The year was 2006. Fernando Alonso was taking quick steps towards his second Championship with Renault. Michael Schumacher, in his final season with Ferrari, was the only man who stood in between. The world wanted to see him bow out with a last title win, but Alonso had other plans. Among them, his intention to take the number '1' to McLaren in 2007, and then came a shocking statement from the Spaniard.
"The whole team is gutted, apart from the handful of people who don't want me to take the No 1 to McLaren," he said, after finishing second to Schumacher in the 2006 Chinese GP, with two races remaining.
Then, the year was 2007. Alonso had succeeded in taking that number '1' to Woking. It was a dream move for him, emulating Alain Prost who too had moved from Renault to McLaren to attain glory. But like the Frenchman, he too encountered a problem, self-proclaimed Ayrton Senna of the new age, a rookie. He has his critics but let it be said that Lewis Hamilton gave Alonso more than he could chew in his only season at McLaren.
Everyone knows how that story unfolded in Hungary, bringing an end to their so-called friendship and brought a sizzling rivalry out in the open, the likes of which were seen ages ago. By the end of that season, McLaren sided with Lewis, completely isolating Alonso in light of his threats regarding the 'Spygate Scandal'. That he still fought for the Championship and just missed out is testament to the fact that he is the top-ranking racing-driver in this class of the Formula One grid.
There are two more years you remember whenever the phrase 'Alonso and team-mates' comes up. 2008, in Singapore, Nelson Piquet jr slammed his car into the wall and Alonso won the race. He came out clean from that incident, an unconvincing truth, and then moved on to Ferrari. 2010, then at Hockenheim (Germany), where he was so much quicker than Felipe Massa that the Brazilian was brushed aside by the Scuderia's pit-wall and never recovered his confidence.
It makes you wonder about his mind-set. Alonso is unflappable at most times and his dogged-will single-handedly helps him to race the hell out of any car he drives. But there is an insecurity that always lingers at the back of his mind, one that comes to the fore-front whenever he feels things are falling apart. What's worse, he takes it out on his team, as can be seen in examples from his time at Renault and McLaren. The small fact that they employ him to race for them, and not the other way around, goes missing from his attention.
This behaviour is most seen from his time at Ferrari. He arrived in 2010 when they were looking for someone to bring about a Schumacher-like revolution and then he drove the wheels off their cars for three seasons running. Truth be told, he should have been champion that season and again in 2012, bringing his tally to four titles. But it stands at two. Ferrari's strategy mistakes at the 2010 Abu Dhabi GP cost him and last season, Vettel just outdrove him in yet another Adrian Newey master-class.
Let it be said here that Vettel is not Alonso's problem. His problem is that Newey doesn't design his car. Chasing the German for last three seasons and a half has led him to believe that the Scuderia cannot deliver him a car worthy of winning the Championship. That, perhaps, he is better than the resources currently available to Maranello and invariably the cars they are building. As much as that may be the truth, the problem is that this is not Renault or even McLaren we are talking about. This is Ferrari and they don't take bulls**t.
Bringing Kimi Raikkonen back underlines Ferrari's intent for 2014. And you cannot fault that thought. They haven't won a Drivers' title since the Finn's 2007 win and have missed out on Constructors' Championships since 2008, thanks largely to Massa's poor runs. With a super-team next season, one that collects points like nobody's business, they will be near-unbeatable. Mercedes' pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg has just taken a beating, and it is not unimaginable that Christian Horner lost some sleep when the news broke.
Common consensus says that this experiment by Ferrari is likely to end in tears. And no, not because of Raikkonen for the Finn usually knows what he is doing. He is not a modern-day F1 racer in true terms, is as apolitical as they come and will never succumb to playing games within a team. His no-nonsense approach lifts him, and maybe, just maybe, will lift Alonso as well. Team-mates in F1 can have that effect on each other.
Alonso's overtaking manoeuvre on Raikkonen's Lotus on the inside-line at the second corner (first lap) of Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya at this year's Spanish GP (a race that Alonso went on to win!) tells you enough about his superiority over his future team-mate. These two are the best drivers in terms of race-pace and race-craft at the moment, and only Lewis and Vettel come close, if you consider qualifying-pace as well. Alonso will probably just shave it, narrowly, and finish ahead of Kimi.
However, it is one thing for Ferrari to say that Alonso is their 'key asset' and that Kimi's presence will only spur him further. That he has matured enough since the McLaren days to handle this situation. And it is a completely different thing, the off-chance that reverse happens.
What then? What if Kimi is leading Alonso at the half-way mark next season? How will Alonso behave, for he has never handled a team-mate's challenge since 2007 and even then, he didn't handle it all that well? For once, we want to see that happen.
We want to see Alonso challenged by his team-mate and indeed finish on top. We want him to throw the gauntlet at Vettel, that he beat an equal driver in equal machinery, fair and square. What we don't want to see are toys thrown out of the pram. We don't want to see Alonso go down in history as a cry-baby, a whiner, a problem Champion who shivered at the prospect of an equal team-mate. This is his test.
How he handles Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari is how Fernando Alonso will be remembered.
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