Bad choices and bad timing has limited one of the best F1 drivers of his generation to only two titles
Fernando Alonso bids adios to F1 at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but his career serves as a cautionary tale
“For me, arguably the greatest driver I've driven against.” That's some praise, especially coming from a five-time world champion like Lewis Hamilton.
The Mercedes-GP driver was asked the question back in August, but he wasn't describing his main rival, Sebastian Vettel, nor indeed his teammate Valtteri Bottas, neither was the plaudit reserved for Max Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo.
His reverence was for a former teammate, Fernando Alonso, who announced in the summer that he is leaving Formula One following the conclusion of Sunday's final race of 2018: the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
It speaks volumes of how highly regarded Alonso is by his peers. Including Alonso, only 16 drivers have won multiple F1 titles. But the nagging sense is that, given his considerable talents, the 37-year-old Spaniard has underachieved.
When Alonso climbed out of his Renault after the Brazilian Grand Prix 12 years ago he did so having just won back-to-back championships. Alonso looked set to dominate for many years to come. Now, at the conclusion of Sunday's 55-lap race at Yas Marina Circuit, one of the greatest drivers of his era will be a mere afterthought. His McLaren will not challenge the podium; he will need others to suffer misfortune if he hopes to even score points. When his final race is run, the Spaniard will no doubt reflect that bad timing and questionable judgement played a huge part in him not adding to those world titles of 2005 and 2006.
Hamilton touched on the root of Alonso’s downfall in his tribute to the man with whom he spent a turbulent season with at McLaren in 2007. “Sport is a very interesting machine and it's not just about being a great driver it's also how you manoeuvre, how you play the game,” the Briton said. “Like a chess game, it's how you position yourself - all these different things that also are a part of the package.”
The chess game that Hamilton referred to was about being in the right team at the right time. Talent gets you so far in F1 but having the best machinery, or at the very least a competitive car, is just as important.
A succession of poor decisions has hurt Alonso since winning the last of his world championships in 2006. He almost won the title in 2007 with McLaren but by then his relationship with Hamilton and the team was so toxic he left at the end of the year.
Alonso returned to Renault, the team where he had enjoyed so much success, but they were no longer serious title challengers. Hamilton would go on to win the 2008 title with McLaren, despite making plenty of errors that Alonso could easily have capitalised on had he not burned his bridges with the British team.
In 2010, Alonso joined Ferrari. The Italian marque had been the dominant force in the 2000s, winning six drivers’ title and seven constructors’ championships. But Red Bull were by then the team to be at. Alonso had reportedly rejected the chance to join them after leaving McLaren at the end of 2007. He came close to winning a coveted third driver's title in 2010 and 2012, taking both title deciders down to the final race, but ultimately lost out to Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel on both occasions. Again his relationship with his team soured, culminating in Ferrari's first winless season for 21 years in 2014.
Alonso was replaced by Vettel. Again the timing of his departure proved ill-advised. Ferrari began to find their form and Alonso, arguably, could have made a better fist of the 2017 and 2018 title races than Vettel. Instead he has for the past three years struggled at McLaren.
His fifth place in at the Australia GP in March, holding off Verstappen in the process, showed Alonso has lost none of his ability. But his reputation in the paddock as being a difficult character, who can be decisive in a team, has hurt him. That partly appears to be why the top teams have been happy to ignore him as an option in recent years when vacancies have become available.
But F1's loss will, broadly speaking, be motorsport's gain. Alonso has had to cast his net wider and has challenged himself in endurance racing and in the United States in recent years.
In June he was part of the winning Le Mans 24 Hours team and has already confirmed he will have another crack at the Indianapolis 500 in May 2019, where an engine failure cost him victory in the 2017 race. More fans will now see him in action, competing at the front, and that can only be a good thing.
Hamilton’s tribute was a reminder F1 has not forgotten how talented Alonso is. But the Spaniard's career serves as a cautionary tale: all the talent doesn't matter if you take the wrong path.
There will be celebrations on Sunday of a career that saw Alonso win 32 races and bag two championships, but his time in F1 ends in the UAE with a whimper rather then a bang.