F1: Fernando Alonso says age no barrier as he expects strong return

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Though Fernando Alonso will be 39 when he returns to Formula One next season with Renault, he feels his reflexes and racing craft will not weaken with age.

His widely anticipated F1 return became official Wednesday when the French manufacturer announced that he will replace Daniel Ricciardo next year.

Alonso won both of his world titles with Renault in 2005-06 but still looked sharp driving an uncompetitive car during his last season with McLaren in 2018 before walking away.

“The stopwatch is the only thing that matters, not the age,” he said Wednesday during a media session. “I never had a classification on the race based on the passport, my date of birth. It’s always on stopwatch. Hopefully we’re still fast.”

That remains to be seen considering Renault struggled last season, finishing fifth in the constructors’ championship and one place behind McLaren, the team it supplies engines to.

But he certainly feels in good enough shape to take up the challenge.

“I had to start very specific fitness preparations, I started in February, so now I’m 100%,” he said. “We did a couple of fitness tests 15 days ago, and I had the best results ever in my career, so I’m extremely motivated, happy and stronger than ever.”

However, because of rule changes teams will use the same cars for 2021, and Alonso may not have a genuinely competitive car until 2022, when he will turn 41 in late July.

“I will try to do my best, and try and help the team be a world champion team. If that’s with me driving, fantastic, but if that’s with a future younger driver, I will feel proud anyway,” he said. “I think the 2022 rules will hopefully bring some fairness to the sport and some close action with teams more level and less scope to invent something that has a large performance advantage.”

Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul said part of Alonso’s role will be to offer, advise and support young prospects coming through the Renault Sport Academy.

“His presence in our team is a formidable asset on the sporting level,” Abiteboul said. “His experience and determination will enable us to get the best out of each other.”

Alonso, who will race alongside French driver Esteban Ocon next year, had quit F1 to focus on winning motorsport’s triple crown.

Having already won the Monaco Grand Prix, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race but still is hunting the Indianapolis 500. He is entered at the Brickyard for the race’s rescheduled 104th running Aug. 23 (on NBC).

Alonso won 32 F1 races and is widely considered one of the most talented drivers of his era alongside six-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton.

“It’s a great source of pride and with an immense emotion I’m returning to the team that gave me my chance at the start of my career,” Alonso said. “I have principles and ambitions in line with the team’s project.”

Alonso showed remarkable consistency when finishing on the podium in the first nine races of the 2006 campaign, and has 97 top-three finishes in F1.

“He is an incredible talent, and we can’t wait to have him back on the grid,” F1 chairman Chase Carey said.

Alonso is sixth on the all-time win list, but his last came at the Spanish GP seven years ago with Ferrari. He finished runner-up in the title race three times with the famed Italian manufacturer before joining McLaren in 2015.

McLaren struggled badly after switching to a Honda engine, and he failed to secure a podium finish in four seasons.