Everyone has that favorite old shirt. It’s past its prime; it is a little threadbare around the collar; it may even have a discrete stain (but you swear no one can see it); your spouse hates to see you put it on. In 2021, is Alonso the favorite old shirt of Formula 1?
First, let’s cover the backstory. Fernando Alonso is one of the best F1 drivers of the past 20 years. He broke into F1 in 2003 and set records for being the youngest pole sitter and youngest race winner and youngest world drivers’ champion (2005). He became a two-time champion in 2006, also with Renault.
In the years since, Alonso has not won another championship, although he’s been close. But his reputation as one of the greatest drivers on the grid has cemented by his ability to drag uncompetitive cars to high finishing places and routinely outperforming his teammates. At Ferrari in the early ‘10s, and later at McLaren, Alonso regularly ended the season with about twice (or more!) as many points as his teammates in the same equipment. He has outperformed every team mate he has ever raced against, barring Lewis Hamilton, with whom he tied on points in 2007.
Alonso the Heartthrob
Aside from his legendary performances on track, Alonso became a cultural icon. Fernando was in the running for the name of my first child before my wife stomped that idea out like one would the butt of a used cigarette. Alonso always spoke his mind, like when he called the underpowered Honda engine a “GP2” engine over the race radio, embarrassing the Honda boys. Alonso is also known for the infamous deck chair incident (pictured below), when his crappy Honda engine broke yet again and left Alonso with nothing to do during the race but soak up some rays.
Alonso’s peers recognized him as an all-time great and a consummate professional. Who are we to argue with them?
After many years in an uncompetitive McLaren and with no plausible path to a top seat, Alonso retired from F1 after the 2018 season. He tooled around in different race categories, showing that he was truly a racing jackknife — capable of mastering almost anything.
With a big rules overhaul on the horizon, originally scheduled for 2021, but pushed back to 2022 because of the coronavirus, a shakeup on the grid is expected. No longer are Mercedes and Red Bulls expected to be the only cars likely to win a race. Any team could figure out how to maximize performance under the new regulations and win a championship. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for Alonso to get himself a lottery ticket for the F1 jackpot.
So Alonso unretired into F1 for the 2021 season with Renault, the same team at which he started his F1 career. Unfortunately, that is where the symmetry has ended. Now with the caveat that we are only 5 races into a 23 race season, Fernando finds himself right where he usually puts his teammate — with only half the points of the other driver in the same car (12 for Ocon, 5 for Alonso).
This can be partially explained by the fact that Ocon drove this Renault last year and has more familiarity with it than Alonso. We see similar points disparities at other teams where one driver has more familiarity (Verstappen vs. Perez at Red Bull; Norris vs. Riccardo at McLaren; Leclerc vs. Sainz at Ferrari; Gasly vs Tsunoda at Alpha Tauri). But getting to grips with new equipment has never been a problem for Alonso before and his adaptability is supposed to be one of his strengths — remember him jumping into an indycar for the Indianapolis 500 and nearly winning before his Honda engine failed?
All of this leads to the uncomfortable question, which must be barely whispered, if voiced at all: at age 39, has Alonso lost it?
I think and hope not. I predict that by the end of the season, Alonso is comfortably outperforming Ocon and in 2022, Renault may just produce a car good enough that Alonso could drive to a few podiums (although I wouldn’t bet on Renault). But those doubts are sitting in the back of my mind and every time Alonso has an inexplicably bad performance like he did in qualifying at Monaco, they speak up, like your spouse telling you that it’s time to let that favorite shirt go.
Let’s all hope that this legend banishes such thoughts soon.