Yesterday’s Chinese Grand Prix was won in casual fashion by Lewis Hamilton, followed home by his team mate Nico Rosberg, who enjoyed a more trying afternoon. If you hadn’t seen the race, who would you guess was third? Daniel Ricciardo perhaps, who has mastered the idiosyncrasies of this year’s cars rather better than his illustrious team mate? Or maybe that Vettel, reasserting his in-team power after the ignominy of being told to let Ricciardo past in Bahrain? (Ah, the irony – he was told to do it again in China!) Possibly you’d plump for a Force India, a Williams, or a resurgent McLaren? Nope. It was Fernando Alonso. He who outperforms everyone around him. What does he need to do to get a break in this sport?
The Chinese Grand Prix 2014 was a typical Fernando Alonso race. Qualifying near enough the front to make sure the pole sitters are within reach; making a characteristically clean start; being assailed by someone or something (in this case it was a hapless Felipe Massa caught in a closing wedge); driving one’s guts out; pitting early to maximise the bonus of the undercut; driving one’s guts out; pitting early again to maximise the undercut once again; driving one’s guts out; surviving a late charge from a young gun on fresher tyres and in invariably superior machinery; trouncing his team mate, but watching on the podium as other drivers, in invariably superior machinery, take the glory.
The bicampeonato of Alonso came in 2005 and 2006, and he resembles Arsenal FC insofar as he has failed to win a meaningful trophy since. He was a great driver then, to break Schumacher’s stranglehold on the sport. But character-building years at McLaren in 2007 and at Renault in 2008-9 moulded him into arguably the finest racer of his generation – a hard-charging speed demon who yet had a Prost-like ability to visualise the context of the race, the strategy, what would be required when. As such his attempts to wrest the championship from the grasp of Vettel were as heroic as they were ultimately futile, particularly in 2010 and 2012, years when many thought on the basis of individual performance he was the more deserving winner. 2013 saw Ferrari slide down the performance scale and Fernando began to take on the look of a man whose mantra was ‘maÃ±ana, maÃ±ana…’
Now (and it must be soul-destroying) the Red Bull hegemony at the front of the grid, that second-per-lap ability to pull away in the hands of Vettel, that lazy Sunday afternoon breeze to the chequered flag every weekend – has been replaced by a near-identical one in the form of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. The King is dead! Long live the King! Except: the Prince Regent Alonso, the other of the triumvirate whose names will ring down the history of the sport, has been usurped yet again. At the age of 32 he will not have many more chances.
Ferrari can and will change, though will it be in time for our hero? President Luca di Montezemolo brought the long-threatened knives out after Bahrain, the indignity of which he was there to watch first-hand, and Stefano Domenicali was ousted. Jumped or pushed, we wonder – and we suspect that in the Ferrari family one is encouraged to jump by a man with his hand on your back. Marco Matiacci is the new team principal, the manager of the Gestione Sportiva (the Sporting Division) and the reaction around the press rooms and the paddock appears to be one of bafflement. Matiacci was head of Ferrari North America, effectively a massive car dealership and a job whose only transferable skill to F1 seems to be that of fluent English. Di Montezemolo has defended himself – and Alonso knows better than to criticise the marque after an ill-advised comment last season.
So what does the future look like for the Asturian? His contract with Ferrari runs til 2016, and given the nature of the relationships Ferrari drivers tend to have with the Scuderia, I’d say it’s unlikely he will move. If he were to do so, McLaren have been touted as a possible destination, but Ron Dennis would not only have to patch up an apparently irrevocably damaged personal relationship but also provide assurances that his Woking team will be competitive next season with Honda – a big promise to make in the current position. Mercedes is tremendously unlikely unless Hamilton and Rosberg start taking each other out on a regular basis. Red Bull don’t tend to take big names when their in-house programme makes them themselves. So he doesn’t really have many options as it stands.
Is it doom and gloom, then, for Fernando? Is it the case that he will always have won at least half the number of championships as Vettel? Is it the case that Hamilton will be on statistical terms with him? Will he be the third in that triumvirate? No. Statistics will only ever tell half the story. Those of us who have witnessed Fernando Alonso driving, by the track and on the television, will always be able to tell the story. The story that he was superhuman in a racing car; that he performed beyond the limits of his machinery; that he almost never had the best car and yet we always mention his name.