Ahead of the new F1 season, we're inducting a modern grand prix great into The Cult. With his career nearing its conclusion, Fernando Alonso's haul of two world titles feels like scant reward for a man of such extensive talents.
Illustration by Dan Evans
Cult Grade: Man Against Machine
You do not need me to tell you that Formula 1 is as much about the car as it is the driver. Ever was it thus. There is sometimes a rose-tinted belief that this is a modern evil, but Jackie Stewart did not win his world championships in an ice cream van. You could raise similar accusations against cycling – that powerful teams with high-tech equipment count as much as the riders – but they have enough problems at the moment, so let's leave them be and conclude that F1 is, at best, a dual challenge of man and machine.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that grand prix racing is a predominantly mechanical endeavour where magnificent machinery allows average drivers to win multiple world titles. Team bosses know who the best racers are, and those guys tend to manoeuvre themselves, or be manoeuvred, into the best seats. Put simply, the cream rises. Lewis Hamilton is not driving for the best team by chance, just like Schumacher, Senna and Prost before him.
It is not an exact science, however. Fernando Alonso is one of the best drivers currently competing in the sport and, in the eyes of some experienced observers, an all-time great. But he does not drive one of the best cars – he hasn't done for years, if he ever did – and barring a minor miracle he will never win another grand prix.
By normal standards, Alonso's career in the sport has been a tremendous success. The Spaniard has two world titles to his name and 32 race wins; of the 822 drivers to enter a grand prix, only five have stood on the top step of the podium more times than Alonso. He has driven for the two most famous teams active in the sport, commands a huge salary, and I bet his mum is bloody proud of him, too.
But with the exception of that maternal pride, this is not enough for a man of Alonso's abilities. Success is not a universal concept – it is relative to the talents you have at your disposal. And if we are to judge him thus, Alonso's career has been something of a disappointment.
The world titles came back-to-back in 2005 and '06, when Alonso was still in his mid-twenties and driving for Renault. At this stage he was extremely good (though not yet great) and it seemed certain that he would go on to break a hatful of F1 records. At the tail end of 2006, you'd have been scoffed at for suggesting he would not add to his championship haul.
What most observers judge to have been Alonso's peak years – 2010-2014, when he drove for Ferrari – yielded no world titles. There were near misses and plenty of race wins, but despite his superhuman efforts in a string of decent-but-not-great cars, he remained a two-time world champion.
Racing being a sport that attracts a higher than average percentage of stats nerds, this fact jars with some. As one of those nerds, it certainly rankles me that Alonso is just a two-time champion. At minimum he belongs in the three-time champion bracket – with Senna, Lauda and Stewart – to be elevated to the status of a grand prix immortal. He knows this. You don't get to the top without your fair share of self confidence.
But, as difficult as it may be, we must forget the statistics and judge Alonso on the individual moments of brilliance that have made him such a star. His time at Ferrari was the spectacular display of a driver extracting everything – and then a little more – from his equipment, of a man who often had to fight against his machine to succeed. In 2010 and 2012 he came agonisingly close to beating Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel to the world title, despite the German having what can objectively be called a better car. Alonso's performances were metronymic to the point of being mesmerising.
His eventual exit from Ferrari was acrimonious, poorly stage-managed and, given that he'd be swiftly replaced by old foe Vettel, perhaps even a little humiliating. What's more, it exposed Alonso's main flaw: his lack of skill as a political manoeuvrer. How he managed to get bounced from a decent Ferrari to a seat at McLaren, scene of his incredibly fraught (though largely successful) 2007 season, at a time when the team was transitioning into a thus-far disastrous relationship with engine partner Honda, remains a mystery to me. The end of 2016 brought an upturn in form, capped by some brilliant drives (his run to fifth in the U.S. Grand Prix was as good as any win), but 2017 already looks like being another fruitless slog thanks to yet more problems at Honda. At 35 and with a salary north of £30million, it could well prove to be his last in the sport.
As I said, success is relative to the equipment at your disposal. And, talent-wise, Alonso is among the very best. But, given that he has not had a car worthy of his skills since early 2013, you could argue that he's achieved pretty much all he could in the sport. And I know, I know, we must forget the stats and look purely at the individual laps, passes, and victories. But it still feels slightly wrong to be approaching the final chapter and calling Fernando Alonso a two-time world champion. Just a two-time world champion.
Point of Entry: Full Commitment
When you see Alonso on track, at his most committed, it is almost as if his facial expression becomes visible through the crash-helmet: gritted teeth, eyes fixed ahead in steely determination, the odd bead of perspiration slipping down his forehead, almost sizzling to vapour as it makes the journey. You can sense that his hands grip the wheel so tightly that it might crumble from the force. Alonso is like some unholy combination of matador and wounded bull.
What separates good F1 drivers from the true greats? A key component is mental capacity. Everyone in F1 can drive very, very fast. There is no bad driver on the grid in 2017, and even the guy who you'd pick as the worst is excellent by normal standards.
But what Alonso has – and it's a trait that was clearly abundant in past greats like Schumacher, Prost and Lauda especially – is the mental capacity to think beyond what he is doing with the car. Because he is so good at it – because he is such a natural – Alonso expends a smaller percentage of mental focus on actually driving than most of his peers. This leaves more time to consider strategy, to think through the pros and cons of passing at a certain corner, and to fully assess the driver he's up against. It forms an impression of intelligence, but again all F1 drivers are intelligent – Alonso merely creates more time with which to exploit his intellect.
In this sense he comes close to perfection. But it is perhaps more for his shortcomings that he will, in time, become a legit Ferrari legend. Few others who have driven the scarlet cars were so perfectly matched with the team, so easily woven into the Maranello mythology. Gilles Villeneuve, of course, was the quintessential Ferrari racer, the poster boy for daring and danger at the wheel of grand prix machinery. After him, it's Alonso. The brilliance, the determination, but ultimately the tiny flaws that saw the pairing fall just short of success. Neither man won a title for the team. Ferrari is about excellence, about expense and quality, but there is also something flawed there, something in the DNA that makes them more likely to finish second in glorious fashion than a functional first. The sheer dominance of Michael Schumacher, brilliant though it was, did not quite sit with this. While Michael seemed at one with the car, Fernando was fighting against it. Whereas one was machine, the other is wholly, fallibly, man.
The Moment: Various Indiscretions
There is a darker side to Alonso, of course – and I'm not referring to his cherry endorsement of human rights abusers Azerbaijan as European Grand Prix hosts. Were one to pick the biggest F1 scandals of the past decade, they would likely choose the espionage furore of 2007 and the "fixed" 2008 Singapore Grand Prix (commonly known as spygate and crashgate respectively). One man is common to both. No prizes for guessing who.
Former FIA President Max Mosley discusses the "spygate" scandal
In the former, Alonso knew about information being passed to his team, McLaren, from arch rivals Ferrari, then attempted to blackmail his boss Ron Dennis by threatening to show incriminating text messages to the sport's governing body. In the latter, he took an unlikely victory after his teammate Nelson Piquet Jr. crashed and brought out the safety car. It transpired that Piquet did so under instruction from the team to make a bold pitstop strategy work for Alonso, though the Spaniard has always denied any knowledge of this.
Despite the team admitting that they had cheated, Alonso kept his victory
That he walked away from both without so much as a reprimand is staggering, and earned him the nickname "Teflonso". Perhaps more astonishingly, however, these scandals did not harm his future job prospects. Alonso went on to be signed by Ferrari three years after the espionage case and, even more remarkably, he was re-hired by Ron Dennis in 2015, despite the fact he had cost McLaren all their championship points, a fine of $100 million, and shattered Ron's reputation. If that's not an endorsement of his abilities in the car, I'm not sure what is.
The veteran F1 journalist Nigel Roebuck, recalling a conversation with driver-turned-pundit Martin Brundle:
I thought of something Brundle said to me last winter: "So here we are, near the docks, late at night, and we get caught up in something. Gangsters everywhere, threats, guns, all that stuff. You've got all the drivers there. Which of them are you going to get to sort it all out?"
"Alonso?" I said.
"Exactly!" said Martin. "I rest my case..."