In praise of… Fernando Alonso

The indefatigable Fernando Alonso. Photo by Darren Heath

The indefatigable Fernando Alonso. Photo by Darren Heath

A couple of months ago, when I was interviewing Sir Stirling Moss for my next book, he was keen to draw a distinction between those drivers who can simply conduct a car quickly and those who have a special mindset – a sort of heroic indomitability, if you like:

There are very few real racers in the world, as opposed to mere racing drivers. They’re the people who have a ruddy good go. I don’t mean to say that the others aren’t trying, because they are; but they don’t have the mental ability to push to the same extent, to really take it to a higher level. In my day it would be Juan Manuel Fangio, who to my mind was the best driver there has ever been; and Jean Behra was a real racer, too. Today you would say that people such as Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are the real racers.

Lewis Hamilton’s combative drive to sixth position from 20th on the grid in the Malaysian Grand Prix last week demonstrated precisely those qualities, although many observers (including, perhaps, Moss himself) would have frowned upon his abrupt treatment of Vitaly Petrov. For any race fan with a soul, though, the most impressive drive of last weekend ended with a result that will not trouble the statisticians’ figures: 13th place for Fernando Alonso.

Hindered from the off by a recalcitrant gearbox and a clutch that appeared to have turned into chocolate, Alonso just drove around the problem, booting the throttle to persuade each gear to engage. Surely it’s not possible to drive a modern F1 car like this? On Sunday Alonso proved that it is.

There was overtaking, too; while anyone in possession of a laptop, some fingers and enough brain cells to rub together has spent the past few weeks venting spleen on the internet about the lack of passing in F1, when the need arose Alonso just got on with it. And when his engine cried enough he was attacking Jenson Button – for what? Eighth place?

Here is the real weakness of the reliability formula in which each driver has a restricted quota of engines and gearboxes to last the season. A driver taking a more corporate, long-term view of the championship would have coasted back to the garage and parked in the hope that his engine and gearbox could be salvaged.

Not Alonso, though. He was having, in the words of Moss, “A ruddy good go.” He is a real racer, as was the man who gave Alonso’s team its name. At any point in the Malaysian Grand Prix Ferrari could have ordered Alonso to retire. They didn’t; Enzo would never have stood for it…

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  • Comments (18)
  1. If Malaysia showed us anything, it’s that F1 doesn’t reward drivers who have “a ruddy good go” any more than those who play the tactical waiting game.

    Lewis Hamilton gained exactly as many places by rolling up his sleeves and overtaking as Felipe Massa did by waiting for the cars in front of him to pit (and, admittedly, picking off Button’s McLaren, albeit with rather worn tyres).

    I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, but that’s the way it is.

  2. Apologies for taking this off on a bit of tangent, but this bit:

    Today you would say that people such as Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are the real racers.

    I’m still yet to be converted to the notion that Sebastian Vettel is the second coming. He’s almost there, almost… but the start of the Malaysian Grand Prix is about the only time I can recall where I thought “golly, he’s shown some aggression!”

    The times Vettel has started towards the back of the grid, he’s been fairly muted and only succeeded in the Brazilian Grand Prix through a long middle stint. I would love to see how he fares under similar circumstances with the ban on refuelling this year.

  3. Agree with Dank, I’m a huge Vettel fan but he needs to be more aggressive to step up another level, hopefully he’s learnt this from last year, his cut through the field in Brazil and Malaysian GP start both were good races and shows he can come through the field, just needs to do it more.

    I was a big fan of Alonso back in 2003 when he joined Renault, my respect for him this year has come back massively thanks to his last 2 drives. His drive in Melbourne was fantastic, not giving up despite being last by turn 1.

    Malaysia again saw Fernando go for it on the last lap, shame it didn’t pay off but huge kudos to him for not simply sitting back and saving the engine, that is what racing is all about.

    Like Keith said this all or nothing attitude didn’t reward Fernando but sometimes it does pay off, just like in Europe 2007 when he went for the move on Massa in the last few laps to take victory.

    Great post anyway, if Fernando takes the title and continues driving like this he thoroughly deserves it.

    • Stuart C
    • April 7th, 2010

    I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, but that’s the way it is.

    Dreary as this truth is, you’re not wrong, Keith!

    I’m still yet to be converted to the notion that Sebastian Vettel is the second coming.

    Interesting thought… So many people take his excellence as a self-evident truth; anyone else out there a Vettel naysayer?

    • Lisa
    • April 7th, 2010

    So many people take his excellence as a self-evident truth; anyone else out there a Vettel naysayer?

    I’m undecided. I suspect a large amount of Bernie-instigated hype, and I’m still not sure he can overtake in the normal course of a race, ie not off the start.

  4. Right, so I am a massive Seb fan, and my memory isn’t at its best, but he overtook loads of cars in Brazil last year. He even overtook Button just for laughs at the Chinese Grand Prix last year, although Button had another pit stop and he could have just waited for him to get out of his way.
    Fair enough, he doesn’t tend to move up the grid too much, but that’s because he is such a good qualifier he is always up there to begin with!
    2009 was an odd year for overtaking anyway, because of KERS. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do this year.

  5. Vettel for me is the new Michael Schumacher. They mostly have the same strengths (awesome speed from the start, ability to move a team forward), but also mostly have the same weaknesses (struggles in midfield, has the occasional brain fade).

    Ultimately, no matter his strengths or weaknesses, he will be judged (quite rightly) based on his results. And right now, his results are showing he’s almost there (regular race wins, title campaigns last year and this year), but without a WDC, he’s not quite there yet.

    • Stuart C
    • April 7th, 2010

    The Schumacher comparison is an interesting one, what with Michael being off the boil at the moment; if Mercedes can make their car ‘pointier’ will we see a face off between the new Schumacher and the old one? Fascinating viewing…

    • Steven Roy
    • April 7th, 2010

    I am shocked anyone thinks Vettel is a real racer like Hamilton or Alonso. Where is the evidence for that? I just did a quick check on his 2009 season. I looked at all the races which he finished. In those races his lowest finising position was 8th. That gives us a total of 12 races. To me a real racer would improve on his qualifying position regularly. If you count it up you see in 12 races Vettel gained 15 positions but 12 of those were gained in Brazil. In a season he gained one more position than Hamilton did on Sunday. So in 11 races he gained a total of 3 positions over his qualifying position. Hardly outstanding. Hardly even average. Hardly the results of a real racer.

    We have been fed the Vettel myth since he turned up in F1 just as we have recently been spun the Kobayashi myth. The first thing a racing driver must do is beat his team mate especially if they are in the top team in a championship and one of them is going to win it. In Euro F3 Vettel lost the championship to his equally experienced team mate. I know people will say anything outside F1 shouldn’t count but name me another top driver who has done that. Hamilton didn’t, Alonso didn’t, Schumacher didn’t, Senna didn’t, Prost didn’t etc.

    I think in 5 years time people will laugh that Vettel was considered the great German hope because Germany has a proper racer who also never lost a championship to a team mate in the junior formulae. His name is Nico Hulkenberg and he is a real racer.

    For anyone who doesn’t know Vettel’s team mate who beat him to the Euro F3 championship was Paul di Resta. It is ridiculous that he is yet to start a race when he beat his team mate to that championship which is supposedly the most important thing for a driver to do when Vettel now has this great reputation.

  6. Si el motor de Fernando hubiera aguantado dos vueltas más y hubiera logrado pasar a Button, se estaría hablando de una hazaña: pero la rotura del motor no debe cambiar el juicio: ha sido una formidable lección de competitividad, sin tirar la toalla hasta la extenuación.

    • Stuart C
    • April 8th, 2010


    Estoy totalmente de acuerdo!

    @Steven Roy

    Certainly a more level-headed view of Kobayashi would have evolved if we didn’t live in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. Trouble is, everyone has to update their sites daily and in the absence of real news, fluff about the sensation du jour eventuates…

    • Scribe
    • April 8th, 2010

    Well, I think it’s still possible to withold judgement on Vettle, currently he’s in the best car so we can’t judge him properly till starts winning after racing properly. All of his vitories have been lights to flag, normal affairs. A first lap pass with the door held wide open isn’t quite the same as say, round the outside of Schumacher on 120R or Rosberg at 150 through turn 4 into 5 at Auz.

    Vettel has prooved he has the mindset but he has never proved he’s got on track steel, he is a wet whether master no doubt, but a true champion can win from anywhere an he’s never had to.

    Hopefully Ferrari an McLaren catch Redbull this season. Then we’ll get to see him tested against the grids two proper racers an against machinery equal to his own.

    • bwells
    • April 8th, 2010

    That was an inspired drive by Fernando for sure… I watched teh onboard video and luckily it shows a lot of his drive.. it’s amazing how he wrestled that beast around the track! That’s exactly what we want in today’s racing.. he could of sat back and collected 2 points but he went for it at all cost… he is a true racer and will win another WDC with Ferarri soon…

  7. @Steven Roy

    It is more than a little unfair to compare Hamilton’s and Vettel’s position gaining in 2009. Vettel made most of his positions in brazil because that was the only race he started outside the top 10 (by a long way!) while Hamilton spent a lot more time towards the back of the grid.

    Also, Hamilton had nothing to lose so he was more aggressive, while Vettel was fighting for the championship and he was trying to think about the bigger picture.

    Finally, Hamilton had KERS. Remember Raikkonen/Fisichella at Spa?

    • Alistair
    • April 9th, 2010

    I’m no fan of Vettel. I think that he is the most overrated driver on the grid. What exactly has he done to warrant being called the new Schumi? His pre-F1 career is not that impressive: he was indeed beaten by the young Scot. In fact, his F1 career is not that impressive.

    There are two principle weaknesses that Vettel has. First, he cannot overtake. We have seen it time and time again: when Vettel is stuck behind another car, he is either unable or unwilling even to attempt to overtake. E.g., recall Bahrain last year where Button made light work of Lewis’s McLaren but Vettel could not pass. Second, Vettel makes far too many mistakes. These include the collisions he has with other drivers, many of which are silly; e.g., his colliding with Kubica at Australia last year; and his colliding with DC at Silverstone the year before. Not forgetting his spins; e.g., Monaco 09. Nor, indeed, the daft and completely unnecessary mistakes that cost him vital points without ending his race; e.g., his running wide and losing a position to Button at Turkey 09. He simply does not have the consistency of a world champion.

    In Vettel’s defence, people cite his drive at Monza 08. But this, again, is overrated. First, Vettel had a great car at that race: don’t forget, it had a Ferrari engine and a RBR (Newey) designed chassis. It was no second-hand Minardi, as was so ludicrously claimed. Mario Theissen even said, at the time, that Vettel had the best car that race. Regardless, it was certainly very strong; and it needed to be for Bourdais, Vettel’s lacklustre team-mate, to qualify fourth! Moreover, Vettel was somewhat fortunate to have almost all his main rivals behind him (Lewis starting 15th; Kimi,14th. Kubica, 11th; etc). And it was Lewis, not Vettel, who put on a master-class of wet-weather driving: his superlative passes on Kimi and Kubica (and others) are on YT for all to see.

    So, one reason for Vettel’s unwarranted reputation is that he has driven pretty competitive cars which have been much underestimated by some people in F1 circles. Another reason is that Vettel has not had a first-class team-mate. In F1, the man against whom you are judged is your team-mate: he is the only true benchmark. Yet, Vettel has been paired with team-mates who are, at worst, disappointing and, at best, average in F1: Heidfeld, Liuzzi, Bourdais, and Webber. Consequently, Vettel has usually had little difficulty in beating his team-mates, with the effect that this further enhances his reputation.

    Another reason is that Bernie keeps piling the praise on the young German. Why? Well, Vettel has an easy-going personality and is, thus, likeable; so that may be part of the reason. But I rather think that Bernie is also a cunning businessman who has the good of F1 at issue here. He is trying to ‘spice it up’ once more. Simply put, I think he is trying to find a true rival to Lewis: someone who can be thought of at his level. But this is clearly not the case. Lewis beat the reigning, double world champion in his first ever season; he has won a wet race by over a minute, the only other man to do so in the past few decades was Senna; Lewis has demonstrated an abundance of overtaking ability…

    Lewis is in another league. Vettel has a lot to prove. Considering he has arguably had the best car, both this season and last, he has achieved little tangible success.

    • Stuart C
    • April 9th, 2010


    Interesting thoughts, Alistair.

    Very refreshing to hear lots of views that contrast with what we scribblers are writing…

    • Steven Roy
    • April 9th, 2010

    Very refreshing to hear lots of views that contrast with what we scribblers are writing…

    You are here for an argument? 5 minute or the full half hour? ;)

    • JZ
    • April 19th, 2010

    Interesting thoughts, indeed. I hadn’t really second-guessed Vettel’s abilities…until now. I don’t think anyone can reasonably doubt his quickness: He has delivered some epic pole laps over the last two seasons. You might call it luck or coincidence (or lucky coincidence) that his arrival at Red Bull coincided with the team’s rise to contender status; likewise with Toro Rosso’s emergence in 2008. But none of this translates into him being a “ruddy good goer”…and well, by golly, I’m gonna be “evaluating” him a bit differently for the now.

    Great post, Stuart. I guess you should post about Vettel more often…

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