By November 24, when this year’s Formula 1 World Championship ends, it will be seven long years since Fernando Alonso Diaz claimed the second of his two titles.
‘O duelo final’ was the Brazilian billing for the 18th and final race of the 2006 season, because it pitted F1’s new young lion Alonso of Renault against the retiring king, Michael Schumacher of Ferrari. In the end neither man won at Interlagos that October day: an incredibly youthful-looking Felipe Massa, clad not in Ferrari red but in special green-and-gold Brazilian overalls for the day, did the job instead.
But second place was more than enough for Alonso to secure his second straight title, and his post-race words make it clear that the thought it might be his last never entered his own young head.
“It has been a fantastic weekend and now I probably need some time to believe that I’m champion again,” he said. “I’m 25 years old, two championships now and two constructors’ as well.
Last race for Renault after five years, fantastic way to finish the relationship with this success.”
Bubbling with as yet unquenched ambition, Alonso was off – temporarily.
McLaren was his next destination, and an ill-starred one it was. Teamed with the incoming Lewis Hamilton, Alonso never gelled in the Woking team – think square pegs and round holes – and that makes it all the more ironic that current McLaren chief Martin Whitmarsh should have publicly courted the Spaniard during the recent Singapore Grand Prix.
McLaren’s 2007 season unravelled under the ‘spygate’ scandal and the team’s access to secret Ferrari technical data; ironically, Alonso’s return to Renault in 2008 was followed by his involvement in an equally damaging episode, the so-called ‘Crashgate’ incident in that year’s inaugural Singapore Grand Prix when teammate Nelsinho Piquet’s accident contributed to the circumstances that allowed Alonso through for an unlikely win from 15th on the grid.
By the end of 2009 Alonso was on the move once more, this time to what seemed like a much more natural environment for a fiery, red-blooded Spaniard: Ferrari.
Four seasons later, despite 11 victories for the Scuderia, Alonso and Ferrari are empty-handed as a partnership. Even he has acknowledged that while he will never stop trying, he needs an enormous slice of luck if he is to hunt down Sebastian Vettel for the 2013 crown.
Ferrari team chief Stefano Domenicali himself admitted that fact when he said, with an ironic shrug, that the wrong Red Bull stopped in Singapore. That would be Mark Webber’s #2 car, not Vettel’s #1, and Alonso knows it better than most because he gave the Australian the lift back to pit lane that incurred the wrath of the Singapore stewards.
His story and Webber’s have gone almost hand-in-hand since they came into F1 in successive years in 2001 and 2002. They both drove first for Minardi, making their debuts in Australia; this year they both celebrated their 200th race start in Bahrain. And they have provided us with the most breathtaking moments of recent years in their side-by-side battles at 300kms per hour, each trusting the other implicitly in manoeuvres like the Australian’s breathless passing move on the Spaniard at Spa’s Eau Rouge.
Alonso took great delight in posting a picture of the two of them at dinner together before that Bahrain milestone, and they even interviewed each other for BBC Sport. “It’s good to battle with someone you respect and the battle can be fair,” said Alonso. But his most telling comment came when he thought F1’s pressure had altered their relationship, especially in the momentous 2010 five-way fight for the title.
“I wanted to win; second choice was Mark,” he said. “Nothing changed in our relationship. It was even better, I think. I think at the end we were even closer than at the beginning.” Now Alonso is citing Webber, along with Michael Schumacher, as examples of competitive longevity in the sport as he seeks an extension to his Ferrari contract – which already runs to the end of 2016, by which time the Spaniard will be 35.
Like Webber, he is a rounded individual, one who makes his own contribution outside sport, particularly as a national Ambassador for UNICEF. ‘Wet, rub, rinse’ is not the sort of mantra you usually hear a Grand Prix driver intoning; they were the words Alonso was trying to drive into young people’s heads in India last year as he helped publicise the campaign for simple hand-washing among that country’s young, five of whom he also personally administered with the oral polio vaccine.
He has his own Foundation, as so many sportspeople do, as a source for good in the world, but he was disappointed recently when his bid to rescue the Euskaltel Euskadi cycling team came to nothing.
As well as age, personal happiness may have something to do with the relative serenity we see in Fernando Alonso today. Divorced from his Spanish pop star wife last year, he has clearly taken great delight in the youthful company of Russian model Dasha Kapustina, holidaying with her in Mallorca and elsewhere.
The only unfinished business for the man who practises magic tricks, follows Real Madrid and drives rather fast appears to be on track. If he is starting from zero in his personal life, perhaps that will be the key to professional success as well.
“Our opponents are doing a better job,” he admitted after another brilliant – but vain – pursuit of Vettel in Singapore. “In sport the best one wins and we are not the best ones at the moment, so we will keep working."
Next season, however, everyone starts with a clean sheet of paper – or a blank computer screen. The radical switch to turbo-charged engines means the fight for competitive advantage will be more intense than ever, and Alonso is pinning his hopes on Ferrari to rise to the challenge.
As at Singapore on September 22, eight races had come and gone without a Fernando Alonso victory. His first Ferrari season yielded five of them; since then it’s been just one, three and, this year, two. Sometimes starting from zero is the only way to go…