Life with McLaren may not be perfect, but Alonso continues to justify his move away from Ferrari

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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.

Hunter and Jett Lawrence walk a delicate balance between winning races and favoring the fans

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ANAHEIM, California – Hunter and Jett Lawrence are two of the most popular riders on the Monster Energy Supercross circuit, with fan bases that established and grew immediately when they came to America to ride for HRC Honda. Connecting with those fans came naturally for the charming Australian brothers, but it has not come without cost.

“It’s cool they’re there and it’s one of the things we try to do is give the fan that interaction,” Hunter told NBC Sports during Supercross Media Sessions ahead of the 2023 season. “It’s why we do ride days, meet-and-greets, press conferences  – all that stuff, because it’s exciting for them. We are trying to bridge the gap so they get personal interaction. Because that’s all they’re after. It’s all about getting that fan to think, ‘I know that guy. I didn’t meet him, but I get him. I get his humor.’ ”

There is no artifice in either brother. Their fan appeal is directly attributable to who they are at their core. And it’s that very genuineness that has throngs of fans standing outside their hauler, waiting for just a moment of their time.

“It’s about being yourself – talking to people,” Hunter said. “It’s not like I turn it on or turn it off; it’s just about being yourself. This is who we are, this is who you get and this is how it will be. You can’t portray something you’re not. If you keep saying you’re an orange, but apples keep popping out, it’s only a matter of time [until they figure it out].”

The key word is ‘throngs’, however. One person wanting just a few moments of time is incidental. Dozens are an entirely different matter.

“It’s tough in Supercross because it’s such a long day,” Hunter said. “The recovery side of it’s tough to do everything. We get stuck outside the grid; we can’t be there for like 10 minutes. We’re stuck there for like an hour. It gets overwhelming at times.

“You feel bad because you want to sign everything, but you’re still here for a job. Every race day is like that. We do the best we can, but there are so many people who wait out front. They’re screaming for you. Even when we’re coming off the sessions, they’re already yelling before you put your bike on the stands. You don’t even get time to take you helmet off.”

It can be a double-edged sword. Personality is only one part of the equation. A much bigger part of the brothers’ fan appeal comes because of their success. Hunter finished second in the last two Supercross 250 West title battles and third in the past two Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships.

Jett won the last three titles he competed for, including last year’s 250 East Supercross Championship and the last two Motocross contests.

“I think they expect me to have nothing else to do on a Saturday and that I have unlimited energy,” Jett said. “But, I’m trying to recover for the next race.”

It’s a matter of timing. Jett has gained a reputation last year for handing out hundreds of donuts before the races during Red Bull fan appreciation sessions. And after the race, once the business at hand has been settled, Jett is equally available to the fans.

“After the race it’s fine; I’ll stay behind.” Jett said. “My job is done on the racing side of things, but until that last moto is done, my main thing is dirt bikes. The fans come along with it. The fans are part of the job, but main job at hand is the racing side of things. After the race, I’ll stay there for an hour or so. It’s a lot calmer.”