When discussing the unanswerable question of ‘Who is the best Formula 1 driver of all time?’, there are a number of criteria that I consider. I look at relative success – how that driver performed against their contemporary rivals, and I look at driving skill, was that driver truly impressive to watch? There is also one other factor that can have a defining effect on both of those; a driver’s ability to read the competition. That additional sense to ensure they are diving the best car at all times. Only the very best drivers have managed it through the years.
In recent memory, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton have all displayed the vision to make the right move at the right time. Prost took his last title after an opportunistic move to Williams in ’93, Schumacher took the huge risk of leaving Benetton for an ailing Ferrai team, and Hamilton abandoned the sinking McLaren ship in order to join the Mercedes team where he has since won two more World Championships. One great driver, who is considered by many to be the best in the business, has struggled during his career to achieve the same kind of career defining move.
An instant star
Fernando Alonso’s career peak remains the two World Championships he won in 2005/2006. At the time, he was THE commodity in Formula 1, the man who finally overthrew the Schumacher-Ferrari Dynasty. After his title wins, he made the first decision of his career, the move to McLaren. It was the only move a sensible man could take. It was clear that Ferrari were going through a dip in form, and Renault were unlikely to remain at the top after two magnificent seasons. With McLaren’s star man Kimi Raikkonen heading to Ferrari to replace the retiring Schumacher, Alonso looked set to take the best seat in the sport. Alongside a young rookie, Lewis Hamilton, a third consecutive title seemed a real possibility.
An opportunity missed
Unfortunately, the rookie did not play his part, and Hamilton established himself as an instant World Championship contender. The feud between the that spanned the entire season ultimately destroyed McLaren’s chances of either title. The hugely emotional Alonso allowed the situation to get the better of him, and the decisions he made during the 2007 season have haunted his career since then. The situation was untenable at McLaren, and an unscheduled return to Renault was Fernando’s choice. He had an offer from Red Bull on the table to replace the outgoing David Coulthard. He declined.
The Renault team had fallen into the midfield, and he managed only a handful of wins over the next 2 seasons. Fernando next move was to Ferrari. This is where the Spaniard’s career really started to go wrong. Ferrari had won 2 consecutive constructors titles, and came extraordinarily close to taking the 2008 drivers title with Felipe Massa. However, the introduction of new aerodynamic regulations in 2009 had left the Italian team struggling to achieve points finishes. Raikkonen had left the team, and so Alonso was ready to don the red race suit.
The big names are not always the best names
Unfortunately, the Red Bull team he had refused two seasons earlier, had built a car that was far superior to anything in the field. However, Fernando proved many times over the 2010 season that he was the best driver in the field. His extraordinary performances were not enough to bridge the gulf in car performance though. Ultimately, Alonso was unlucky not to take the title in 2010. Fernando allowed that pattern to continue for 4 more years, each one as frustrating and painful as the last. By 2014, the wins had dried up completely.
There was a new dominant force in Formula 1. The Hybrid Power Unit regulations were introduced in 2014 and Mercedes had developed an engine that was vastly superior to either the Ferrari or the Renault. After a season in which engine performance was everything, there was only 1 team to drive for. Unfortunately, Mercedes were now home to Lewis Hamilton. The memories of the tumultuous 2007 season were still etched on the minds of the Formula 1 paddock. The notion of those two racing against each other again was too much.
First impressions are everything
An opportunity to drive for the best team on the grid had eluded him again. However, there was another opportunity. McLaren had signed an exclusive, long term engine deal with Honda. It was the belief of Ron Dennis that the only way to win the World Championship would be to run as a ‘works’ team. Fernando evidently agreed. And 2015 saw the return of one the most unlikely partnerships. Two years of running around at the back of the grid like “amateurs” followed.
When Nico Rosberg retired at the end of 2016, Fernando found himself as the favourite to take the seat. Mercedes were reportedly keen, and it would have been the perfect opportunity to challenge for a that elusive third World title. However, those nightmares of 2007 came back again. The risks of partnering Hamilton with Alonso worked against the Spaniard again.
Alonso could have missed his final chance
Since that period at Renault, Alonso has failed to manufacture a situation where he would be able to win another World title. I do believe he is one of, if not the quickest drivers the sport has ever seen. But by finding himself consistently in the wrong car, his career will always be seen as an under achievement.