Seeing Fernando Alonso, at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, sliding through the final corner in the dying moments of wet qualifying gave a wonderful visceral sense of what the timing screens would confirm a few seconds later as he qualified the Alpine on the front row at 40 years old. He’d out-run time yet again.
It was a quite brilliant performance, at least as good as the mega lap he never got to complete for red flags in Melbourne. The track was wet but drying, a line going down at some places but standing water at others, the grip unknowable as you approached the corners each lap. In these conditions requiring improvisation, nerve and the confidence of knowing you could always rescue whatever crisis your striving might initiate, Alonso stepped forward.
Yes, he was a 0.65s slower than pole-sitter Max Verstappen but in a car which in the dry is usually over 1s adrift of the Red Bull. He edged out Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari and shaded his own super-capable team mate Esteban Ocon by 1.5s.
Around Montreal the Alpine was probably better than its usual level. The team has been making good progress with it of late, both in better understanding it and with productive upgrades, which have given Alonso a balance he can work with. It had been quick in the dry practices of Friday too, green track or rubbered-in, single lap or long runs, full-wet track as in FP3 or drying as in qualifying.
But it is Alonso who has been really maximising the car and who pounced on the extra opportunity provided by the weather of ambushing everyone. Much of the paddock was figuratively shaking their heads in knowing amazement. He’d pulled something special out the bag yet again.
Alpine also retains in its DNA the savvy race operations of a world title-winning team. Before his final two-lap Q3 run, Alonso was held for a long time after he was ready, ensuring that they got him across the line to begin his final lap as late as possible on the drying track and into a good gap.
A mist of spray from the cars on the pit straight is hanging in the air as he drives down the pitlane. His race engineer Karel Loos guides him about the gaps to other cars as Fernando feels his way around the latest grip levels. Harnessing 1,000 horsepower in conditions such as these is always going to be a game of wheelspin, snaps of power oversteer and trying to somehow find traction.
Even as Alonso is talking to Loos, the engine revs can be heard wildly flaring up as the rear wheels find the standing water, especially out of Turn 2 and the Turn 10 hairpin. Look after your tyres, bring the brakes up to temperature. This will be a two-lap run. Brakes up to temperature as he approaches the final chicane, but back off, don’t start the lap yet; there are yellows at Turn 1. Ok, they’ve cleared, recharge off, go.
There’s a big puddle on the apex of Turn 1. The edge of it is the new apex. But there’s a little bit too much speed into T2, a big snap of oversteer, off the gas for an age. Even then another flurry of wheelspin further up the road where the surface is still treacherous. Delicate and precise through the perilously narrow dry line at Turns 4-5, high-speed, the walls up close.
At this point Alonso feels it’s not building into a great lap and asks if there is time to convert it to a prep lap for the final attack lap. Yes, there’s a margin of 30s, he’s told. So they go through the routine again, recharge back on, but keep the brake and tyre temperatures while letting any push-lap cars speed past. Approaching the final chicane, recharge off, away he goes for the final lap. There’s wheelspin onto the pit straight.
Compared to Verstappen and Sainz, Alonso is a little earlier on the brakes for T1 than either and loses a little time on entry. But he’s briefly ahead of both of them by the apex.
Through Turn 1, he’s using a lot of throttle to help with the rotation of the car to line it up for T2, to balance out the understeer with power. He’s briefly using around 50% throttle there, about twice as much as Verstappen. That achieved, he takes a calmer approach into Turn 2 this time, off the gas a long time but that gets him straight as early as possible for maximum traction.
Both the Ferrari and Red Bull have better traction though and are back ahead by around three tenths even before the braking begins for Turn 3, the tight right-hander where the track dives away from the St Lawrence and down an understeer-inducing drop to the left of Turn 4 where hard walls lie in menacing wait on the exit.
He’s audacious through here, an angry power slide with the rear tyre walls virtually touching the wall, but short-shifting and not lifting anywhere near as much as Verstappen who has his own little moment through here where the overhanging trees and the earth bank on the left are keeping the track wet.
Despite a brief and sudden lift for a lairy moment in the kink of Turn 5, Alonso claws back two of those three tenths to Verstappen between Turns 3 and 6 to be just 0.1s down by the end of Sector 1, though Sainz has had a great run through there and has the fastest sector time of all, 0.315s up on Alonso.
The chatter of the underfloor skimming the track can be heard in the Alpine cockpit as the speed builds before Alonso is hard on the brakes for the tight left of Turn 6. He carries a lot of momentum in, the camber of the turn making it faster than it looks and again he short-shifts but still there’s angry power oversteer to catch and this costs him time to both the Red Bull and Ferrari.
Despite a lovely clean exit out of Turn 7, leaving the wooded depression behind and heading for the chicane of T8-9, the lost momentum from that wheelspin out of T6 keeps on costing him all the way down to the chicane. By the end of sector 2 in the braking zone for the hairpin he’s around 0.5s behind them. Which would seem to be about right for an Alpine halfway through the lap.
He takes a gentle arc into the hairpin, a wide line to get the car straight asap and he takes time from both Verstappen and Sainz here. But despite being absolutely aligned as the tyres find the standing water just beyond the exit, there’s wild fourth-gear wheelspin and again it seems as if the Red Bull and Ferrari just have naturally better traction. So he’s not as quick as either through the speed trap at the end of the straight.
Verstappen, running maybe 15s ahead of Alonso on the road, completes a super-tidy, impressive and fast lap. Alonso is risking everything with his approach to the chicane, outrageously early off the brakes and carrying a load of momentum into there. He just about coaxes it to the first apex but is already busy on steering and throttle as he slides spectacularly out of there, champion’s wall lying in wait, and then makes a run for the line. A few seconds behind, Sainz is also adventurous into the chicane but the slide loses him much more momentum than did Alonso’s. In that moment Sainz loses the 0.5s advantage he had over the Alpine and is shaded by a tenth over the lap.
Like that, Alonso gets his first front row in a decade.
“I think [Red Bull] are in a different league, for sure,” he said afterwards. “It was not in our wildest dreams to be on pole position. And so we take the first row and that’s maybe better than any expectation.”
In the age versus experience equation, Alonso will tell you the latter is very valuable and the former doesn’t have any effect yet. Not for him.
“The car felt good from the first laps in FP1 so that was a help to build the confidence. It’s also a circuit that I think you need some rhythm into it. You use a lot of kerb riding here and it’s quite bumpy.
“There are a few things that, you know, are there for many, many years. And I guess for half of the grid it’s either the first time they come here or the second time… I’ve been racing here 16 or 17 years so as I always said, age and experience is always a help, it’s never a downside.”
The thrill and attack of Alonso in full flight doesn’t look any different today to how it was in his title-winning glory years. It would seem to feel like that from inside too. “It was very difficult to execute qualifying because we were a little bit blind on what are the times and which position we were.
“We were not informed because every lap you were improving one or two seconds so I think it was too much of a change constantly on the times. So yeah, it was all-in for sure, on the last lap. It was completely unexpected, the grip that you will get on the following corner so you have to guess and you have to go for it.
“And yeah, I wanted to put in a good lap and everything was fine.”