Fernando Alonso has been treading water at McLaren for the past two seasons, unable to compete at the front of the field where he belongs with the other champions. There are some clear signs in performance data from recent races that McLaren is moving quickly forwards now, but how long it takes for them to reach the level of Mercedes and Red Bull is still open to question.
They will be hoping it is next season, when the new aerodynamic regulations, which they helped to formulate, come into force. It’s a fair bet that, if Honda also takes the steps necessary to close the gap to the best power units, then McLaren could once again be in the hunt for podiums and maybe the odd win.
Alonso has a contract for next season, but beyond that he will be concerned that he does not run out of time on his career before he gets a winning car in which he can compete again for that third world title, which he so craves.
In the mean time, McLaren has posted a very flattering portrait of Alonso on its website, to entertain its loyal fans during the long summer break.
This one struck me for a number of reasons, but mainly for the parallels with Nigel Mansell in what is revealed of Alonso’s character from the piece.
Entitled ‘Why I race”, which is exactly the same as one of the chapter titles in the 1995 Nigel Mansell autobiography, which I ghost wrote, Alonso says that he always had to compete with everyone including his grandmother on the school run when he was a kid. Moving on to reveal the darker side of that character, which Ron Dennis famously described in his phrase about Alonso at the height of the 2007 controversies, “competitive animals know no limits”, Alonso says,
“You need to have no heart. You are not enemies with the other drivers, but you have to focus on yourself to win. If you can ‘hurt’ someone by getting an advantage over them, that’s even better.”
Mansell always had to compete with everyone all the time, whether it was on a tennis court with friends or on a golf course. And on the F1 track in his time he was up against some ferocious competitors in Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, in particular. One of the most astonishing revelations from that autobiography is what Senna said to him on the podium in Hungary 1992, when Mansell clinched the world championship at last.
“Congratulations, Nigel. Now you realise why I’m such a bastard. I don’t ever want anyone else to know the feeling you are enjoying right know.”
It is the idea of the pitiless champion, who has to win, some would say ‘at all costs’.
I once asked Alonso in his early F1 days what he wanted other drivers think of him and he said, “I just want them to look at me and say, ‘He’s the best’.”
In the McLaren article he goes on: “I am a competitive person and competition is important in F1, but I don’t race in F1 for the competition. I can get that in other areas of my life, like cycling and playing tennis – or racing my mother to the supermarket. The reason I race in F1 is because the cars give me a feeling that I can’t get anywhere else. It’s unique.
“The driving styles in karting and F1 are quite similar, but nothing unexpected happens in a go-kart. Your brain is never taken by surprise. You can predict everything that the kart is going to do. That isn’t the case in F1, where you’re taken by surprise all the time. When you hit the brakes, your brain takes 0.2s to catch up. That’s a very nice feeling; that is the feeling.”
Alonso has gone on record many times in the hybrid turbo era since 2014 to complain that the current cars, with their extra weight and on the Pirelli tyres, do not feel responsive and fast enough. The lap times now in qualifying are low in historical terms, but once the car is filled with fuel for the race and then the drivers have to protect the tyres, the lap times are up to ten seconds slower than in qualifying and that’s not the feeling Alonso lives for.