ALONSO: LIVING THE DREAM
In recent times McLaren and Honda have failed to live up to their own Formula 1 legacies. But Fernando Alonso is convinced that he is in the right team to fight for wins, and titles
By Dan Knutson
RACING A McLaren Honda has been a dream come true for Fernando Alonso.
At times it has been a bad dream, a nightmare even, but he is upbeat and confident, because the tantalising prospect of winning a world championship with the team is definitely not just a pipedream.
One of Alonso’s first memories of Formula 1 was watching the red and white McLaren Hondas of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna on television in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It made a lasting impression.
“When I was a go-kart driver, Senna and Prost were dominating in Formula 1 with the McLaren Honda in those years,” Alonso tells Auto Action.
“So it was the first image that I remember on television as a child. It was an inspiration to become a Formula 1 driver in those years, and I admired Ayrton Senna as well. That car, the white and red car, was dominating Formula 1.
“When you are a kid and you watch television, you like whoever wins. It is like football; if Barcelona is dominating the last 10 years probably all the kids will like Lionel Messi and Barcelona. In the past it was Real Madrid and teams like that. It was no different for me, racing in go-karts and watching Formula 1 on television. McLaren Honda was very strong at that time. So in 2015 when this partnership became a reality again, McLaren had Honda together again, it was very attractive for me to be part of that project.”
Alonso, of course, spent a brief and unhappy season with McLaren, which had Mercedes power at the time, in 2007 before heading back to Renault for two years, then moving to Ferrari from 2010 through 2014, and then returning to McLaren, now partners with Honda again, in 2015.
He was in for a rude awakening, because Honda had severely underestimated the challenges of the new hybrid turbo powerplant era that started that year.
“The bad surprise was the starting level, which was too low,” he recalls. “When you see that the engine was not doing more than seven laps in winter testing, and not more than 10 laps in the first race, and things like that, that was a bad surprise. But we worked very hard, all united, to try to change that situation.
“The challenge was very big. We were very down in terms of preparation, and the project was not ready. The team was very young; the engineers were very young, and did not have much experience in Formula 1, so we had to reinforce many of the areas of the Honda structure. There were a lot of difficulties in the first races, months and year. It was difficult. We put about 11 or 12 engines in the car in 2015, so we had the penalties in four or five races. It was definitely very frustrating at times, but it was nothing you could not change if you worked properly and if you were united. That is what the team did in 2015.”
The points chart proves just how bad things were for the team in that 2015 season. Alonso finished in the top 10 just twice with a 10th place in Britain and a fortuitous fifth in Hungary. He ended up 17th in the drivers’ championship, one place behind teammate Jenson Button, who had been in the points just four times. Their combined tally was 27 points. Compare that to the 381 points earned by champion Lewis Hamilton.
Yet Alonso had reasons to be optimistic.
“The good surprise was definitely Honda’s philosophy of racing,” he says. “In their approach to motor racing and in life in general they are very loyal, very committed, and they have a lot of discipline in everything they do. So working with everyone in the team on the Honda side was a good surprise, seeing how professionally everyone was working.”
“The Honda engineers are definitely young,” Alonso adds. “We have one of the youngest groups of people in the paddock. But we had so many difficulties in 2015 that we learned a lot. For some people, if everything is always okay, sometimes you learn nothing. But you learn when you get out of the difficulties, and our team is now very strong and very well prepared. All the difficulties helped us to grow much quicker.”
Things got a lot better last season, but then it would have been hard for things to get worse for the McLaren Honda project. The team nearly tripled its points haul (but still did not finish higher than fifth place) and moved from ninth to sixth in the constructors’ championship, albeit with a mere 76 points compared to the 765 earned by Mercedes.
It is not just the Honda side of things that gives Alonso optimism.
“I do believe this is the best team, the best group of people I’ve ever worked with,” he observes. “The technical group we now have at McLaren, from the design office to every other part of the organisation, to the technical director and the people running every area of the team, are all tremendously professional people.”
A few radio rants aside, Alonso has been very patient and focused on the McLaren Honda project, but does he foresee a time when that patience will run out?
“Not really,” he replies. “I am happy with how things are going. In the past maybe you run out of patience if you are not achieving anything and you want to win, then things could be stressful. But I am very proud and happy with what I have achieved, and my biggest challenge now, my biggest dream now, is to put this project on the top. So I will try to do it. I don’t know for how long, but if I stop one day it will not be because I don’t trust anymore or I lost patience or I cannot wait anymore to win. It will not be like that. It is because I see things in life that maybe I enjoy more and I want to change something, but not because I have run out of confidence or anything like that.”
Alonso posted the fastest lap of the race during the Italian Grand Prix last year.
“We are achieving small targets at every race,” he says. “Like getting the first points in 2015, and get into Q3 for the first time, and getting the fastest lap in Monza even if it was at the end with new tyres.
“So now we are missing the big ones; getting the first podium, getting the first win, and hopefully the championship. So it is definitely a very interesting project from day one, starting from zero and a very low level and now getting to a competitive level. It’s been a good experience so far. Achieving small targets are taking steps closer to our main target, which is the championship.”
Winning the championship in a McLaren Honda would be a dream come true for Alonso because it will be the culmination of all the hard work by Honda and McLaren as well as Alonso himself. The fact that he will win the title in the same team that he watched on television all those years ago will be the red and white icing on the cake.
THIS IS Fernando Alonso’s 16th season as a Formula 1 driver.
He made his debut with Minardi in 2001, spent 2002 as a test driver with Benetton Renault, and then raced for Benetton/Renault, Ferrari and McLaren in the following seasons.
Auto Action asked him what were the most thrilling and enjoyable cars he ever drove.
“The V10 cars from 2001 to 2005 were the best cars I have driven,” he replied. “After those years it is difficult to see something similar happening again. It was because of the technology we had then in terms of aerodynamic freedom, in terms of engines – the V10 – in terms of the tyre competition between Michelin and Bridgestone raising the level of the product, until it reached the maximum capacity.
So those cars were spaceships. Fantastic. They were dream cars.
“After that, all of Formula 1 now will be the ‘light’ version of what those machines were. For me it is clear that that era was the best Formula 1 that could exist. Of all the drivers who are racing now, only three or four of us raced at that time. So only three or four of us know what a thrill those cars gave to you. So it is normal that the drivers now do not understand, and when they drive the current cars that they think they are fantastic. But it is not fantastic.
“That time of Formula 1 will never come back. Never.”
The new regulations for this season were formulated to make the cars up to five seconds quicker than they have been in recent years.
“The cars were too slow,” Alonso says of the recent Formula 1 era. “There was not the sound of Formula 1 from the past. Formula 1 was now less attractive – there was less overtaking; there was strange behavior on the tyres; we are saving fuel; we are saving tyres; we are doing a lot of actions that are wrong. So because of all of this the sport also went down.
“So in 2017 all the changes are going in the direction to improve all those problems that everyone identified. It is not my opinion – it is the FIA, FOM [Formula One Management], the teams – everyone agreed on those changes because they saw some problems. So this year is going to be better. If it is good enough to come back to the best days in Formula 1 we don’t know. We will wait to see how the cars are and how the racing is, but I am very excited about the new season, and the excitement of driving.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
YOU HAVE to go back to 2012 for the last season Fernando Alonso battled for the world championship. He ended up just three points behind title winner Sebastian Vettel that year. Alonso was second again behind Vettel in 2013, but he was 155 points adrift. Alonso misses the pressure and of a championship scrap.
“Obviously it is a very nice feeling when you are fighting for the championship,” he told Auto Action. “That stress or tension that you have arriving to a race, that preparation, that level of detail in every single thing is very unique when you are fighting for a championship.”
Alonso has not celebrated on the podium since he finished second in the Hungarian Grand Prix back in July 2014. Yet despite the fact he has not been in contention for championships and podiums, and indeed the fact that he has been racing in the midfield or even further back, he has remained in the a point of focus.
“Every single lap that I do I have a lot of eyes on me from the television cameras, my team, the sponsors and my rivals,” he says. “Everyone in the race wants to beat Alonso because that is a big thing. So even in Free Practice 1 I know that I need to do 100 percent because there are many, many people waiting to beat me.”
So even though he is not battling at the front of the pack, Alonso is still under pressure and in the spotlight.
Date posted: March 13, 2017