29 July, 2015

On his birthday, a look at Fernando Alonso's future

Fernando Alonso spoke candidly last week about having his interest piqued by other racing series around the world, as the Spaniard continues to be mired toward the back of the pack in his ailing McLaren, even after scoring a rare double-points finish on Sunday.  Finding his disenchantment with Formula 1 growing, I can't help but think that the double World Champion's feelings speak not only for himself but for Jenson Button, Nico Hulkenberg and even quite a few F1 fans around the globe.  The sport's supposed shortcomings could fill several blogs, but what interests me most are the complex factors acting on Fernando Alonso right now and where his future may lie.

The Oviedo native is 34 years old today with 15 years of F1 experience to his name (neither of which I can really believe; his successes at Renault seem like they happened a few years ago, not a decade).  Winless for two years, a man whose peers have repeatedly voted him the best driver on the grid has had plenty of time to do some soul searching lately, retiring from no fewer than five races in 2015.

For Alonso to battle the rest of the grid is tough enough, but in the last couple of years he's had to account for a pair of factors relatively unfamiliar to him:  An awful car, and age.

The foibles of McLaren are maddening enough to test the most resilient of drivers (and believe me, Jenson is proving that with every positive interview he manages to eke out), and it's been far too many years since Fernando has had to grapple with a car this bad.  In fact, some would argue that he never has.

But what complicates his fight even more is an ever-increasing number beside his name.  You'd be forgiven for failing to brush off a mental image of a 25-year-old Alonso, but he's different now whether or not you can picture it.  He's wiser, he's more composed, and he's weathered vast amounts of good and bad since then.

Throughout it all, his passion never seemed to abate.  Even in the worst of times at Ferrari he knew the car was capable of springing an upset, and the outflow of emotion witnessed after his home victory proved a palpable outlet for what had been a long pent-up (yet unrewarded) optimism.  Although a few hairs had grayed since those days at Renault, the spring in his step remained, the fire in his eyes burned furiously.

Nearly two years removed from that Ferrari win in Spain, we see a different Alonso unafraid to admit that his situation and outlook on the sport are far from ideal.  Hampered by countless factors already, a further planned reduction in testing next year has only added more uncertainty to McLaren-Honda's efforts to lift themselves out of the back rows.

Between the disappointing outlook, unfavorable rule changes and the knowledge that time may not be on his side, Alonso is right to consider other outlets regardless of if he admits it.

Nico Hulkenberg's Le Mans win stirred the paddock into a small frenzy, both thrilled at an active F1 driver taking the 24 Hours and excited to discuss the possibilities of future crossovers.  When it emerged that Alonso had nearly followed suit to La Sarthe, this revealed the Spaniard's hand slightly.

Now we know that the World Endurance Championship is a viable outlet for his efforts.  We know that he considered it, and it is highly unlikely that whatever desire that drove him to investigate WEC has disappeared.  Given the growing fanfare surrounding it this year, why not add Alonso to an already impressive lineup of world class drivers?  The allure that pushed Mark Webber to transition is not that hard to understand, but here again the 2005/2006 World Drivers Champion may be battling the clock.

What if the WEC proves to be a dead end, though?  Of the stages outside of Formula 1, it is arguably the biggest in the racing world right now, but let's say a deal could not be had with the likes of Porsche or Audi.

DTM once occupied a similar niche as WEC, seeing the likes of Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher leave F1 in search of fresh competition and winnable races.  It seems less popular now, but I would hardly say it's not a viable option.

Formula E is also gaining steam (er...electrons?), but despite the presence of Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld and Vitantonio Liuzzi, this burgeoning series seems keen to maintain an air of youth and newness.  While I'm sure FE would welcome a legend like Alonso, I don't think such a deal would be high on their priorities list.

Alonso could do far worse than exploring his options in IndyCar, too.  Already a noted viewer of the Indianapolis 500, he was joined by Sebastian Vettel this year in saying that it would be fun someday to try the 500, perhaps when their F1 days were over.  (At this point it would have to be since Monaco and the 500 are due to clash yet again next May.)

Alonso would certainly be taking a gamble, though.  As the first F1 World Champion to enter IndyCar in quite some time, he would probably be a hot commodity.  Known for his brilliance on road courses, he is wholly untested on ovals, but the benefits may outweigh the disadvantages.

He would probably be able to emulate Michael Schumacher's experiences here by enjoying a quieter life in a country where far fewer people will recognize him on the street.  A less demanding schedule that has a shorter season, fewer races and barely any of the travel miles would certainly be a plus, but not every IndyCar transition has been as successful as Juan Pablo Montoya's.

Look at Rubens Barrichello, for instance.  A Formula 1 record holder and 11-time race winner, Barrichello arrived on the scene eager to get back in a winning car after an unbelievably long career in F1.  Friends with Tony Kanaan and a media darling for the Brazilian press, Rubens tested and drove for KV Racing in 2012 with much anticipation.  Despite earning Rookie of the Year honors at the Indy 500, the affable fan favorite scored just two top-five finishes en route to P12 in the championship.  Unable to find a drive the very next year, he returned to Brazil to compete for Peugeot in stock cars.  (He would win their championship in 2014—his first of any series since 1991.)

What if Alonso finds himself in the same situation, though?  Or even worse, what if the same thing that nearly forced him into a pseudo-sabbatical this year happens again?  What if an ill-timed breakdown in bargaining leaves him high and dry from any racing series?  Some would argue that he wouldn't be worse off than he is right now, haplessly and single-handedly pushing his wounded car back to the Hungaroring's pit lane on a 90°F day.

And even if the monetary element of the deal could go through, every year brings Alonso closer to a time when a prospective team may say "I'm sorry, but we'd like someone younger in our seat."  Aging may be delayed, but it's never halted.  Reflexes eventually slow, fitness proves harder to achieve and recovery times extend.  It's inevitable, regardless of the athlete.  Even for Fernando Alonso.

But what if he chooses to stay in the sport and finish his career with McLaren?  How will the annals of history look back on this stretch in his career?  The almost magical finish on Sunday certainly helps, possibly as a harbinger of things to come should the team continue to improve.  But I'm almost certain that few people watched Alonso celebrate his second World Championship back in 2006 and thought "That's that.  He'll never win another one."  I know I didn't.  In fact, everyone I knew said quite the opposite, that we were just beginning to see the potential and brilliance of this brash new champion.

Even so, all that time without winning another title will do nothing to his legacy.  Some may lament or show surprise that he didn't win again during that stretch, but his race victories and near misses at season finales will maintain his stature.  Pairing that with his grit and determination in perennially-struggling Ferraris shifts the focus from what could have been to what may have been wasted.  His time at McLaren only cements that chapter of his career in review, pending a momentous turnaround next year.

I can't help but think that people will now look back at Alonso's past and think "He made all the wrong moves at all the wrong times.  He left McLaren when he should have stayed.  He stayed at Ferrari when he should have left.  He left for McLaren when he should have stayed at Ferrari."  And since we'll never know what could have been had he made those alternative decisions, you'd be hard pressed to prove them wrong.

Much like overtaken cars in your rearview mirrors, though, what's past is past.  For Fernando, that which cannot be rewritten must not be overthought.  The only thing he can do is to decide how he moves forward.  If that's staying with McLaren, so be it.  If it's exploring a different lifestyle in IndyCar or pushing hard for wins in WEC, then I certainly wish him the best.

Either way, for a team like McLaren, one good result does not rescue an entire season, so while Fernando may be all smiles heading into the three-week break before Spa, it's a bit premature to put on rose-colored glasses and be content with his situation.

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