It was an impressively calm performance by Fernando Alonso today in the FIA press conference at Sepang; his first time appearing before the media since his accident in testing last month. He remained calm under fairly intense questioning and maintained a story that was consistent with itself throughout.
But the problem was, it wasnt consistent with what’s been said to date by McLaren and its boss Ron Dennis and therein lies a significant problem for him, for the team and for the ongoing relationship between them.
Alonso answered many questions, but raised more questions in the process and most of the members of the press corps in the media centre were left with an even stronger feeling than before, that someone, somewhere in this story has not been telling the truth.
All along there has been a feeling that there is more to this story than meets the eye and that feeling is stronger than ever today after Alonso’s appearance before the media.
Alonso sat in the centre of the front row in the Sepang press conference room, flanked by Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen. He looked tanned, fresh and above all calm. There was no agitation in his gestures, his speech nor in his general movement, unlike many other occasions where he has been stressed. He was clearly determined to keep it all together and not lose his patience and he didn’t even come close for the best part of an hour.
After the initial round of questions to all six drivers present from me in the moderator’s chair, the majority of the questions from the floor were addressed to Alonso. He was asked about what caused the accident, what happened afterwards, when he lost consciousness and what he thought was the reason for the accident.
This was one of those press conferences with a certain tension in the air, but Alonso maintained a relaxed, calm exterior throughout, even when some of the Fleet Street journalists repeatedly pursued a line of questioning about how he could be happy to race this weekend if there was no explanation of the steering problem he was certain had caused him to crash.
Alonso patiently reiterated his answers and stuck to his story, even suggesting that the team had been too impetuous at the time of the accident in communicating details, under pressure to say something. But he flat contradicted their position that the car was not the cause of the accident – which has given rise to theories that he had some kind of seizure or mini-stroke; something a number of people in the F1 paddock still believe could be the case.
Steering was to blame
Alonso insists that there was a problem with the steering when he turned into the long Turn 3 at Barcelona, that something maintained the lock and continued to turn the car towards the inner wall on the right, despite him unwinding the steering wheel. McLaren’s intensive examination of the car has not revealed any problem and they have steadfastly maintained that the car was perfect and not the cause of the accident.
Alonso offered the explanation that perhaps the sensor instrumentation on the McLaren to measure finite details of the steering were not at a high enough standard and that in a few years the technology will exist to measure what he felt but today that is not possible. This will have bridled Dennis, who recently renamed his company “Mclaren Technology Group”, so proud is he of the space age technology McLaren produces in its racing and road cars.
Alonso said that he had been using a different steering rack in view of his different driving style, but for this race would be using the one McLaren had used last season on Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen’s cars.
To satisfy him and to try to kick this controversy into the long grass, the team has said that it has fitted new sensors to the car for this weekend on the steering. But the relationship is obviously quite tense at the moment, with Alonso believed to be unhappy with the way the team has communicated through this period and particularly with its internal report into the accident.
There were a few areas where the stories as told by McLaren and Alonso do not tally.
Early on McLaren suggested a “gust of wind” may have blown the car off course, but Alonso discounted that, saying that “a hurricane” would not blow the car off course to that extent at that speed.
Alonso’s manager said that Alonso was not unconscious, McLaren said he was unconscious, while Alonso himself said he maintained consciousness throughout the accident right up to the point where he was given drugs in the medical centre to go on the medical helicopter to Barcelona hospital.
McLaren said that there was nothing wrong with the car, “His car ran wide at the entry to Turn 3 – which is a fast uphill right-hander – allowing it to run onto the Astroturf that lines the outside of the track,” said McLaren the day after the accident.
“A consequent loss of traction caused a degree of instability, spitting it back towards the inside of the circuit, where it regained traction and struck the wall side-on.
“Our findings indicate that the accident was caused by the unpredictably gusty winds at that part of the circuit at that time, and which had affected other drivers similarly (eg, Carlos Sainz Jr).
“We can categorically state that there is no evidence that indicates that Fernando’s car suffered mechanical failure of any kind.”
Alonso said, “In the data there is nothing clear that we can spot, the reason, but we had a steering problem in turn three. It locked to the right and I approached the wall, I braked at the last moment, I downshifted from fifth to third but unfortunately on the data we are still missing something [information].
“I don’t know if you have seen the video but a hurricane will not move the car at that speed,” he added.
Here’s another – Ron Dennis in February: “If you then ask the question why he was in the hospital for three days, it’s because there was a period of unconsciousness. It was relatively short,” he added. “When he came to rest, all we know is that the radio was on and we could hear him breathing. There were no other noises. They say it was seconds.
“He’s not even concussed. I’m not trying to conceal anything. I’m just telling you the facts: he is physically perfect. There is no concussion.”
Alonso today: “Everything was more or less as a normal concussion. So, I had this concussion, went to the hospital. I went to the hospital in good conditions. There is a time that I don’t remember from two o’clock to six o’clock or something like that, but everything again was normal due to the medication that they give you to go into the helicopter and to do some tests in the hospital.
Everything was normal. I didn’t wake up in ’95, I didn’t wake up speaking in Italian or all these things that probably they were out there. I remember the accident and I remember everything that following day.
“Vettel was in front of me before Turn Three but cut the chicane to let me go, exiting the pitlane. After the hit I was kissing the wall for a while and then I switch off the radio first, because it was on, and then I switch off the master switch for the batteries to switch off the ERS system just because I saw the marshals coming and, if not, they cannot touch the car. So, yeah, I was perfectly conscious at the time. I lost consciousness in the ambulance or in the clinic at the circuit but the doctors said this is normal because of the medication that they put you, just for the helicopter transportation.”
Not surprisingly, most journalists present don’t buy it and can sense both some untruths in the air from one or other of the parties and also sense the first signs of fresh wedge between a driver and team, who split up so spectacularly seven years ago.
The “glitch in the steering so tiny that modern sensors aren’t good enough to detect it, so we will never know for sure” stance is the one McLaren are taking at the moment and one suspects that they will try to hold onto that and play the long game.
Both sides will be hoping to get out on track tomorrow and put this episode behind them. It will be interesting to see whether the media will let them.