Since his ill-tempered feud with McLaren teammate Hamilton 11 years ago, the Spaniard has been left ruing a string of questionable choices while his rival has grown from strength to strength
Fernando Alonso started the 2007 Formula One season a two-time world champion. His McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton was a rookie.
Eleven years on, the contrast in fortunes of the two could not be starker.
Hamilton enters the 2018 season — which gets underway next week in Melbourne —gunning for his fifth world title. He is statistically the second best driver (62 wins) in the sport’s history behind Michael Schumacher (91 wins).
Alonso — still considered the best race-day driver, someone who can eke every last bit of performance out of a car — is staring into an abyss. He hasn’t added to his two world titles, and is trying to stay motivated by trying his hand at other racing — the Indy 500 last year and the World Endurance Championship this year.
These last 11 years have shown how important it is in F1 to find the right team. A driver can only do so much: for instance, Alonso still has a high pole-to-podium conversion rate (80%) in this period, but he hasn’t had the best car on the grid and his teams have helped him qualify first only five times in 187 races.
Timing is everything in the sport. And clearly, Alonso’s timing off the track hasn’t kept up with his timing on it.
After the fractious 2007 season — when the ill-tempered feud with Hamilton cost both McLaren drivers the title, Kimi Raikkonen winning it by a point — Alonso went back to Renault for two barren years. He subsequently joined Ferrari for five years, falling short thrice, and returned to McLaren in 2015, only to see things go from bad to worse, with a disastrous partnership with Honda.
In a staggering case of what might have been, Alonso spoke with Red Bull, which was looking to replace David Coulthard in 2009, but wouldn’t commit to a two-year deal. The team promoted a young Sebastian Vettel, who went on to win four world championships!
Hamilton, on the other hand, won his first title in his second season in 2008 — and he won it on the final corner of the final race! At the end of 2012, Hamilton left McLaren, a team he was with since he was 13. He took a punt on Mercedes, by no means a successful team at the time, but a factory outfit well-prepared to exploit the regulation changes set to kick into play in 2014. It paid off, richly.
At that point, Hamilton had 21 wins to Alonso’s 30. Over the next five years, Hamilton added 31, Alonso just two.
Things are looking no rosier for Alonso ahead of the 2018 season. Pre-season testing at Barcelona brought with it familiar reliability woes, although the times were better than last year after McLaren dumped Honda for Renault power units.
The times from pre-season also suggested that Mercedes is still the team to beat, with Red Bull and Ferrari close behind. All the signs point to Hamilton and Ferrari’s Vettel duelling to become only the third driver to win five world championships. Red Bull’s exciting pair, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, will be in the mix as well.
So where does all of this leave Alonso? He will focus all his energies on getting the most out of his McLaren in Melbourne, hoping it doesn’t give up on him. He will know, however, that he doesn’t have a realistic shot at the title — and that the events of 2007 and the choices he has made subsequently have left him where he is.