Fernando Alonso’s decision to take part in the 2018 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours is a great motor racing story, but another painful reminder of how many wrong turns his career has taken since 2007.
The Spaniard will contest the race with Toyota as part of a remarkable agreement between the Japanese manufacturer and Alonso’s F1 team McLaren ahead of the 2018 campaign. Alonso will contest every World Endurance Championship race of the season which, along with his F1 commitments and the Daytona 24 Hours he completed in January, means he will finish the calendar year with 27 races under his belt.
It’s not a schedule he would have agreed to if he had a sniff at a third Formula One championship – but as it happens, McLaren is still happy to finish with a car in Q3 every weekend. The pre-season predictions of podiums by the end of 2018 increasingly seem like a fantasy as the year goes on. The team was supposed to be back on the right track this year having ended its disastrous partnership with Honda and switched to a Renault power unit which has helped Red Bull claim a handful of wins over the last few years.
Progress this year has been slow. Alonso dragged the car to several impressive results early in the season to raise optimism, but recent setbacks have suggested the path back to the front is longer for McLaren than first thought. It looks highly unlikely — many in the paddock even go so far as to say impossible — McLaren can get back to competitive ways before the next set of regulations in 2021.
But the truth is, there is much more to Alonso’s current F1 gridlock than having a few years of uncompetitive machinery. The seeds of this extra-curricular journey — and the obsession with completing the Triple Crown which took him to Indianapolis last year before Le Mans this season — were sewn a long time ago by the Spaniard himself.
While Alonso’s incredible talent is obvious on track, his biggest flaw is unfortunately as easy to see when he’s off of it. The behind-the-scenes politicking the Spaniard has become known for has left a trail of burned bridges in his wake and has unfortunately meant his F1 future can go one of two ways — stick it out with McLaren and hope it gets it right, or leave for good and focus on racing elsewhere.
In 2007, having moved to McLaren as the reigning two-time world champion, the man who had dethroned Michael Schumacher, it looked like the future of F1 belonged to the man from Oviedo. What happened instead changed the course of Alonso’s and the championship’s history. The rift between Alonso and Ron Dennis — which most famously came to a head at that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix (http://www.espn.com/f1/story/_/id/20184435/10-years-fernando-alonso-vs-lewis-hamilton-went-nuclear-hungary) — sent Alonso back to two wilderness years at an uncompetitive Renault outfit. The 2007 and 2008 titles which could have been his went to Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton.
A move to Ferrari followed in 2010, but a calamitous strategy error at that season’s finale in Abu Dhabi handed the title to Sebastian Vettel. In 2012, he once again lost to the German driver at the final race of the season, one which had seen him cement his reputation as the grid’s most complete competitor by staying in the championship race in what most deemed an inferior car.
He spent much of 2013 openly (and unsuccessfully) courting Red Bull — Helmut Marko would comment that season that Alonso was “too busy with politics and funny comments” — which earned him a public rebuke from Ferrari. Another uncompetitive season in 2014 saw Alonso try and play the driver market once again, only for then-Ferrari boss Marco Mattiachi to pull the rug from under him and sign Sebastian Vettel as the Spaniard’s bluff was called. https://www.autosport.com/f1/news/105014/marko-alonso-approach-too-political
That left him at back at McLaren, a team which, for various reasons, has been in a farcical situation since switching to Honda power in 2015. Last year, he and McLaren stunned the racing world by confirming an entry into the Indy 500, as Alonso revealed his desire to complete the most sacred triumvirate of wins in motorsport — to add Indy and Le Mans to his Monaco Grand Prix victories.
There’s been a considerable amount of PR spin placed on this pursuit. Alonso has painted it as his desire to show he is the most complete driver in racing, while McLaren say it shows the competitive fire which is forever burning within him. Those both might be true, but so is another unfortunate reality: Alonso has backed himself into this corner. He’s still operating at the peak of his ability and, were it not for the mistakes he has made along the way, the top teams on the grid would be clamouring for his services.
Pragmatic Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has had several opportunities to sign Alonso and turned them down, mindful of the reputation he has for creating a toxic environment wherever he goes. When Nico Rosberg announced his shock retirement, Wolff went for a safe pair of hands — the affable, unassuming Valtteri Bottas — when Alonso was one of the drivers linked with the seat. A move back to Ferrari, a team which has had a much more positive, upbeat atmosphere since Vettel’s arrival, is as close to impossible as you can get, while Red Bull has no desire of wavering from its driver programme.
Alonso’s F1 options are simple: Wade it out with McLaren, or leave completely. The former is the only chance he has of winning another championship in F1, and he is unlikely to have that chance in the next two seasons — hence the growing speculation of a 2019 season in IndyCar. Had his career turned out differently, Alonso might well be the man collecting the sort of accolades and records Hamilton and Vettel have been in the last eight years. Instead, his focus is elsewhere, chasing wins he could have focused on at the end of a glittering F1 career.
This should not take away from Le Mans, or the Indy 500 — both are great events, and it would be a remarkable achievement should he win either, more so if he ever did complete the Triple Crown. But it is impossible to shake the feeling that it shouldn’t have played out like this.