Italy's Spanish Brother
Why Fernando Alonso Left Ferrari
With the move of Valtteri Bottas to Mercedes this week, it’s a good chance to reflect on another previous driver change in one of the biggest teams in Formula 1. Fernando Alonso both joining and leaving Ferrari was a necessary and inevitable move in both directions. So why was it the best decision for the Spaniard to leave Ferrari? Alonso’s timeline with Ferrari was never going to be boundless, although it wasn’t as extensive as we all expected it to be. What’s most to influence for both his success and failure however, is the intelligence and leadership of one of the greatest drivers of all time.
30th of September, 2009
It was finally the day Fernando Alonso was confirmed to have signed a three year deal with Ferrari, as one of the deadliest driver/team combos in Formula 1 history was conceived. Stefano Domenicali was still the team principal for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro (1) and Luca Di Montezemolo was President and Chairman of Ferrari. That’s how long ago we’re talking about…
(1) Ferrari dropped the Marlboro name from the team at the British Grand Prix in 2011. Tobacco sponsorships and advertising in Formula 1 were banned years before that.
Just a month earlier, Crashgate turned into a frivolous outcome for both Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, while the spicy and feisty Spaniard of Alonso was approaching the one year anniversary of his
only win one of two wins of the 2008 season which ironically included Singapore, as well as Japan.
The timing couldn’t have been more ideal for Alonso. The Renault F1 Team was in turmoil, Brawn GP’s championship winning car was in a performance decline, Kimi Räikkönen was out of the team for next season, Felipe Massa’s injury recovery would keep him out until 2010 (2) , Ferrari subsequently switched their development focus to the F10 and angry Alonso had a chip on his shoulder to beat Ron Dennis…And McLaren. All of this while Ferrari showed brilliant late season form in 2009 to finally sign Alonso to the team, in what was the worst kept secret in Formula 1 at the time.
(2) Felipe Massa was struck by a suspension spring that had fallen from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car during Qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.
This was a man who even stated in 2009 that he would end his career at Ferrari. Statements in the modern day that shouldn’t be taken literally of course, because we all remember Lewis Hamilton mentioning he was going to race for McLaren for the rest of his career after winning the 2008 championship, and how Wayne Rooney sported his “once a blue, always a blue” t-shirt before leaving for Manchester United.
So why did Alonso’s latter prime while at Ferrari not result in a single world championship for five seasons?
Q1 • 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix
Let’s wind back to Q1 in the sandy, salt salivating deserts of the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix. Just a few months earlier I remember visiting the race track on a December trip and envisioned the scream of 24 Formula 1 cars (3) into the first corner and couldn’t for the life of me believe how anybody would be capable of taking the fight to Alonso. The man had already cemented a reputation as one of the angriest athletes in sports, there was no humanely and insanely possible way in which anybody could knock off both himself and his now lusciously long lady attractive hair.
(3) Unfortunately not 26 as Toyota had literally cried their way out of the sport in this press conference.
This is where the beauty of ‘Formula 1’ comes in.
Formula 1 drivers are limited to their machinery. Alonso could sit in a HRT (Not Hormone Replacement Therapy, the Formula 1 team) and the man would still not score a point in what was the longest season in F1 history at the time. (4)
(4) 2010 held 19 races on the calendar, the 2016 season has since surpassed that with 21.
A new onboard camera, the frightening red rosso corsa painted brightly on the Ferrari F10 and the contrasted Spanish and Asturias flag colours on his helmet were coming out of the final corner at the Sakhir Circuit. It hit me right at that moment that Alonso was going to be a demon in the red Ferrari. Sebastian Vettel would have an unusual spark plug failure during the race and Alonso would take the chequered flag and win his first race with Ferrari. (5)
(5) Alonso joins Juan Manuel Fangio / Luigi Muso (1956), Giancarlo Baghetti (1961), Mario Andretti (1971), Nigel Mansell (1989) and Kimi Räikkönen (2007), as drivers to win their first race with Ferrari
Fernando Alonso’s leadership throughout the season was far from cerebral, taking a more pragmatic, emotional and relationship based approach. His performances on track clouted Massa’s ability to return to form from his accident in 2009 and throughout their years at Ferrari as teammates, Alonso made Massa look so bad that I started to question whether Massa was even capable of winning races anymore.
2010 German Grand Prix
The conflict of interest now begins to cause controversy. The German Grand Prix begins on the 25th of July 2010, exactly one year to the day where Felipe Massa suffered his accident in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. “Fernando is faster than you” (6) is born and conceived by a reluctant Rob Smedley and Fernando Alonso wins. Not only had Nando asserted himself as an intimidating number one driver, his leadership and presence was enough to gain the trust of Ferrari who were now obviously submissive to the Spaniard in the public eye. Submissive in a sense that Ferrari allowed Alonso to be who he wanted to be, the same way great leaders tend to avoid changing natural characteristics of the employees they nurture.
Now here is the first of 126 NBA analogies I’ll make today. Steve Kerr (current coach of the Golden State Warriors) allows Stephen Curry to shoot 3’s from ridiculous distances, because he can at a high percentage. This is despite the fact of it being a ridiculous shot for anyone else and as a result, makes him more comfortable executing offensively on the floor. He allows Draymond Green to lead, speak and be boisterous the way he does because he wants Draymond to be more comfortable showing up to his job as a player. It allows him to keep to who he is, yet still fit in with the overall team culture. Gregg Popovich (current coach of the San Antonio Spurs) asked Manu Ginobili why he kept making flashy, risky passes and he responded “This is what I do Pop”. So Coach Pop accepted that being ‘Manu’ was part of the overall package you got with Ginobili.
The reason that all links to Nando, is that Ferrari did the right thing by allowing Alonso to be who he is. Angry, passionate, reveal ambition and provide flair, all while still maintaining the overall Ferrari culture of old.
Back to 2010, the end of season shift in momentum that season was a result of brilliant victories at Monza, Singapore and Korea.
A return to the top step of the podium for Ferrari at Monza was mostly a result of Ferrari making a good strategic call for the first and probably last time in team history. Alonso passed Button coming out of the pits and later celebrated the win by swerving across the finish line. This iconic celebration purely and genuinely signified the joy and importance of a home victory that Ferrari had been waiting for in the post Michael Schumacher era. The joy which Alonso had soaked in both through his champagne on the podium and metaphorically through his leadership for the team.
Alonso even went out of his way and took the time at Singapore to stay close to the pit wall as he crossed the finish line, in order to celebrate and further cement his relationship and commitment with the team. Let’s not act like nobody noticed Vettel finishing only 0.293s behind in second place while doing this, along with Heikki Kovalainen’s combusted Lotus Cosworth in smoke to the same side of the race track. It was the first, and so far only grand slam of his career. (7)
(7) *As of the start of the 2017 F1 season. Grand Slam = Pole position, win, fastest lap and lead every lap. The last grand slam before Alonso’s was recorded by Michael Schumacher at the 2004 Hungarian Grand Prix.
The Spaniard now moved onto Korea, a new track with a memorable turning point to the season. The triumphant return to the championship lead was a double whammy for Red Bull as both drivers also failed to score points. Alonso’s post-race radio celebrations from both himself and the engineers were enough to cement the already great reputation and passion to win at Ferrari. Both Andrea Stella’s (8) motivational comments, as well as Stefano Domenicali’s “Avanti Fer, Avanti!”, are chilling and nostalgic to listen to after what was a thrilling race and substantial turning point in the championship at the time. Thank you very much to JohnTocky on YouTube who saved me a whole paragraph of linking Alonso radio messages from 2010. Most of my favourite ones are already here, along with the celebration at Korea @ 2:11.
(8) Alonso’s race engineer for his entire time at Ferrari was Andrea Stella, who has since moved to McLaren along with Fernando.
Please don’t ask for more. There are more Fernando Alonso radio YouTube clips than the amount of times Juan Pablo Montoya was able to swear by the end of this sentence.
Oh no… Just wait, there’s more…
With the effervescent culture that Alonso had instilled within the team through his own performance and emotional eruption, motivation was high throughout management, engineering and more. This was a vivacious period of time that would go on for most of his years at Ferrari. His constant “never give up” phrase over the years was there to keep his team’s attitude on a positive track. Ironically however, 2011 at Korea would contradict his iconic phrase and the packed ball of emotions would crack. His honesty with the team was a tool that would gain trust with designers and engineers. If the car performed well, he would distribute praise where appropriate. If the car was lacking to competitors, he would call out the team and blatantly say improvement was needed.
There wasn’t any self-deprecating style of personality with Fernando, meaning the team was designing a car for an assertive and confident figure. If the car wasn’t as quick as their rivals, why put the blame on yourself? An objective argument would claim that he’s responsible for living in Maranello to spend excess time on the simulator (which he’d constantly been doing in the previously linked articles anyway). This is in order to spend time with engineers and the wider team, providing his ‘presence’ which in turn also motivates the team. But even so, Ferrari didn’t hire him to improve design quality and innovate on a new front wing, or come up with a concept to rival the F-Duct.
It would be interesting if F1 drivers had to design their own cars though. Considering Ferrari threaten to form a breakaway series year after year, maybe that’s the new concept and idea they need? F1 drivers designing their own cars. What about the driver stepping out of the car to change his own tyres? 1 lap races? What about holding the championship round while incorporating the Monza oval? Anything that would be better than elimination qualifying right?
Therefore it’s an anomaly as to how one of the now greatest driver/team relationships of all time deteriorated over the following years. Entertainment value was at a high for the fans, Ferrari had tapped into the wider Spanish market and the guy could give interviews in four languages. (9) Don’t forget that confidence behind the wheel was as good as it’s ever been. It resulted in one of my personal favourite Fernando Alonso career moments, almost attempting to bump draft Lucas Di Grassi at around 275kph (170 mph) on the uphill run at Beau Rivage in Monaco 2010. (10)
(9) Alonso can speak Spanish, English, Italian and French
(10) — Video disabled.
2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Ferrari however would look poorest at their richest and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix of 2010 marked one of the moments where their excessive passion and obsession for perfection would come out in the wash in the most difficult of periods. Alonso’s ability to motivate and lead his team to work hard on supporting his pursuit to a third world championship, would haunt them dearly as learning to lose was as hard as winning.
Ferrari yet again made another terrible strategic call, what a surprise! You would think a season of constantly putting Felipe Massa on the dud strategy (in order to test out what works for Alonso) would make a difference for their number one driver. It backfired, Petrov happened (11) and the Ferrari team surrounded and comforted Alonso post-race while he lamented what could have been. Massa also swung past and gave the strong ‘dap’ handshake all F1 drivers have adopted. The pound hug without the hug.
(11) — Video disabled.
2011 Formula One Season
The 2011 campaign came along and was already gone before it began. Red Bull’s RB7 was phenomenal both aerodynamically and via mechanical grip, as was its ability to nurture itself into the new Pirelli era of Formula 1. Ferrari’s only victory of the season came off the abnormal race at Silverstone where off-throttle blown diffusers were banned and almost randomised the grid. (12) Nothing to see here…
(12) Off-throttle blown diffusers were initially banned before the 2011 British Grand Prix. This concept proved advantageous for teams such as Red Bull Racing, who significantly lost out along with McLaren during the weekend. Ferrari took advantage of the shakeup and Alonso took victory by over 16 seconds to the dominant Red Bull cars of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. Due to complaints from most teams, the ban was lifted following the event.
Let’s appreciate this for one moment:
As an engineer, team principal, team chef, janitor and you name it, would you rather work to help a driver succeed who isn’t talented and confident enough to start a grand prix like that? Or would you work to support Alonso?
Two wheels on the grass, wheel spin, engine starts to rev… but who cares right? I’m not done yet. Blame Alonso, there are countless of these.
Nailing a race start in Formula 1 is the bat flip after a home run, the touchdown dance or absolutely posterising and dunking all over the guy who tried to take the charge near the rim. Neither of these mean you win the race/game, but they all get the adrenaline pumping and the heartbeat racing.
2012 Formula One Season
2012 was one of the best examples of Alonso’s ability to extract pace from an underperforming car. Underperforming in a sense of expectations, the team had yet again failed to provide a championship dominant car the way Adrian Newey had for Red Bull Racing. We also have to remember that they didn’t have the budget of a 2016 Mercedes, although contradicting this is that they didn’t have the budget-to-points ratio either of a 2016 Force India.
After a long while, you may end up in quick sand such as Williams and the moment they weren’t ‘underperforming’ anymore, it’s a bad sign for the future of your team.
Alonso had now been recognised and exemplified for something different. It was no longer Minardi Alonso, young Alonso, angry Alonso at Renault, angry Alonso at McLaren, 08/09 quiet Alonso and angry Alonso at Ferrari. It was either ‘most respected on the grid’, ‘best driver in a bad car’ and so on… This was a man who evolved in character for the better.
The Australian Grand Prix in 2012 reminded me of the passion Alonso brings to both the fans and his team. After spinning off right in front of my eyes in qualifying at Turn 1, and then seeing him angrily protect the possession of the steering wheel away from the marshals, it was more than obvious this wasn’t the spirit the Spaniard wanted to start the season off with.
Fifteen minutes before the 2013 race the next year, I wasn’t sure if a full, red dressed demon had popped up behind us at Turn 1, or if it was a Ferrari/Alonso fan. After the man whipped out his Spanish Flag and wrapped it around him, it was obvious to me that it was the latter. Heading into Turn 4 of lap one, the crowd now as quiet as Luca Badoer’s 2009 season, Alonso decided to wrap around the outside of Hamilton into the corner while the Spanish fan behind us pierced our ears and shattered the pit wall glass as he yelled “FER!?…. FERNANDO!!!!!!!!” and jigged around with my friend (also an Alonso supporter).
I was horrified, knowing it was who else but Lewis who had been humiliated for attempting to slot up the inside of Massa. This further cemented how petrifying Alonso, his fans and his team could be. Maybe not petrifying, but at least intimidating…
Ferrari had recognised their lack of qualifying pace and as a result, put a copious amount of focus on race setup and then tailoring it to take advantage of the unusual Pirelli tyres. His aforementioned starts were more than exhilarating and helped ‘hide’ the poor qualifying results Ferrari would eventuate on the Saturday.
Of course we must consider the variable whereby most drivers gain positions from qualifying to the race, due to opponent retirements. However Alonso was always known as a poor qualifier throughout his career. It was his launch control starts in the Renault and his well-timed aggressiveness in the Ferrari that would always compensate for that on Sunday. He will always be known as one of the best drivers to launch off the line in the sport’s history.
Also notice how the three leaders (Hamilton, Vettel and Rosberg) in both Qual / Race Pos Diff, as well as pole positions have all driven some of the most dominant F1 cars of all time. Therefore we can’t look too deep into these statistics.
2012 European Grand Prix
Take Valencia 2012 for example, the greatest performance of Alonso’s career and he even claimed it to be the best win he’d felt in his career. The emotional energy and toll it puts on everyone around you now means results need to happen. To put heart and soul into a single victory and cheer with the sea of red, yellow and blue in the stands will come back to haunt you if it doesn’t go well come the end of the season. For a human being to go through an event like that, only to realise it would be false hope without a world championship, it’s those ‘nostalgia’ moments that make Alonso and his posse around him realise that it’s too much to endure and tolerate again.
The season of 2012 was very much like a lottery and very much felt like the rubber band system in Mario Kart that would always slingshot you from last place to first.
The Suzuka clash with Raikkonen was the unsatisfying takedown in Burnout 3 where you didn’t quite smack into the guy but you still executed the PIT manoeuvre well enough to complete a mission in Grand Theft Auto. While the start of the Belgium Grand Prix in 2012 was all Mario Kart. Maldonado boosting at the start, Grosjean with his triple green shells, and Kobayashi had his best Barrichello impression by having a terrible start.
2012 Brazilian Grand Prix
Alonso would “never give up” as always come the final race of the season, screaming his way past with a double overtake on Massa and Webber at the Senna S, embodying the support his Brazilian teammate had given him over the years.
Intentional or not, Massa was there for the team and the team now belonged to Alonso. I also recall his ‘Super Save’ in the wet, racing my heartbeat as if I was sprinting to the bathroom mid-race, whereas he’d ironically probably been to the bathroom in the cockpit after that save.
The emotion, passion and flair throughout the season would nevertheless result in another failed campaign. Ferrari’s culture is evident as ‘to win or fail’ and Alonso overlapping with this philosophy had started to mentally fatigue both himself and a supporter base who couldn’t cope with another season of Fernando losing out to Vettel. The powerful image of Alonso glaring at the celebrations of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing has evolved into him absorbing the sinking feeling as another Ferrari championship slipped away. The sight of a crying mechanic in the Ferrari garage that same cloudy afternoon also shadowed Alonso’s future with the team.
2013 Formula One Season
The 2013 season began and after the first few races it seemed to be déjà vu of 2012. After a couple of wins in China and Spain (which may now conceivably be his final victory in Formula 1), the season ran away with Vettel yet again and Alonso leaving Ferrari rumours began to boil in the middle of the season. By this time, losing was almost cemented and the glory and celebration of winning was lost. If you win and celebrate like you’ve discovered a solution for world hunger, then expect to lose in a depressing fashion. This was what backfired significantly on Nando.
2014 Formula One Season
Of course the 2014 season wasn’t any help, Alonso knew the car wasn’t competitive and he was forced to change teams. The man just had to at this time, all the memories, glory and fight throughout the years were now ineffective and overused. They’d constantly heard the “we never give up” and the “we need to improve”. As any coach of any sport would say, the more and more you use certain quotes and speeches, the less effective they become.
The now retired Tim Duncan from the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs was always portrayed to be a quiet leader by coach Gregg Popovich. He was ‘a leader by example’, never showing up late and always putting in work overtime. This meant every time he opened his mouth to say something, the atmosphere around him knew they were going to be valuable words. This is where Alonso’s constant outgoing passion and leadership came back to bite him. If he won a couple championships, nobody would dare to complain and everything would work to plan. However I truly believe Alonso had no backup plan if he were to lose. The man was so driven that he genuinely believed that in a team such as Ferrari, with his assassinating talent, there was no way he could lose. Di Montezemolo later felt Alonso got it into his mind that he could never win with Ferrari, which of course was further demotivation for the overall team who had adored their long lost Spanish brother for so many years.
Luck has a spot to play in any sport and in Formula 1, sometimes more than any. If Grosjean wasn’t a “first-lap nutcase” according to Mark Webber, Alonso may have a third championship with Ferrari. The two time world champion could easily have four to his name if we want to clutch at straws. Then again, we could easily say Massa should also be the 2008 world champion, Lewis could have won 2012, Kimi Räikkönen was the 2005 world champion, Eddie Irvine was the 1999 champion and so on… All of this as Vettel once said, is “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” and that just doesn’t cut it in Formula 1.
Despite all his motivation, strategy, tactics, work ethic and overall leadership, the man’s goal to accomplish becoming a world champion with Ferrari never came to fruition. Of course without Adrian Newey, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing, Fernando Alonso would have an extra two championships to his name with Ferrari. Don’t forget, Stefano Domenicali along with Martin Whitmarsh would probably both still be leading Ferrari and McLaren as team principals respectively if Newey had never existed. Maybe Maurizio Arrivabene never arrives well to Ferrari? Maybe Whitmarsh never panics into a Honda deal for 2015…
Let’s simulate Fernando Alonso’s career at Ferrari ten more times.
- (3/10) He would be triumphant and win the 2010 and 2012 world championships, Stefano Domenicali is promoted to president and chairman of Ferrari as Luca Di Montezemolo retires, all while Sebastian Vettel moves to McLaren and would win his next race in Formula 1 with Ferrari in 2018.
- (1/10) Alonso would again win the 2010 and 2012 championships and would retire at the end of 2015 once Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes’ dominance truly hammered home.
- (2/10) Alonso would win the 2010 championship while Lewis Hamilton would claim the 2012 championship. As a result, Hamilton would stay at McLaren until 2014, Sergio Pérez is hired by Ferrari for the 2014 season before being fired for 2015. Vettel and Hamilton both move to Ferrari for 2016 and surprisingly, the odd couple becomes the most loved driver pairing on the grid. Fans start to enjoy the pair as they would fail to succeed and win any more championships, therefore becoming much more loved by society. Making the front page, Fernando Alonso would move to Mercedes for 2014 and win a further two championships, Nico Rosberg would win 2016 and shockingly still retire. And meanwhile, I know you’re all wondering about Nico Hülkenberg. He’s forever snubbed by the top teams in F1 and he stays with Force India until 2016. Alright maybe that’s harsh, but that’s the business of the sport right?
- (4/10) The rest would be exactly as it played out in reality. Considering the Ferrari F10, F150 Italia, F2012, F138 and the F14 T were never the most dominant car, as well as the circumstances with Red Bull and McLaren, Alonso was sublime in the Ferrari. What’s that final image of Alonso going to be when it’s all said and done?
Eventually, Alonso asked Di Montezemelo to release him from the final two years of his contract, which also reinforces my point of how F1 contract security means nothing. “Driver X signs a five year deal and within a couple of seasons they’re already out”, which makes clairvoyance significantly more predictable. There’s a method of navigation around F1 contracts which allowed Fernando to burst out of his deal.
Fernando took the risk of moving to McLaren, a gamble of winning the world championship there before his career comes to an end. That gamble instead resulted in a GP2 drive. In November 2008, I still recall somebody predicting on an F1 forum somewhere that the 2009 World Champion would be ‘Honda’s Jenson Button’. A team that was later sold for £1. 2017 is upon us and ironically, Honda again have some interesting power unit concepts. You never know what the future holds, but you can always influence the outcome of your decisions.