When Renault announced last year that Fernando Alonso would be returning to Formula 1 with the team he won two titles with, we ran a piece on this website where we shared our verdict on whether it was a good deal.
My ambivalence towards Alonso returning to F1 was probably well illustrated by the fact that I said I was torn over whether this was a good idea. I felt it would work really well for the championship if it worked simply because Alonso is undeniably a top talent at his peak. But I felt that the probability was that it would backfire.
This short a way into just 2021, when obviously this deal is all about the longer term and how the team now known as Alpine handles the new rules, the reunion itself cannot yet be described as an unqualified success.
But I was wrong to doubt the Alonso half of this partnership and, something I felt increasingly strongly about reflecting on the first half of the season, I underestimated the value of Alonso’s comeback.
Alonso’s pedigree is well-established. I trust the judgement of people who are more knowledgeable about his career, who have seen Alonso first-hand for so long, who watched him conquer F1 in the mid-2000s with a unique driving style, star for Ferrari in often inferior machinery, and wrestle recalcitrant and unreliable McLaren-Hondas.
Having a slightly ‘meh’ attitude about his comeback had nothing to do with doubting whether Alonso was great. It was that all I personally witnessed up close was 2018, and while that still had its moments – his Azerbaijan Grand Prix efforts come to mind quickest – by the end of the year his impending sabbatical and McLaren’s struggles were the main story. Not Alonso the driver.
Alonso was also part of McLaren’s fall into increasing anti-Honda rhetoric prior to their divorce and the team tying itself in knots as it began to discover it clearly had its own problems.
By late-2018, I felt Alonso leaving F1 was probably for the best. It was such a waste of his talent to be in a lowly car for so long and I felt that McLaren would benefit from a fresh start. I don’t remember at any point thinking ‘this is terrible, I’ve lost the chance to see a master of his craft at work, I really hope he comes back’. I felt like I had missed him at his peak, and that was a shame, but it was probably better to remember him for what he was before than to see him toil.
For all that, I didn’t feel like it was automatically a huge and immediate asset to F1 just to have Alonso on the grid for the sake of it. Especially as another former superstar from the 2000s, Kimi Raikkonen, was already providing that service (for lack of a better word).
He might return a lesser driver and a still-divisive character, he might not. Either way he’d be back in the midfield. I’d seen that movie and had little interest in watching its sequel. There are much more interesting stories in Formula 1.
Having watched him more closely this year than ever before, especially as the year’s progressed, I’ve changed my opinion. I knew how good a driver he was but probably overlooked what a good driver he still is.
One of the beauties of top-level sport is appreciating the quality in front of you – even for those not winning. That perspective is more important in motorsport than other disciplines because the machinery dictates competitiveness.
It’s easy to take that for granted with a driver like Alonso. Especially if you started following F1 before or after 2007. Not to get bogged down in any anti-Alonso rhetoric from 2007 or him being cast as the bad guy up against Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, but because there seem to be two parts to Alonso’s career – the part where more than two titles just seemed a certainty and he was the undisputed best driver in Formula 1, and the (much longer and more recent) part where he was the nearly man on-track and seemed to be a bit of a pantomime villain off it.
I can’t, and won’t, speak for everyone who didn’t witness every year of Alonso in F1 but in my experience the latter years seemed to be as much about saying stuff to remind people he wasn’t the reason his career ended up in a decline, while a certain notoriety around him grew.
I can’t help but wonder if it created the perception that he had become a shadow of his former self. It must have influenced the way fans of a certain period of F1 view Alonso.
The more you viewed Alonso as someone who hadn’t got the results he deserved for a long time, spent too long in machinery that was beneath him, and was just looking for the lighter side as it all wound down, the easier his behaviour was to empathise with.
If you didn’t buy into that – if you weren’t along for the ride earlier in his career – I can see why Alonso’s final two or three years seasons would have been noticed for the wrong reasons.
Even now we see in responses to certain Alonso-related articles that people are not as quick to acknowledge the incredible talent he has or the job he does behind the wheel as they are to latch onto some perceived element of the soap opera around him.
That’s a shame. We always say Alonso’s box office and that’s great for F1 on track and off track – and I still do believe that – but what I’ve gained from his return is the understanding that despite the Alonso-isms and the polarising rhetoric around him he is undeniably an incredibly good racer and I’m delighted to see that side of him more easily.
I was wrong about the version of Alonso that would come back to F1. I should have given him more credit. I see Alonso the driver for the class act he is. From being so ambivalent towards his return I’m now very happy he has come back so I could see this properly, because a talent like his is something to enjoy, even if the machinery isn’t giving him the results that make you clearly appreciate it.
We still need to see how his comeback works out in the longer term but it’s a story I’m much more engaged in now than I thought I would be. Writing from experience, I would encourage anyone who has felt a bit underwhelmed by the idea of Alonso in latter stages of his career considers reappraising him for what he really is.