Seeing Fernando Alonso, at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, slide around the final corner in the dying moments of wet qualifying gave a wonderful visceral sense of what the timing screens would confirm seconds later as he qualified the Alpine number one at age 40. Old. He had once again exceeded the race time.
It was a pretty 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 dry, a line downhill in some places but standing water in others, the grip was unknowable as you approached the corners on every lap. Under these conditions requiring improvisation, courage and the confidence of knowing you could always salvage whatever crisis your efforts might unleash, Alonso stepped forward.
Yes, he was 0.65 seconds slower than poleman Max Verstappen, but in a car that in the dry is usually more than a second behind the Red Bull. He edged the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and shaded his own super capable teammate Esteban Ocon by 1.5 seconds.
Around Montreal, the Alpine was probably better than its usual level. The team has made good progress lately, both in understanding him better and with productive upgrades, which have given Alonso a balance he can work with. He had also been quick in Friday’s dry practice, green or rubber track, single lap or long races, track completely wet like in FP3 or dry like in qualifying.
But it was Alonso who really maxed out the car and jumped at the extra weather opportunity to ambush everyone. Much of the paddock figuratively shook their heads in astonishment. He had once again pulled something special out of the bag.
Alpine also retains in its DNA the savvy racing operations of a world champion team. Ahead of his final two-lap Q3 race, Alonso was held back for a long time after he was ready, making sure they got him across the line to start his final lap as late as possible on the drying track and in a good gap.
A mist of spray from the cars on the pit straight hangs in the air as it descends the pit lane. His race engineer Karel Loos walks him through the gaps to the other cars while Fernando dabbles in the final levels of grip. Harnessing 1,000 horsepower in such conditions will always be a game of wheelspin, oversteer and trying to find traction.
Even as Alonso talks to Loos, the engine revs can be heard exploding as the rear wheels find the standing water, especially coming out of Turn 2 and the hairpin of Turn 10. Take care of your tyres, bring the brakes up to temperature. It will be a two-lap race. He brakes at temperature approaching the last chicane, but backs up, does not start the lap yet; there are yellows at turn 1. Ok, they’re clear, reload, go.
There is a large puddle at the top of turn 1. The edge of this is the new top. But there’s a little too much speed in T2, a big snap of oversteer, running out of gas for an eternity. Even then, another flurry of wheels spin further down the road where the surface is still treacherous. Delicate and precise through the dangerously narrow dry line of turns 4-5, at high speed, the walls up close.
At this point, Alonso feels it’s not turning into a great round and asks if there’s time left to convert it into a build-up round for the final attacking round. Yes, there is a 30 second margin, he is told. So they start the routine again, recharging, but maintaining brake and tire temperatures while letting cars whiz past. Approaching the last chicane, reloading, let’s go for the last lap. There is some slippage on the pit straight.
Compared to Verstappen and Sainz, Alonso is a little earlier on the brakes for T1 than both and loses a bit of time on the entry. But he briefly beats them both to the top.
In Turn 1 he uses a lot of throttle to help spin the car up to line it up for T2, to balance the understeer with the power. He briefly uses about 50% of the gas there, about twice as much as Verstappen. With that done, he takes a calmer approach into turn 2 this time, off the gas for long but it gets him straight as soon as possible for maximum traction.
Both the Ferrari and the Red Bull have better traction and are ahead by about three tenths before the braking even begins for Turn 3, the tight right-hander where the track turns away from the St. Lawrence and descends. a crash causing understeer to the left of Turn 4 where hard walls lie threateningly waiting on the exit.
It’s daring over here, an angry power slide with the rear tire walls practically touching the wall, but at low speed and not lifting as much as Verstappen who has his own little moment through here where the overhanging trees and the dirt build up on the left keep the track wet.
Despite a brief and sudden comeback for a moment of layrie at the turn of turn 5, Alonso recovers two of those three tenths at Verstappen between turns 3 and 6 to be only 0.1 seconds away at the end of sector 1, although Sainz had a great run there and has the fastest sector time of all, 0.315s over Alonso.
The slam of the underfloor skimming the track can be heard in the Alpine cockpit as speed increases before Alonso brakes hard for the tight left of Turn 6. He carries a lot of momentum, the camber of the turn making it quicker than it looks and again he’s running the shifts but there’s always angry power oversteer to catch and it’s costing him time at both Red Bull and Ferrari .
Despite a nice clean exit from Turn 7, leaving behind the wooded depression and heading towards the T8-9 chicane, the lost momentum of that spin out of T6 continues to cost him all the way to the chicane. At the end of sector 2 in the braking zone of the hairpin he is about 0.5s behind them. Which seems to be about right for a mid-range Alpine.
He takes a gentle arc in the hairpin, a wide line to get the car straight as soon as possible and he takes time from both Verstappen and Sainz here. But despite being absolutely lined up as the tires find standing water just beyond the exit, there is some wild fourth gear slippage and again it looks like the Red Bull and the Ferrari have naturally better traction. So he’s not as fast as either through the speed trap at the end of the straight.
Verstappen, who is maybe 15 seconds ahead of Alonso on the road, puts in a super neat, impressive and fast lap. Alonso is risking it all with his approach to the chicane, outrageously early on the brakes and carrying a load of momentum in there. He gets it pretty much to the first peak, but is already busy steering and accelerating as he dramatically slides out of there, the champion wall lurking, then heads for the line. A few seconds behind, Sainz is also adventurous in the chicane but the slide causes him to lose much more momentum than that of Alonso. At that point, Sainz loses the 0.5 second advantage he had on the Alpine and is shaded by a tenth on the lap.
Like this, Alonso gets his first front row in a decade.
“I think [Red Bull] are in a different league, of course,” he said afterwards. “It wasn’t in our wildest dreams to be on pole position. And so we take the front row and maybe that’s better than any expectation.
In the age versus experience equation, Alonso will tell you that the latter is very valuable and the former has no effect yet. Not for him.
“The car felt good from the opening laps of FP1 which helped build confidence. It’s also a circuit where I think you need pace. You use a lot of kerbs here and that is quite bumpy.
“There are some things that, you know, have been there for many, many years. And I guess for half the grid it’s either the first time they’ve been here or the second time…I’ve been racing here for 16 or 17 years so as I’ve always said age and experience are always a help, it’s never a disadvantage. ”
Alonso’s thrill and attack in midair is no different today than it was in his glory years. It looks like it feels that way on the inside too. “It was very difficult to run qualifying because we were a bit blind to the times and the position we were in.
“We weren’t informed because every lap you would go one or two seconds up so I think it was too much constant changing in times. So yeah it was all-in for sure, in the last lap. It was completely unexpected, the grip you will get in the next corner, so you have to guess and you have to go for it.
“And yes, I wanted to do a good lap and everything was fine.”