What if...Alonso’s right about his McLaren move
Chris Amon. You might have heard of him. You might not. Statistics don’t do much for him. Rarely indeed is he mentioned among the very greats of F1 history; more, if anything, as one from the next level down. But he’s a figure who stands apart nonetheless.
Most commonly he is cited as the best ever F1 driver never to win a championship Grand Prix. But dig below the surface and there’s much more to him, as even that moniker sells Amon well short. The New Zealander had talent to throw away, and indeed Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri once stated that “as far as I'm concerned he was as good as Clark”.
So why the gaping lack of F1 success? Well, there were a few reasons; probably the main one being that he had a knack of making awful ill-timed team moves. Not least in leaving Ferrari in 1969, fed up with persistently uncompetitive and unreliable machinery, but just at the point that the Italian team was about to experience an upturn thanks mainly to FIAT’s new involvement allowing the Commendatore Enzo Ferrari to spend money like never before. While Amon went to the husk of the March squad, which heralded a downturn of his career, experiencing a few more botched switches before he stopped.
And the vigilant among you may have spotted a spooky parallel with now, that 45 years on Fernando Alonso might have just done something similar. Leaving Ferrari at precisely the wrong moment, and with critical consequences for his career trajectory.
You could hardly have failed to notice the latter point. Alonso having abandoned Maranello at the end of last season has had little go right so far. First of all he surfaced at – of all places – McLaren, where he’d had so many problems before and as a consequence many onlookers sit poised to pounce on any potential trouble in the rekindled relationship. The MP4-30 and its new Honda power unit have been highly troublesome, barely turning a wheel for much of pre-season and now that it is running is hanging off the back of the main pack, beating only the Manors which rather begged, borrowed and stole its various bits in the days and weeks prior to the season start. This is all without even mentioning his mysterious testing accident, which resulted in him missing the first race.
Perhaps worst of all for him, rather incongruously with Nando’s five-year spell at the Scuderia, as well as with Mercedes’s imperious 2014 campaign, Ferrari has once again experienced one heck of an upturn, to the point of being nearly as good as the Merc. As we witnessed in Malaysia it is better even in certain circumstances.
And as I said you couldn’t fail to notice. Even if the on-track evidence had somehow eluded you, onlookers have not missed opportunities to point it all out and, sometimes, with relish. Comment has followed comment. Meme has followed meme.
The matter has popped up with regularity in Alonso’s press conferences too. Nando may feel like he’s playing Whac-A-Mole.
It came up in Malaysia in that infamous gathering, where in one of the few questions not about that testing accident Andrea Cremonesi of Gazzetta dello Sport asked: “seeing Ferrari is so strong, do you think that maybe you might have waited a little bit longer before leaving and achieved some results?”
Alonso was unflinching however: “Obviously, as I said, with the performance that we (McLaren) have right now, it’s easy to criticise our team and my decision, whatever, but as I said, I’m first of all so so happy that this is the most important thing. When you’re happy with yourself or you’re a healthy man inside, that is the first victory and that is what I am now, because I’m following my dream now. And secondly, I could wait and achieve some nice results as you’ve said probably yes, but after 14 years of Formula One and two championships, a podium or fourth place or fifth place is no longer a nice result.”
While in China – Ferrari having stunned everyone by winning a race between times – the questions rose again, this time with even greater vigour. But Alonso just as in the previous round didn’t just play such hostile deliveries with a dead bat, he swiped them for six – declaring himself “happy and full” and giving a convincing outward impression of one in such a place. At every stage too he’s declared himself delighted with the car’s progress. Il ne regrette rien.
The first thing to say is that for all that we could debate the veracity of Alonso’s claims, at the broadest level he’s absolutely consistent. You could say that he’s right too. We know from his repeated utterances that for him the championship is the thing; a few wins and runner-up in the final drivers’ table – something that if his replacement Sebastian Vettel achieved this year would likely be considered a triumph beyond all prior expectations for the first season at least – is no biggie to the Spaniard. He did exactly that in three of his five Ferrari seasons after all.
He’s also in his Ferrari time been in similar positions to Vettel now. You only need to rewind two years to find Alonso winning two out of the first five races of the season. But he hardly got close to the podium’s top step again as the year unravelled into another disappointment. He won the opening round in 2010; the second round in 2012. None of them added up to the title that he craved. Nando’s therefore not being entirely facetious when he points out that were he still at Ferrari even with the Scuderia’s leap it’d yet be in large part more of the same.
And he reiterated the point in Shanghai: “In five years I finished second three times and I didn’t want to finish second anymore, so I’m in the right place now. Of course, I understand the questions – Ferrari won in Malaysia, I was out of Q2, so it’s a very easy question now. But in November we’ll see. If they win the championship, it’s a bad decision. If they finish second, it’s a very good decision.”
The championship is the thing as noted. And in contrast to the odd race win for Alonso title number three is the unfinished business. To the point that upon achieving it (and in so doing matching his hero Ayrton Senna) he’s hinted that he’d be glad to step away. “This (the third title) is the main goal and you don't think of retiring until you get some satisfaction”, he said mid-last season.
“It is something I am working for and hoping for…It is not that I’m not happy with two but the third puts you in a list of very important names.”
Perhaps he has acted in haste; been counter-cyclical in his movements. Perhaps he is after all another Chris Amon, albeit one with two titles bagged early. But what if on the contrary to most of our assumptions Alonso is in fact correct?
Take McLaren for starters, where he’s ended up. Yes, it’s been a struggle, but no one said it was going to be a one-year job. The persistent ‘Alonso’s running out of time’ claims are wide of the mark too; at 33 he can go on for years so long as he has a will to. Plenty of titles have been won at much older. Michael Schumacher ran him to the wire at 37. Nigel Mansell won his only championship at 39. Alain Prost his last one at 38.
And in among all of the apparent McLaren on-track struggle it remains that both drivers are utterly insistent that it’ll all come good; perhaps unstoppable. It’s come with a persistence and tone also that suggests that it’s more than all simply trying to keep their respective peckers up. “If it wasn’t the start of what I believe is something special, it would really hurt” said Jenson Button amid the Melbourne on-track calamity, while in China he added: “A lot of people have asked me how l am so positive and how the team is so upbeat and it is because we see a great future”. It seems possible, perhaps probable, that they’ve seen something behind closed doors to inspire this confidence.
Even from the outside we can possibly piece this together too. The chassis looks a gem for a start, all ultra-tight packaging, while new recruit Peter Prodromou, just as he did when associated with a series of imperious Red Bulls as Adrian Newey’s right hand man, has also focussed on flexible and useable downforce rather than the peaky – almost theoretical – stuff that the Woking team used to chase. The drivers report that the MP4-30 is a fine-handling machine (though then again as Karun Chandhok noted just about any car being run under the limit will handle well).
Another thing learnt from Red Bull – or more to the point from Lotus which pound-for-pound was the Bulls’ nearest challenger in its pomp – is in the team’s more general culture and organisation, and in this it is Eric Boullier, ex of Lotus, taking the lead. McLaren, a lot like Ferrari indeed, hadn’t adapted to the needs of an F1 age post unlimited spending. It found itself bloated, with too many duplicate roles which had the added impediment of creating intra-squad rivalries, and was left in the wake of the super-trim and ultra-nimble Red Bull (and of Lotus as mentioned).
Which leaves the Honda unit, probably the package’s biggest bugbear right now. It remains well down through speed traps but it seems equally clear that it’s not running at full chat and that there is much room to improve; that the learning curve, and therefore the potential gain, is steep. And again judging by its compactness it all speaks of an outfit taking risks and things to the edge, which is exactly what it needs to do. To get the gain, this may be the necessary pain.
That’s certainly what Button thinks, as he outlined in Australia: “Honda could have made a bulkier unit that would have been much easier to manage and we’d have been much faster here. But the engine would not have been the one to challenge the Mercedes engine. This one could be.”
Alonso’s logic too was watertight when he noted in Malaysia: “To beat Mercedes you need to do something special, not to copy them because otherwise you will be behind all the time. It will take some time but we will grow up together”. And that’s indeed just how Merc seized the front spots for itself – it did something different to all of its rivals and built over the long term.
The timing point is a crucial one also. As while plenty have criticised Honda for an apparent lack of preparedness for this season, as Boullier reminded us in Melbourne: “Let’s be realistic. The other manufacturers spent more than three years on the projects before they needed to test. Honda had spent less than 18 months by the time the car took to the track – half the time. If you’d asked Mercedes mid-2012 to run a car it would have been messy.”
What of Ferrari too, the team that Alonso left? The red team’s made a gigantic step forward since 2014, that cannot be denied. But in many ways too it’s peculiar. There has been plenty of low hanging fruit to be had in Maranello this time. The F14-T was a dog, while in stark contrast the SF15-T is the first car created properly on the watch of James Allison, who with Newey stepped back may be the top technical brain out there now (though many would say it’s a close call between him and the afore-mentioned Prodromou). The car looks to share all of the characteristics of Allison’s recent Lotuses that a few reckoned weren’t too far off even Newey’s multiple title-winning Red Bulls (perhaps closer than results suggested). Not least great handling, brilliant traction and almost other-worldly ability to stretch out tyre life. All were vital in the Malaysian win.
And another thing vital in that victory was the considerable leap forth in the Ferrari power unit. Though to some extent it was like the chassis step-up in that things almost could scarcely not improve. In 2014 the engine department was sent down a blind alley in being required to prioritise compactness over grunt. Whatever is the case however to go from gutless Renault impersonator to convincing sidekick of the imperious Mercedes in a single go is a mighty achievement (especially when compared with what the French concern has done in the same period).
Ferrari’s haughty position may be sustained. It may even be built upon. It may be built upon to the extent of a Schumi-like era of dominance. But it gets harder from now on. It’s worth remembering too – and indeed we’ve intimated as much already – that false dawns are not unheard of down Maranello way.
It was reported in the course of the Chinese weekend indeed that Allison had last year sought to convince Alonso to stay by pointing to the promise of the 2015 car. But despite this Nando wasn’t convinced. “They tried for five years so it was difficult to keep the trust” he said. “Not only the trust, there are many other factors that (mean) McLaren-Honda are more attractive for me now.”
Maybe he would say that? Or maybe once again he, having been on the inside, knows something the rest of us don’t?
From an internet trawl you can have tremendous fun digging out learned comment when Lewis Hamilton confirmed he was jumping the apparently secure McLaren ship for the apparently leaky Mercedes one; just about all of it convinced that he’d committed career suicide. How silly they look now. Ultimately F1 as with most activities likes to remind us every so often that nobody knows anything. And as things stand there yet remains at least a possibility that those trashing Alonso’s latest career choice may become the latest victim of this.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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