2014: Review of the year

Ah, 2014. The year of the Silver Arrows, of paddock machinations, of competition and of Jules Bianchi. Here, forumula1.com presents its review of the year – the categories being

Among whom will number, on the top step, Lewis Hamilton. Many in the paddock wondered whether one title would end up being Hamilton’s return from a sport to which he had given so much; a miserly return for his efforts, the lack of glory dictated by machinery firstly but also by his own mercurial nature. But we will wonder no longer. He is the world champion once again. The second title came historically the longest after the first, but it was no less deserved, and no less brilliantly won. He seems now to be a master of that vertiginous volatility that marks genius but also often condemns it. Not in this case. Hamilton sits rightfully at the pinnacle of this era with Alonso and Vettel for company as the only other multiple world champions. He was the best driver this season and so is a worthy champion.

Daniel Ricciardo is the other name which must be written in lights this Christmas. To arrive at Red Bull after what could only be described as flickeringly impressive formative years at Toro Rosso, to slot in meekly and charmingly, and then to trounce the four-time world champion in the other chair at his own game. Ricciardo has won as many fans now for his driving (the pass on Alonso in Hungary springs to mind) as he had already gained for his personality – no mean feat when you have a grin that wide. To stay in contention so long for the championship when your car is clearly second best is admirable. Whether he can lead the team as well as be the precocious upstart is a question for next season.

There are others, too – the usual suspects. Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa made excellent goes of a superb little machine made in Grove by the Williams team and entirely merit their elevated final standings. I felt Alonso had a good season in trying circumstances; Hulkenberg and Perez over at Force India could usually be seen pulling performance from somewhere. Jenson Button had a distinguished end to the season. Kvyat glowed, although he still has things to learn. Bianchi, up to his accident, was always much better than his car would permit him to show.

Winners in a different way
Nico Rosberg has to go into this category, as he did not win the championship. But his gentlemanly acceptance of defeat, and acknowledgement that he had been beaten by the better man, commends him hugely. For the record he did not deliberately obstruct Hamilton’s qualifying in Monaco – nor did he seek to damage his team mate’s car in Spa. He raced hard and fair, demonstrated ample speed and, as Hamilton noted, possessed a remarkable ability to reset at the following race and get pole. With the car as it was, Hamilton was expected to walk 2014. The fact that he didn’t is credit to Rosberg’s racecraft and ability, and also recommends the year itself, for without his efforts, it would have been altogether duller.

Sebastian Vettel did not win anything this year and seemed at times to lack motivation. (How one could, after four titles and then having a car which behaved strikingly differently from his previous darlings, plus a hungry young buck across the garage, is perhaps understandable). But this lack of motivation has been remedied by Vettel’s move to Ferrari. Everything about the move, from the recognition that it was time to go, to the timing of the announcement and the management of his leaving, has the hallmarks of the old, devastatingly dedicated Vettel.

Kimi Raikkonen was disappointing this year. He would not be the first driver to go to a team and find the car virtually undriveable or at least distinctly unsuited to his style, but you get the sense the Kimster lacks that fire to sort the problems unless he feels he has something to prove. Something about Ferrari seems to bring out the worst in the Finn – it’s almost as if he says, “well I’ve tried – what else can I do?” Other underperformers this year included Pastor Maldonado and Esteban Gutierrez. We only ever saw Maldonado crashing, and we never saw Gutierrez at all.

Others were losers because of circumstance rather than their own actions. Jenson Button won’t lose his seat at McLaren for next year, perhaps due to the lingering influence of the British media in the sport as opposed to Button’s skill. He did not excel until there was jeopardy for his seat, and that is irksome. Romain Grosjean was the driver most at sea in terms of the machinery underneath him. In his short tenure in F1, Jean-Eric Vergne has seemed to be cut more of the Ricciardo than the Bourdais cloth, and so it’s also a shame that he has been ushered out. Equally, all at the back of the grid, the Marussias and the Caterhams will be missed. It is a sad indictment of the sport that there is obscene money at the front and none at the back. Meanwhile, it’s all change at Ferrari. Pat Fry is out, underwhelming as he has been; Domenicali preceded him out the door, and even the big don – Mr di Montezemolo himself – has been ousted too. Sergio Marchionne and the ruling Agnelli clan seem to be serious about rejigging the famous old marque.

Notable moments of the year
Bahrain, oh Bahrain. Never has an anodyne oil-cash blow out of an artificial, fanless, morally questionable venue provided such fantastic racing. The battle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fizzed and sparkled for three or four laps and it was simply gripping. Massa and Perez in Canada and Daniel Ricciardo’s win there also sparkled. There were gripping battles down the field, too, though it was mostly between the two Mercs that the real interest lay. As seasons go, 2014 won’t be remembered as a vintage in terms of wheel-to-wheel racing overall, though.

And the sadness
This year in F1 has been darkened by two major incidents, one well away from a racetrack, and one on it. I refer to Michael Schumacher and Jules Bianchi. They share the unfortunate damning reality of a serious brain injury and all that comes from it. Schumacher is a hero to so many, and Bianchi would have been. They are still with us, but the sad fact is that they as people may never be the same again. As the Twitter hashtags have it, though, keep fighting Michael, and forza Jules. May all the light and enjoyment you gave to race fans around the world be returned to you in the form of aid to your respective recoveries.

Button or Magnussen for 2015?

As the 2014 championship nears its end in the artificial confines of Abu Dhabi next week, to be won by either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg, it is another silver seat that is provoking interest. At McLaren, it is as close to certain as we can get that Fernando Alonso, late of Ferrari, has a seat for next year in Woking. But who will partner him? Will it be incumbent Jenson Button or incumbent Kevin Magnussen?

Button has an awful lot going for him. He is vastly experienced and arguably the best driver in changing conditions. He has a preternatural feel for grip and a magisterial grasp of strategy and racecraft. He has seen it all, won a world championship. He has scored very nearly double the number of points of Magnussen. To boot, he is a team player; the consummate professional and PR representative that McLaren prize. He may also prove invaluable in the brave new Honda era – his mastery of Japanese cultural niceties, not to mention some of the language, will definitely come in useful.

So says just about everybody. But doesn’t it become tiresome when everyone thinks the same thing. It would be a pity to see Button go, but then…(deep breath)…

He’s not quick enough in qualifying (except for the last few races, where he seems to have mysteriously upped his game – I wonder if team bosses get as suspicious about a threatened driver’s upturn in performance as the cynics among us do). He doesn’t thrill. He looks positively pedestrian in combat. He can’t develop a car, and apparently has insurmountable issues with it if it understeers. At 35 he isn’t a man for the long-term future, as a new engine partnership will probably require.

Then there’s Alonso. Save wet-to-dry races, is there anything Button does that Alonso can’t do better? Even the British press defenders of Button would have to admit that they have marked similarities, with the obvious difference that Fernando is quantifiably a more rounded product. The argument is that it would be silly to have drivers with similar strengths in a team, particularly if one is usually bettered by the other.

On to Magnussen. He was brought into the limelight at the beginning of the season by McLaren and has had, by any standards, a respectable rookie season. He hasn’t set the world alight, which many at Woking were hoping he would, in the wake of Sergio Perez’s departure. But the raw speed certainly seems to be there and with experience he may yet flower.

It has been noted by many in the paddock that McLaren are in far greater need of a superior car than they are of a better driver line-up. But that truism belies the value of the input that drivers can have with the development of a car. You might not put Fernando Alonso at the top of the list in F1 for that skill (Nico Rosberg, on the other hand…). But Button’s shortcomings in that regard do not help his cause.

Ultimately, Jenson Button has been a credit to the sport. He has produced some truly great performances and will go down in the history books as another driver of subtle skill and controlled aggression from the United Kingdom. But the British press calls for his career to be extended for the sake of nostalgia rather than performance are misplaced. Do not think that Ron Dennis will heed them.

Jules’ accident and the psychology of F1

On lap 43 of yesterday’s Japanese Grand Prix Jules Bianchi’s Marussia aquaplaned and left the track. He hit a recovery vehicle which had been deployed to retrieve Adrian Sutil’s stranded Sauber after the German had had a similar accident moments earlier, in which he hit the tyre barrier. Bianchi was less fortunate. Judging by pictures released yesterday evening, he appears to have struck the rear of the yellow movable crane, part of which made contact with his helmet. As a result he is now in hospital undergoing neurosurgery.

As other drivers have noted, Bianchi’s predicament supersedes all other considerations. All at this website and many thousands around the world wish him a speedy and successful recuperation. However, there are remarkable tendencies that were shown in the immediate aftermath of Jules’ crash that deserve some notice.

Firstly, the shock was palpable and the atmosphere, even on television, visibly and amongst all personnel, changed drastically to one of horror. This is natural, one would argue, and right. But it is nevertheless curious to note exactly how surprised some people are, in a sport that is at its heart tremendously dangerous. Niki Lauda said as much.

This has a consequence and one that is seldom remarked upon. Some in F1 seem to have forgotten that piloting a piece of carbon fibre and rubber around a racetrack at speeds of up to 230mph carries inherent and considerable risk. It has been said before but has been mercifully out of the frame of late – that if something enters a driver’s cockpit the consequences will be grave. Sadly, with Bianchi, this has transpired. The sport needs to look at itself and decide if it wants to cover the cockpits. If it doesn’t, it has to accept that such accidents may on occasion come to pass. Is the serious injury or even death of a driver worth it?

Another element of this is the ‘perfect storm’ scenario. Although some respected figures have noted the danger at the turn where both Sutil and Bianchi went off, the reality is that drivers could have gone off at any point on the treacherous track in the latter stages of yesterday’s race. The fact that Jules went off near where Sutil did, and the resulting contact with the rear of the movable crane, was awful and horrific, but nevertheless extremely bad luck. Martin Brundle’s similar accident, which has been quoted in support of the ‘dangerous corner’ argument, could have been worse, but wasn’t. It remains very unlikely that a car will go off at the same corner, and still less so that it will strike a foreign object on track.

The psychology of the sport is fragile at the moment, but there is no reason to lose rationality.

Seismic day for F1 leaves winners and losers

“I just finished qualifying, I don’t know if you noticed,” deadpanned Fernando Alonso as he faced press questions immediately after the session today for tomorrow’s Japanese Grand Prix. The truth is no one had noticed. The news was immense, earth-shattering – that Sebastian Vettel will leave Red Bull Racing for Ferrari next season, with Alonso presumably the man to vacate the seat at the Scuderia. Daniil Kvyat is in for Vettel at Red Bull, while Alonso is either destined for McLaren Honda or a sabbatical.

There was little else to talk about, even as Nico Rosberg produced a near-flawless lap to take pole and the psychological edge on his rival Lewis Hamilton going into tomorrow’s race. Vettel’s move was similarly a smart one. Unexpected this year at least, in announcing it this morning, he has decisively put one over on his 2015 rivals and is a winner from today’s driver market machinations.

The other people to come out of this smelling of roses are Red Bull, who got not only to say a swift and financially painless goodbye to a man they couldn’t sack but was beginning to look like he wasn’t cutting the mustard, but also to announce Ferrari’s driver line-up before the Italian marque could. (Rather unbelievably, as forumula1.com goes to press, Maranello are still yet to put out a press release). Daniil Kvyat will also be grinning from ear to ear tonight, sitting as he is on the fast train.

But there are also some who have lost out. As noted Ferrari have been caught napping. Their man Alonso, who has fallen out of love with his dream team, now looks like a ditherer with only two credible options, neither optimal. A sabbatical could see him irrelevant in 2016, such is the pace of change, and McLaren Honda are extremely unlikely to be the finished article in their first year of re-collaboration. Jenson Button will no longer be required at McLaren if Alonso parachutes in. Finally, Jean-Eric Vergne is rather ludicrously being elbowed out of the Toro Rosso equation as the son of a rally driver and a two-year-old nab the seats. If STR can find the booster seats, that is.

Amongst all this, there will be a race tomorrow which will be the next instalment in a thrilling, tight championship battle. As long as the typhoon doesn’t hit that is. We have been hit by a storm already this weekend in Suzuka!

Why blaming Rosberg too much could be bad…

Today, on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg made contact at Les Combes. Hamilton was ahead and Rosberg behind, and the front right endplate of the German’s car hit the left rear wheel of the Englishman’s. It caused an immediate puncture for the leader and ruined his race completely, as he retired later, while Rosberg also suffered and ended up second in a race which a car with the Mercedes’ margin of superiority really ought to have won. As it was, the affable Australian Daniel Ricciardo scooped the win gratefully.

Hamilton was understandably upset, as his championship hopes have taken a large dent this afternoon. More pertinently, Mercedes bosses Toto Wolff, Paddy Lowe and Niki Lauda are to varying degrees angry about the lost points for the team that was caused by the incident. Hamilton is even on record tonight claiming Rosberg did it on purpose and even admitted to it. Mercedes is, it seems, at full fratricidal war.

Which will lead, one supposes, from a period of incident, to hotheaded reaction, to reaction to the reaction, and finally much-vaunted PR-savvy apologies and making-up. It all is quite predictable. But the passion of this particular fight could well have an unintended side effect. It might well turn the respective sides of the garage from simmering competitiveness (generally thought to promote improvement) to petty point-scoring and even sabotage (which is obviously negative). Then, as we saw today, Mercedes seriously risk gifting this title to Daniel Ricciardo. There is recent historical precedent, also involving Hamilton – 2007, when McLaren infighting presented the championship to Kimi Raikkonen.

Why is this incident the tipping point? Why not Bahrain, for instance, or Monaco qualifying? In Bahrain nothing happened so that’s all right then. In Monaco there was a quotient of ambiguity about Rosberg’s actions. But not here. Wolff and Lauda were incandescent post-race, and the blame was laid squarely at Rosberg’s door.

When you look at it, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t to blame. He was never on a par with Hamilton, could and should have backed out and it was Hamilton’s corner. To boot Rosberg takes the added responsibility of being the driver behind and as such the driver with the greater degree of control over the situation.

But it was a small misjudgement. We have seen the great and the good, not least Hamilton himself, lose their front wings clipping other cars – I’m led to believe it’s seriously difficult to know where your front wing actually is. The consequences might so easily have been worse for Rosberg than Hamilton, if the angle had been slightly different, and then I wonder if the blame game would be being played with such alacrity as it is this evening.

I can see why Wolff and Lauda feel as they do. I can also see why they are making it clear to the press, because failing to criticise Rosberg would lay them open to charges of favouritism. As it is, though, their strategy is high-risk; Rosberg may well turn now from total team player to besieged sniper. The knives are well and truly out now. It remains to be seen whether the knife throwers are actually putting their own in the firing line.

Hamilton’s luck: the stats

Lewis Hamilton’s chances of winning the 2014 world championship took another blow yesterday when his Mercedes W05 caught fire in final qualifying. Since the championship is still probably only between himself and his team mate, Nico Rosberg, forumula1.com decided to look into how much damage Hamilton’s luck has caused him this season…

So we thought what we’d do is have a system. Nico and Lewis have finished first and second in every race this year where neither of them has had mechanical issues. So we can say that every time either of them had a mechanical issue, they lost either first or second place – an average of 21.5 points. Where has Lewis been race-unlucky this season? Australia and Canada. (We’ll exclude Canada for the moment, because both of them had brake issues, and Rosberg was able to manage the brakes and therefore can have those points on merit). So Lewis is 21.5 points down.

But then Rosberg was also the victim of gremlins in Silverstone, which means it’s back equal. So let’s turn to qualifying. Can we apply the same rule – that either driver would have come first or second without problems in qualifying? Arguably, yes – although it’s adding another degree or two of decreased probability, that’s balanced out by the probability that the driver without difficulties in qualifying and so on pole has an easier run and wins more often.

But the driver is not losing the whole race here after quali – not both first and second, just the possibility of the win. So he only loses an extra 1.75 points on average – the difference between first (25) and the average score (21.5). (Again, although this does depend on how far down the field he ends up qualifying, that’s balanced out by the fact that he has a vastly superior car to the rest of the field and has in most cases been able to work his way through the field on pace alone to a theoretical second place).

Lewis’ travails in qualifying – Monaco, where he was forced to back off through no fault of his own; Silverstone, where he chose to back off; Germany, where he had brake failure; Hungary yesterday. We can discount Silverstone on the basis that it was his error. But if we take Monaco, Germany and Hungary together, Lewis has lost 5.25 points.

And he hasn’t. He’s down by 14 (even before Hungary today). There are other factors of course, like Hamilton’s slower pitstops, which arguably cause him more lost points. But there are glaring errors, like failing to conserve brakes in Canada, and running into Jenson Button in Germany (which cost him second). So bemoan Hamilton’s luck all you may, fans, but the reality is that the discrepancy between himself and Rosberg is probably to be found somewhere else.

Felipe Crasha on road to redemption at Red Bull Ring today?

Felipe Massa has qualified on pole for today’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Austria today. It represents the hitherto high point of a season in which his Williams team has promised much but delivered less. Will Massa bring home the bacon this afternoon? Or will he succumb to the pressure and choke? Hugh Podmore looks at the case…

Felipe Massa is an enigma of a driver. In 2008 he was at the peak of his powers, having learned from the great Schumacher, having taken the fight to Kimi Raikkonen and emerged on top. Then came his accident at the Hungaroring in 2009 and popular wisdom has it that he hasn’t been the same driver since. Maybe not. But he has shone, and still has that ability to shine. It is no accident that he has comfortably had the measure of highly-rated Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas this season – nor is it serendipity that he found himself in potentially a race-winning position in Canada last time out.

Ah yes, thought we’d have to get to that sooner or later – the elephant in the room. Canada 2014. Massa was very well-placed to win the race when the two Mercedes began to falter. A number of Williams insiders are reported to believe it was virtually his to lose, and lose it he did. His crash into Perez at the end, therefore, was a kind of frustrated lashing-out at the world because of his own failings with tyre management, opportunity-taking and incisive, race-winning speed when it mattered the most.

And not only that; it was bloody dangerous too. And it was Massa’s fault. Why? Because the following car always has much more responsibility for avoiding an accident, because he can see much more than can the leading driver. There was categorically no need for Massa to be that close to Perez, and even though the Mexican may have moved slightly in the braking zone, it would not have been enough to cause an accident if Massa had been positioned responsibly.

So crashes apart, will Massa triumph today? While has not shown consistently the kind of mental resilience required at the top level in this sport, we can’t exclude the possibility of a one-off barnstormer, the like of which he has produced before. I would bet against it though…

Intra-team rivalry makes for spicy season

Up to about half distance, the Spanish Grand Prix of last weekend, at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, Spain, had threatened for quite some time to turn into full-blown protracted torture. This was because absolutely nothing was happening. The Mercedes pair were long gone up front, Hamilton having exerted his natural dominance over Rosberg; nobody was drastically out of position except for Seb Vettel, and he didn’t look motivated to charge through the field (why would you?); even the noise of the cars were more akin to a flatulent pooch than the thrilling whine of old. F1 2014 has flirted with boredom before, we thought – and now Catalunya has done its usual somnolent job.

But suddenly, it came alive. Hamilton started to sound irascible as his oversteer began to destabilise the car and his strategy looked vulnerable. Alonso, despite being behind Raikkonen, got called in to the pits first ahead of his team mate. Vettel decided that he was not going to tootle round looking at the sights, and made hay with the improved performance of his Red Bull. His team mate Daniel Ricciardo was making short work of Valtteri Bottas. Meanwhile, Romain Grosjean was hanging on like grim death to each position he descended in an heroic and ultimately successful attempt to remain in the points.

What made this exciting? Well, it wasn’t the racing itself, to be honest, for there is precious little of that to be had at this most neutered of tracks. It wasn’t the DRS or the ERS, or the lowered noses, or the combative brilliance of many (hat tip exception: S. Vettel). No, it was the frisson of conflict; the piquancy of battle; the delectability of intra-team strife.

At the front, Nico Rosberg reeled Lewis Hamilton in with a cold inevitability whose chill Hamilton would have distinctly noted even in his warm cockpit. It spoke of the latent speed that the German can conjure from that most nimble of machines, and of his arguably superior tyre management skills. Hamilton was eventually and commendably to hold him off, but boy, Rosberg isn’t done yet.

Behind them, Ricciardo finished another race ahead of Vettel. Granted, the German was phenomenal at driving through the field from 15th to fourth place at the end, but it goes down as another win for the Australian. Vettel will be stung.

Behind them, Alonso did a good job, as ever – but Kimi will feel that that is all he did. The Finn also will be silently (for that is how Kimi does) questioning why on earth Ferrari rejigged their normal modus operandi and allowed Alonso to come in first ahead of him. Alonso stopped three times, which turned out to be the faster strategy – and passed his team mate for good measure, to rub salt in the wound.

This, and other similar battles up and down the grid, are what will make this season spicy. Keep watching.

Senna remembered – the greatest of the modern era

Twenty years ago today, Ayrton Senna da Silva was killed at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, in Imola, Italy. The images from the tragic day are burned strongly into the memory – the veering off of his car as seen from Michael Schumacher’s onboard camera; the force with which he hit the wall; the slight movement of his head that seemed to give us hope but actually denoted a serious brain injury; the slightly listing wreckage of the Williams FW16 seen from behind the wall at Tamburello. Twenty years on, they live in the mind of every F1 fan still.

So much has been written and said about Ayrton Senna. He was supremely gifted, a force of nature; a man possessed of messianic self-assurance that frequently justified itself on the racetrack. He was also flawed – that self-belief bordered on the insane, and Senna was accused of endangering others on occasion. But his personal charisma, his magnetism, radiated even through a television set. It continues to do so today, through online videos, through the eponymous film, and above all through the mystique that surrounds him in stories. It may be that we as humans have a need to believe in preternatural qualities, but Senna can still provide us with a very good excuse to dream.

So how good was he on track? Late-nineties and early noughties revisionism suggested the level of admiration, beatification even, in the wake of his death was excessive. As Schumacher swept all before him in the dominant Ferraris of that era, the last we had seen of Senna was a man frantically trying to keep an unwieldy car ahead of his young pretender German rival. Perhaps it was even Schumacher’s speed which prompted the mistake some believe Senna made at his final corner. Indeed, Senna could not countenance the idea that Schumacher was quicker – he had alleged that the Benetton team were using illegal traction control. So we thought that had he lived, Senna would have lost out to Schumacher in 1994 and the cyclical nature of the sport would be clear once again. Schumacher even topped Senna in some ‘all-time greatest’ lists.

But then. What has happened since has given us cause to re-evaluate Schumacher. We now know, as we didn’t in the Schumacher-Byrne-Brawn era, that he had preferential tyre data at the time. We also share a consensus that his contemporaries of the time – Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Coulthard – don’t really merit inclusion in a class with Schumacher. So with a vastly superior car and no rivals to speak of, Schumacher won a lot. How many times did Senna have a vastly superior car and no rivals? Never at the same time…

So you turn to today. We have three contemporary drivers I believe will rank alongside or at least up there with the truly illustrious names in the sport – Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso. Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment: Hamilton makes mistakes often. Vettel appears to crack under pressure. Alonso has failed to galvanise a team.

Compare them to Senna. He and Hamilton share teams and one-lap speed; he and Vettel share ability to dominate a race and brilliance in down-the-grid teams; he and Alonso share spirit and guts. None of them gives us Senna’s other-worldliness, this sense of destiny. This magic. And so the ineluctable conclusion is that Senna was and is the greatest; that mere statistics and flaws cannot sully him now. Is it his death that makes him that? Perhaps. But it is his life that gives us the evidence.

What does Fernando Alonso need to do to get a break?

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 ‘mañana, mañana…’

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.