MONTMELO – Traditionally marking the start of the European season and heralding the arrival of a number of car upgrades, the Spanish Grand Prix is one of the most important races of the year in Formula 1.
However, for one driver, it is perhaps even more poignant. Fernando Alonso returns to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya this weekend for his home grand prix, and even though all hopes of a victory in front of his loyal fan base have long been dashed, the McLaren driver knows that this could be a defining race for his season.
Alonso was the first Spanish driver to win a grand prix back in 2003, and clinched back-to-back world titles with Renault in 2005 and 2006. Since then though, he has faced abject disappointment by coming close to the championship on a number of occasions, only to fall short at the final hurdle in 2007, 2010 and 2012. There is a valid argument for him being a five-time champion.
Few drivers are able to capture the spirit of the fans like Alonso. In Spain on Thursday, they were out in their thousands at the track asking for pictures and autographs from their hero ahead of his first Spanish GP race weekend for McLaren.
Barcelona is where the F1 development race really hots up, and for McLaren, it needs to mark a big turnaround in fortunes following its worst ever start to a Formula 1 season.
It has been something of a ‘positive rut’ for McLaren, though. The team expected to struggle since moving away from Mercedes power units at the end of last year and reuniting with Honda, the manufacturer that powered it to eight world titles with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the late eighties and early nineties. So long as Mercedes’ focus rightly remained with its works team, McLaren stood little chance of re-finding its former glories and winning world titles. To move forwards, the team had to move back.
And the same was true for Alonso. When he joined Ferrari in 2010, it was supposed to mark the beginning of a golden era for both the driver and the team; it would be Schumacher-esque. Instead, the end result was disappointment, frustration and anger. Their parting was by no means a happy one.
Ferrari wasn’t exactly short of names to replace Alonso, though, snapping up four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull. When the German stood on the top step of the podium in Malaysia five weeks ago, ending a two-year win drought for Ferrari in just his second race for the team, the jury quickly deemed that Alonso had made a huge error leaving when he did.
It is worth noting that the notion of Alonso leaving Ferrari is a tenuous one. It was a mutual parting: Ferrari didn’t want Alonso, and he’d had enough of finishing fifth. Both needed a fresh start in 2015. The new regime at Maranello led by Sergio Marchionne and Maurizio Arrivabene had to remove all of the embers that still burned from the flat-lining operation that existed before.
The rapid improvement of Ferrari’s car is not completely down to the new regime, of course. The SF15-T was not a six-week job by any stretch of imagination. However, the improved atmosphere at the team has undoubtedly come as a result of the changes that were enacted.
Is the grass always greener, though? Did Alonso walk into McLaren expecting the riches of race wins and world championships? Quite simply, he did not. He knew there would be this tough spell, and was pleased with how the team performed at the last race in Bahrain, where he finished 11th.
“I think in Bahrain we had a nice step and that brought us closer to the Q3 cut-off and also to the points, and we need another small step to reach that goal,” he said.
“Obviously it’s not what we want. We want to be on the podium and win races, but one step at at time and hopefully here in Barcelona we can see this step.”
Car quality aside, many believed that Alonso could not possibly make a happy return to McLaren given his disastrous one-year spell at the team back in 2007. The Spaniard arrived as the double world champion, only to be upstaged by then-rookie Lewis Hamilton. The fractured relationship between Alonso and McLaren reached breaking point when he threatened to give email evidence to the FIA in the ‘spygate’ espionage scandal that eventually saw the team get chucked out of the constructors’ championship.
When Alonso left at the end of 2007, a return seemed impossible. However, a weird marriage of convenience has been formed in 2015. McLaren and Alonso are both crestfallen and in need of a revival. Together, they may be able to achieve that.
This fact is not lost on team boss Ron Dennis, who has been full of praise for Alonso in recent weeks amid the team’s struggles. Such support has only boosted Alonso.
“I have been always very lucky to have the support of all my teams and all of my bosses,” Alonso said. “What is important is to be happy with your job – to know and to make sure that your discipline and your professionalism is at the highest level when you are working for a team and that the people who pay you at the end of the month are happy.”
But how long will Alonso be happy to wait for McLaren to get back to the front of the field? One journalist put the question to the Spaniard on Thursday, saying that Eric Boullier, the team’s racing director, claimed the team needed four years.
“Well you know, if I could sign now that in four years I will win, yes – but it is not a guarantee,” Alonso said. “If I can fight for a world championship or not, only time will tell us, but I’m a very happy person so it’s no problem to wait.”
It may have been a hypothetical question, but Alonso’s answer was very telling. He has a three-year deal with the team, and although he is unlikely to be happy to fight outside of the points for three years, it is perhaps unlikely that he would automatically quit if he did not have a title.
Just as Jose Mourinho dubbed himself “the happy one” when he returned to Chelsea FC for a second stint following his acrimonious exit in 2007, Fernando Alonso appears to be doing much the same.
He may not be as successful on track right now than he would have been with Ferrari, but he is clearly far happier and prepared for this long-term project to return both himself and McLaren to their former greatness.