Nobody with half a brain would dispute it: Fernando Alonso is a great race car driver. All things being equal, he may well be the fastest driver on any track, at any given time. He can adapt, find speed, execute dazzling overtakes, perform heroically and even stoically on track, enduring circumstances that would cause lesser drivers to pack up their helmet bags and slump home.
But the sad fact is that no amount of polishing a mishandled and snakebitten career will alter the simple fact that history will not treat Fernando Alonso well. And, at 36 years old, he's likely too old to alter his fate in F1. On the eve of his first run in the IndyCar series, at the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, Alonso is supremely talented, highly-paid, and universally adored around the world. But he will never again see the podium in Formula 1. And no matter what the next year or two have in store, he will be remembered as much for his bad luck as his prodigious talents.
His current team, a woeful partnership of McLaren and Honda under the glitzy stewardship of American marketing executive Zak Brown, is a massive waste of materials and talent. In four grands prix, its two drivers, Alonso and rookie Stoffel Vandoorne, have together managed to finish just two races. Alonso hasn't crossed the finish line once. Of course, this isn't Alonso's fault. It's just bad luck. Right?
As a young driver for Renault F1, Alonso was a two-time World Champion, in 2005 and 2006. That is a mark that very few race car drivers ever achieve. It's twice the number of championships that last year's laughable one-off, Nico Rosberg, will ever win. It equals the number earned by the great Jim Clark, whose career was cut tragically short (but not before he also won the Indy 500).
There are tangibles that separate merely great drivers from the ones that change the sport and remake it in their images. Alonso may be every ounce as talented as Juan Manuel Fangio, Jackie Stewart or Ayrton Senna, but he'll never change the sport in the same way. Niki Lauda, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, and even the much maligned Lewis Hamilton—each has impacted the direction and culture of F1 racing in ways that Alonso never will. F1 racing is a team sport, and Alonso has never been able to lead a team to sustained greatness. Schumie bent the entire Ferrari operation to his will and won 5 straight championships. Vettel achieved a mindmeld with Rred Bull Racing designer Adrian Newey and reinvented the aerodynamics of F1 racing.
He's unlucky, that's true. But that's another way of saying he makes really poor career decisions. Since earning his back-to-back driver championships, he has spent well over a decade bouncing around like a regal journeyman, signing with top teams—McLaren, Ferrari, Renault—as they veer on dramatic downward trajectories. If you were to step back and map out a 10-year career decline, you couldn't choose better teams to ride to the bottom.
He also bickered unnecessarily teammates and executives, and became embroiled in scandals.
In 2007, as he was in the midst of defending his second championship, his new team, McLaren-Mercedes, became embroiled in the great Spygate of 2007, when McLaren was found guilty of stealing secret data from Ferrari and forced to pay a $100 million fine. McLaren was disqualified from the World Constructors Championship, and while Alonso and teammate Hamilton were exonerated, they finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in the driver's championship.
A year later, back at Renault, Alonso won the grand prix in Singapore, but only after his teammate, Nelson Piquet, Jr., crashed into the barriers intentionally to deploy the safety car. The crash let Alonso run on an alternative strategy and, ultimately, to victory. It was a disgraceful episode for the sport, masterminded by Renault bosses Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, who were briefly banned from the sport. Alonso declared his innocence, and retained his win. But the shadow lingers.
Fernando Alonso is a great driver, and the fact that he's struggled so mightily for so many years is one of the dramatic disappointments in a sport short on drama of late. He'll eventually finish a race this year—though it may very well be in the fantastic IndyCar series. We're in his corner. But history is not.
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