Fernando Alonso has started from the front row in Formula 1 38 times. The most recent occasion was a bigger achievement than most and contrary to how he downplayed it at the time, it meant a lot to the two-time world champion.
Moments like qualifying for the Canadian Grand Prix help the world see Alonso as the Alpine rider sees himself: competitive, hungry and still able to get the job done.
“It’s not like they’re asking ‘who is this guy? ‘” Alonso told The Race in an exclusive interview.
“But, you know, ‘what does he add to the sport?’
“And weekends like Canada or the second half of last year, I think they can feel that I can still add something to the sport.”
Qualifying second in Canada was Alonso’s best grid position on his return to F1. It was also his first No. 1 start in 10 years. The second half of Alonso’s mostly wasted F1 career is well documented, but even against this backdrop, a decade of waiting just to start in the front row again feels like an age.
Alonso cares. Not because he’s forgotten how he feels, but because in 2012 it was plain to see he was at the peak of his powers. And the F1 fan base has changed since then.
To many new fans in particular, Alonso has either looked like little more than a frustrated midfielder or been an outright absentee, having spent 2019 and 2020 out of F1. Thus, he was already a lesser driver in the eyes of some fans than he probably deserved to be.
That being the case, Alonso feared that returning to less than his best would cement the idea that he was a depleted force – with the disappointing second careers of Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen leading the way.
“I know the front row isn’t the end of the world and I’ve been in that position a few times before,” said Alonso, again referring to Canada’s qualifying.
“But it meant a lot because when you decide to come back, you have to put some things in life – family, friends again – and devote yourself fully to the work you are doing, travelling, the physical aspect, the mental aspect, everything and the pressure you feel in your shoulders.
“Because you are Fernando Alonso, and everyone will look at you if you do well.
“And I know there were a few instances in the past where people were coming back, Kimi or Michael, who they were maybe…we all felt like they weren’t the same as before. And I didn’t want that in my return.
“I think, more or less, I’m getting there. I am the same as before. And that was important to me.
“Even though I felt inside that I was the same, I have to prove it from time to time and weekends like Canada help to have that feeling in the paddock.”
So was it an outward point to prove – or something for itself?
“You are aware of things and maybe you are aware of people’s opinions,” he says.
“And you have to do hundreds of interviews, and they ask you how you feel at 40 and if you’re exactly the same as before.
“And what is the ambition now? Now are you going back to 40, is it just for fun, or are you feeling really fast?
“It’s not that you get mad… but of course I feel fast.” Otherwise, I will never come back.
Alonso’s break from F1 in 2019 and 2020 has had mixed results. He became a two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner and world endurance champion, failed to qualify for the 2019 Indianapolis 500, then finished a muted 21st a year later, and expanded his racing tenure so widely that it even made its Dakar Rally debut.
But as he hinted, Alonso’s results in his first year back in F1 should have already done much to convince skeptics of the level at which he would be performing.
He admits he was ‘not 100 per cent’ in the first half of last season. Alonso needed time “to get the rhythm back into the Formula 1 stuff, the pit stops, the starts, the restarts, all the changes on the steering wheel and things like that”.
“This year, or the second half of last year, I feel a lot more normal,” he says.
Alonso is still waiting for the car he wanted to release from the F1 midfielder. Last year, however, he still did everything he could – beat teammate Esteban Ocon to the championship, finish in the top half in points and return to the podium with a third-place finish at the Qatar Grand Prix.
Not bad for a man who, as everyone reminded him, turned 40 mid-season. But not enough to stop the questions, especially since he hasn’t agreed a contract for 2023 (and possibly 2024) yet.
“Now that I will be 41 in Hungary, it [his age] will be the topic in Hungary! he’s laughing.
“I don’t feel any different in Hungary than I felt last year at 39. But I am aware of that.
“And let’s say there’s also a new generation of fans who weren’t there in 2006 when I won the championship, or they weren’t there in 2012 when I was at Ferrari fighting. for the championship.
“Now there are 50% new viewers, and they’ve never seen Alonso fight for podiums and wins. So now you’re coming back, and it’s not like ‘who is this guy?’ but you know, ‘what does he add to the sport?’ Weekends like Canada or the second half of last year, I think they can feel that I can still add something At the sports.
Quality and longevity will be part of Alonso’s legacy. As a 344-start veteran who will surpass Raikkonen’s record of 349 before the end of the 2022 season, he stands the test of time. There is little or no sign of degradation.
It cemented his reputation as an all-time great, even though his career fell short of the promised heights.
Yes, Alonso is the winner of two world championships and 32 grand prix and has 98 podiums. It could well reach a century before finally calling it a day. But the stark reality is that the good days, in terms of results, are far in the past.
And Alonso suspects that’s why he’s in a permanent state where he needs to prove himself. When he talks about new fans and they don’t see the results that would set him apart as the ultra-successful driver he’s always been known for, we ask him, how does he hope they see him?
“A fighter,” he replies. “Someone who doesn’t give up so easily. And always try to perform to the maximum in free practice, qualifying, the race, whatever the conditions or whatever position you are fighting for. It can be victory or it can be P12.
“It’s important to me that people realize that I love competition and I love sport.”
Alonso has always been what the F1 narrative needs him to be – the young gun-dropping Michael Schumacher, the McLaren antagonist alongside Lewis Hamilton, the Ferrari underdog, the pantomime villain of the McLaren-Honda years. It’s safe to say he’s now in a new role – the wily veteran, always ultra-combative, always insatiably hungry, always showing kids the way around a track.
And then, just when you wonder if Alonso has gone soft, worrying so much about what others think of him, he cuts through the sentiment with a candid observation about why he should be trying so hard to convince people of his abilities.
“I think the perception from the outside or the feeling towards me has changed, from time to time,” Alonso reflects.
“And in 2007 maybe people had a perception of what I was as a driver or as a person. Then that changed when I was at Ferrari, I was very well integrated into the car. Latin team and things like that.
“Now I think the fans that we have now, there are new fans and in a way – and I don’t want to disrespect them – but they don’t know much about Formula 1.
“They are more like football fans, where they just follow the results, whoever wins does the best. And whoever is last is not at Formula 1 level.
“They don’t understand much about the performance of the car and the package you need. So you’re more on a kind of roller coaster of feeling, of perception, of how people feel about you.
“When you have a good weekend, you look like God. And when you have a bad weekend, you’re too old – or you’re too young or whatever.
“But we all go through these phases. I think now the fans, they just watch the race immediately, they get a feel and then shut down until the following Sunday.
“There is no real Formula 1 culture anymore.”
Alonso’s mastery of the soundbite remains as crisp off-road as his driving on it.