Friday, October 12, 2007

Fernando Alonso

It's Hard Being a Double World Champion

At the time of writing Fernando Alonso is the only World Champion in Formula 1. With that comes certain pressures, certain expectations and certain stresses. And at McLaren these factors have been amplified tenfold by a certain Lewis Hamilton. So difficult has the situation at McLaren become, that right now the only World Champion in F1 has no certain future. But how did it come to this? How did the laid back, quiet and superquick Spaniard, end up as a hate figure ousted by his own team?

Cast your mind back to 20th December 2005. News broke that Ron Dennis had snapped up the recently crowned World Champion to drive for McLaren. An incredible story, genius on Ron's part, but why had Alonso turned his back on Renault and more importantly on his manager and mentor, Flavio Briatore? At the time it was actually a no-brainer from Fernando's perspective. Renault's F1 future was looking decidedly shaky and Alonso's stock was high (much higher than his Renault pay-cheque would suggest), McLaren had just signed a deal with Vodafone to enter the new non-tobacco F1 world in a very comfortable position, and what's more McLaren had produced the fastest car of 2005. The decision was easy, even if it meant betraying Flavio (something Alonso is lucky not to have to regret). The short of it is that in December 2005 the future looked bright for Fernando.

Come the end of 2006 and the decision looked a little more dubious. McLaren had endured a torrid season struggling to come to terms with changing tyre and engine regulations. However, it wasn't as bad as it seemed. Both Raikkonen and Montoya had left the team thus paving the way for Alonso to take up the number 1 post. Now, this is important Alonso was coming to a new team where there was no obvious rival, in his mind he was number 1. Potential team-mates were Pedro de la Rosa, Lewis Hamilton and possibly Mika Hakkinen. On the 24th November 2006 the speculation ended as Lewis Hamilton was confirmed McLaren's '2nd driver'. From Alonso's perspective that was fine, a rookie team-mate - no problem. The team was his and with some hard work over the winter McLaren had every chance of being competitive in 2007.

And so we finally reach 2007 and everything was set up for Fernando to succeed at McLaren. Two races in and on the surface it looked like the potential was being fulfilled, 2nd place in Australia and 1st in Malaysia. But dig a little deeper and it was clear that all was not right. From the Spaniard's perspective his start to the season should have cemented his role as number one at McLaren yet all the buzz remained around his younger team-mate. The team was offering equal support to both drivers but with all the Hamilton hype it was easy to look past the achievements of Fernando. And when those achievements are analysed they were really rather incredible.

The McLaren MP4-22 is a car far removed from the Renault R26 Alonso had become at one with the year before. The weight distribution and centre of aero pressure on the McLaren is forward biased essentially the opposite to what Alonso was used to at Renault. This posed some major problems for Fernando who had become accustomed to inducing a huge amount of understeer in the Renault when approaching mid-speed and slower corners. The rearward biased R26 would dutifully comply waiting for the Michellins to load up before rocketing towards the apex allowing Alonso to get back on the power early with minimum oversteer or need for correction. This simply didn't work in the McLaren. Alonso was constantly struggling with front tyre graining in the first half of the season, the McLaren shod Bridgestones simply couldn't cope with Alonso's aggressive style. The 2007 Bridgestones require a softer touch, a more delicate turn in and essentially a car with forward bias in weight and aero pressure. Renault's struggle this year is testimony to that fact.

Something had to give and McLaren weren't about to change their car dynamics to suit Alonso's style. The previous year Montoya had complained about the McLaren's handling characteristics and demanded a new development path - the result was messy and McLaren lost all sense of direction. Instead Alonso had to change and that was cause for contention. As early as Bahrain Ron Dennis was having to mollycoddle his new driver into settling in at McLaren. The first sign was when Dennis and Fernando sat open to the world's press in the middle of the Bahrain Paddock deep in conversation. This was of course a meticulously staged piece 'Ronspeak'. The objective was to present an image of solidarity and openness between driver and team, the reality was much more sinister.

Fernando wasn't entirely at home in the MP4-22 and the publicity surrounding Hamilton was worrying him that he might not get the vital support he needed from the team. The subsequent 5th place in Bahrain was the proof in the pudding. The frustration levels rose for Fernando and mistakes began to appear. The first corner at Spain was the earliest on track sign that Alonso was starting to crack. It was these early trials and disappointments that created the problems that eventually snowballed into the Alonso we have today. The first five races or so with McLaren were the foundations for Alonso's season - they set the tone. At first glance everything seemed fine, two wins in Malaysia and Monte Carlo and a share in the championship lead. Look closer though and the foundations weren't set on solid ground. The relationship is now falling like a house of cards leaving both Alonso and McLaren in a very awkward position.

Yet what is remarkable is Alonso's ability to come throiugh all this and remain on track for a third consecutive title. Sure he's been overly paranoid and at times made major errors of judgement but he's also achieved more this year than any other driver on the grid. Alonso's driving has been sensational. In the past two years he's been super quick by developing the aforementioned driving style, but this year that's all gone out the window and he's still super quick. Alonso has completely changed his driving style to accomodate the new car and tyres - to be frank his achievements have been miraculous. Contrast the steering inputs of 2005 - to his more recent efforts - It's unrecognisable and still he's been stupidly fast. Add to that the tension he's endured at the team and that, essentially, he has done it all by himself. Raikkonen has had similar problems this season but now Ferrari has found a set-up to suit him - Ferrari have supported him. Alonso hasn't had the same support yet he is getting the same results. It's incredible.

Now that's not to say Alonso has done it the right way. To go the Raikkonen route and work with the team (something that is not attributed to Raikkonen very often - and unfairly so) would have made more sense. But it hasn't been that easy for Alonso and McLaren as we know. Instead he has relied on sheer dertermination and effort. The result is sensational self-improvement, uncomaparble with any other driver this year. To put it simply, asking a racing driver to change the way they approach a corner is the same as asking Simon Cowell to lower his waistline - it ain't gonna happen until he gets desperate. Alonso's ability to redress his style then is quite remarkable, espiecially as he's done it in such a hostile environment and to such magnificent effect.

So, that brings us to Interlagos. Can Alonso do it? Well it all rests on what Hamilton doesn't do. If Hamilton doesn't finish in the top three you can guarantee Alonso will be doing everything he can to win. What's more Alonso has nothin to lose. If we have a repeat of the Eau Rouge incident in the Interlagos's Senna S you can gaurantee Alonso won't lift. That is for certain.

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