racecraft was poor in the past – far from it. In 2004 (our main case study for 23-year-old Alonso) there are a few examples of some clumsy positioning into Turn 1.
But for every Bahrain and Malaysia, where he makes great starts then meanders into the middle of the road and gets boxed in, there’s a USA, where he uses Renault’s mighty launch to great effect and bobs and weaves his way from ninth to fifth then sends it around the outside of Kimi Raikkonen and Takuma Sato to take third.
Where Alonso’s blend of 20 years’ worth of experiences probably came most in handy this season was his defence against Hamilton. Such a firm but fair rebuttal of everything the seven-time world champion could throw at him required all of Alonso’s nous in battle, and his command of the wider picture.
“I’ve worked with a number of drivers through a bit more than 20 years in F1 and he’s extremely impressive,” says Alpine executive director Marcin Budkowski.
“He’s impressive in his approach which is very, very professional. It reminds me a bit of Michael to be honest, when I was at Ferrari and he was a benchmark in terms of how professional he was and how meticulous he was in his approach and I see that similar trait in Fernando.
“The other thing is that blows me away is his racecraft. It is mind-blowing almost because we are sat on the pitwall, we have all the data, we have full visibility on the race, he’s in the car driving at full speed and he has almost the same analysis of the race that we have with nowhere near as much data or the ability to take a step back.
“That’s the thing that impresses me the most. I guess it’s 20 years of experience in driving Formula 1 cars perhaps. There’s not many drivers even with 20 years’ experience that would be capable of that.”
Would a younger Alonso have managed what he managed in Hungary? It would have been harder. But early-era Alonso was learning very quickly and refining his skillset sweetly. It wouldn’t have been impossible.
At Imola in 2005, Alonso triumphed in a not-too-dissimilar situation, defending against the faster Michael Schumacher on a track that was almost impossible to overtake on.
Schumacher didn’t have a drag reduction system to make use of back then and couldn’t get past.
Alonso knew that and drove accordingly – at 99% the entire race, he said at the time. He had a clear command of the situation at the time and drove faultlessly to the requirements he worked out for himself. And he was still only 23.
We can therefore reach the shocking conclusion that Alonso was already exceptionally good when he was very young, and at 40 he is still exceptionally good.
Sarcasm aside, maybe that really is the conclusion. Maybe the impressive thing about Alonso isn’t that he’s miles better than he used to be, as he claims, it’s that he hasn’t declined.
There really aren’t any signs of the physical or mental degradations that come with getting old. Alonso feels he is as fast as ever but with an extra degree of wiliness that comes with so much experience.
Alonso’s also probably mellowed slightly off-track, given he is widely seen as a far less divisive character than before, still astonishingly driven and demanding but in a way that seems less…harsh. A mix of maturity and the reality of a long F1 career has almost certainly facilitated that.
That’s perhaps got little to do with his overall performances. But it can’t be harming his longevity.
“He doesn’t feel like an old man ready to retire,” says Budkowski.
“He is hungry, he is looking forward to next year. Every time in the factory he is asking ‘How is next year’s car coming?’. He is enjoying himself very much this year, I think you’ve seen that on the racetrack.
“But outside of the track, the interactions with the team, you can see that he is happy to be back in Formula 1.”
Present-day Alonso is not far superior to the driver who rewrote F1’s record books in the early-2000s. But is he second-rate by comparison?
And that’s really what’s at the heart of Alonso fighting not to roll his eyes every time his age has been questioned over the last year.
To him, it was a non-issue. This season is proving him exactly right – regardless of how easily he’d beat his 23-year-old self.