INSIGHT: Alonso is back in the groove

During the chaotic closing stages of the recent Russian Grand Prix, you could be forgiven for missing how close a Formula 1 great came to taking their first podium finish in more than seven years. When the rain came, Fernando Alonso was one of the standout performers on slick tires and overtook Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez to run third. Then, the second bank of rain hit and Alonso was forced to pit for intermediates, slipping back to finish sixth.

This wasn’t some unsuccessful gamble as, after all, it didn’t cost him any positions in the final reckoning. But those three cars he passed were before they pitted, showing his excellence in judging the available grip and keeping temperature in the tires. While he did have the advantage of younger tires than both Ricciardo and Sainz, which are easier to maintain from a temperature standpoint in such conditions, Perez had stopped at the same time and had a more competitive car. This was a glimpse of vintage Alonso, one who wasn’t afraid to lament after the race that “definitely, we are not very lucky”.

Just to underline how strong his race performance was, another overlooked moment from the race came after his first pitstop when he passed Max Verstappen for sixth place. Again, he had a tire advantage thanks to making his switch to mediums 10 laps later than Verstappen, but an on-track pass for position, which he then held, on a championship contender, is not something Alonso has had much chance to do this year in an Alpine that has been, on average, the sixth-fastest car.

Alonso also showed his determination to take every possible competitive advantage with a premeditated cut of the second-corner runoff at the start that allowed him to switch his car on the tricky outside line at the start of the race. Regardless of whether you consider that in the spirit of the regulations, he complied with the race directors’ instructions both in terms of taking the mandatory chicane marked by polystyrene blocks and rejoining behind the car he trailed when he went off – George Russell. Alonso has criticized the way track limits are policed this season and feels put out that nobody has listened to what are legitimate complaints. Therefore, who can blame him for joining those benefiting?

Alonso turned 40 in July, having spent two years outside of F1, albeit with an active racing program that netted him two Le Mans 24 victories, a World Endurance Championship crown and the Daytona 24 Hours. Inevitably, that meant there were legitimate questions about whether the Alonso that returned would be as sharp as the one that was still performing miracles at times for struggling McLaren in 2018. Given his last podium finish was second place for Ferrari in the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix, with the latest of his 32 victories coming in Spain a year earlier, it’s perhaps no surprise that some have forgotten just how formidable a driver he is.

While Alpine hasn’t given Alonso many chances for big results this season, he has at least shown plenty of evidence that he’s still at least very close to the level of the great driver of old. The only reason that statement is caveated is that he’s not had the chance to test himself consistently at the front in F1, given Alpine is resoundingly in the midfield. But Sochi had plenty of the old Alonso motifs – a battling race drive, excellence in tricky conditions, the willingness to push the limits for a competitive edge, the feeling of injustice that his drive wasn’t rewarded with a podium. However, that’s only one race.

Alonso’s finishing position in Russia masked the true merits of his performance. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

But it does also come during a run of events where he has consistently produced results. Alonso himself reckoned it would take four races to get close to F1 sharpness, but in the end the first five grands prix proved to be the run-up he needed. While he had some moments in those early races, he managed points only twice, with a best of eighth in Portugal, and had a very troubled race at Imola on his first taste of the car in the wet with multiple offs despite somehow scoring a point. But from the next race in Azerbaijan he has proved consistently strong in the congested midfield.

That sixth place in Baku was the result of places gained in the two-lap ‘mini prix’ after the late red flag, and marked the start of a run of points in nine consecutive races. That excludes Alonso’s 11th place in the Belgian Grand Prix given that was not a race worthy of the name in which he was classified 11th after having qualified 12thin wet conditions. Whether he’d have scored had the race happened is impossible to judge, especially given that prior to Sochi the Alpine has proved a troublesome car in wet conditions. This means Alonso has racked up a healthy 58 points, 13 more than teammate Esteban Ocon.

Points can be an unreliable indicator and, if anything, that comparison is harsh on Alonso. While Ocon has endured his share of car difficulties, notably in the Red Bull Ring double-header, he was also on the right side of fortune in the Hungarian Grand Prix. There Ocon took his first F1 victory with a well-executed drive after having taken the lead in the first corner chaos. Alonso wasn’t so fortunate and was impeded by both incidents at Turn 1 and ended up finishing fourth, although played a critical role in holding back the recovering Lewis Hamilton for 11 laps. If you’re in any doubt of how critical Alonso’s intelligent, on-the-limit, defense was, effectively it froze the gap between Hamilton and Ocon for the duration of the battle. At the finish, Hamilton was within three seconds of Ocon.

The team has been happy with Alonso’s contribution despite the lack of a podium finish, which Alpine executive director Marcin Budkowski believes is simply a question of not having had the opportunity.

“He’s been extremely regular, he’s been consistent, scoring points at every race,” says Budkowski of Alonso’s recent performances. “In terms of racecraft, Fernando is still at the very top of his game and probably one of the best in the sport, so he makes the best of every opportunity in the race and tends to score more points than the car is worth on that particular day. That’s why he’s there in the championship. The reality is you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time sometimes if you want to be on the podium or win a race with a car that, on merit, shouldn’t get there. He hasn’t had that opportunity so far, he’s commented on that a few times on the radio saying we’ve been unlucky, but at some point our luck will come. I hope it does.”

Alonso’s qualifying performances have been good, but it’s very much a back and forth with team-mate Ocon on Saturdays. Alonso has a marginal advantage, as he’s outpaced Ocon eight times out of 15, so it’s no surprised that the average gap between them is just a few hundredths. But it’s fair to say that, while Alonso is a very good qualifier, it’s not the strongest aspect of his game. But on race day that he has the capacity to be as good, if not better, than anyone. So given Ocon’s strengths – and it’s worth noting he, too, has taken a step forward after his struggles against Daniel Ricciardo last year according to the team’s now evaluations – that’s another box ticked.

What is most significant is that he’s still able to pull off his endlessly adaptable, hustling car style that requires supreme confidence and remarkable car control. It’s this skillset that allows him to get the most out of cars that others simply cannot, but it requires a certain sharpness and it’s reasonable to have wondered if the necessary edge to make it work had been blunted by age. But behind the wheel, he looks like the Alonso of old – and has done right from the start in pre-season testing in Bahrian, even if it did take him a few races to be fully sharpened.

Alonso has stood on a lot of sports car podiums over the past few years, but the last time he climbed onto one at the end of an F1 race was in 2014. Alastair Staley/Motorsport Images

There’s no doubt that Alonso has performed very well this year, but it won’t be until he’s in a frontrunning car that he can directly be measured against Hamilton, Verstappen and the others that will hope to emerge as a title threat such as Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris in the coming years. Alonso himself has talked up the capabilities of the Alpine team trackside recently, and it’s fair to say that it does appear to be more consistently extracting the most from its car on a given weekend. Whether that means it’s able to fight for top six finishes or scratching around trying to sneak into Q3 largely depends on the track characteristics, that is a step forward for a team that did have a reputation for being a little inconsistent.

Alonso shrugs off the impact of age, although even his force of will won’t be able to shake off the pressures of time forever. He is still performing well and the team appears to have achieved a higher level of sharpness, so potentially the deciding factor in how successful his F1 comeback will be is the quality of Alpine’s 2022 car. With the dramatic overhaul of the technical regulations and the resulting clean-sheet-of-paper design, there is a clear opportunity for a team that has dramatically increased its technical and personnel infrastructure since acquiring what was then called Lotus ahead of 2016 to take a leap forward.

It’s a big ask to expect Alpine to emerge as a title contender, but it can certainly be realistically expected to do better than it has in recent years. If it does so, the evidence of 2021 is that Alonso will be ready to make the most of the opportunity presented.