It was Ted Kravitz, of all people, who best captured the essence of Fernando Alonso’s impact at Aston Martin during the F1 2023 season.
As the Sky F1 presenters, pundits and commentators gathered together on the pit straight in Abu Dhabi to offer their annual end-of-season reflections, it was the contribution of Kravitz, the broadcaster’s pit-lane reporter, that was the most pertinent.
“As a competitive proposition – in terms of the fight for who was going to be World Champion – this has not been a good season, has it?” began Kravitz shortly after Max Verstappen’s 19th victory in 22 races.
Fernando Alonso at Aston Martin: Story of the F1 2023 season?
“But it has been enlivened! By a 42-year-old Spaniard! Driving essentially a Jordan!”
There was a certain charm to the sight of Alonso in an Aston Martin in 2023, racing for a team he wouldn’t have looked at twice just a few short years ago and who, as Midland, failed to score a single point during Alonso’s last title-winning season back in 2006.
That team is a very different place now and has far greater ambitions under the ownership of Lawrence Stroll, yet a two-time World Champion walking into a team with a modest history and taking it to amazing new heights made for one of the stories of the season.
Despite his reputation as someone who would start a fight in an empty room – which has stalked him all the way from his first spell at Renault to Ferrari, McLaren and Alpine – Alonso embraced with humility and open eyes the challenge of building something meaningful at Aston Martin.
You could see it, for instance, in the way he would launch himself into the arms of his mechanics in celebration after every single one of his eight podium finishes across the year.
You could sense it in the way he spoke with pride, after the last of those podiums in Brazil, about the way Aston Martin had remained “very united” in a fashion that was “not normal” during a challenging period either side of the summer break, a situation he believed would have torn other teams apart.
You could even hear it in the way he would encourage his team-mate Lance Stroll over team radio during a race, or congratulating the team on an particularly efficient pit stop.
All part of the political game when his team-mate also happens to be the son of the team owner, of course, but every little helps…
Even after the first race, team principal Mike Krack was already glowing about Alonso’s effect on the team and how he had brought renewed energy, confidence, belief to what had been a stuttering project until that point.
And come the end of the season he was talking openly about extending Alonso’s contract, admitting the reality of working with him has been very different to his pre-2023 perceptions.
There is a genuine connection here, Alonso scratching Aston’s back by delivering a level of success the team could have only dreamed of not so long ago and Aston returning the favour by allowing Alonso to shine again in his most competitive season since his penultimate year at Ferrari in 2013.
Watching such a seemingly odd couple work together in such joyous harmony brings to mind another great modern motorsport love story between Sebastien Ogier and another punchy British team, M-Sport, in the World Rally Championship across 2017/18.
Ogier was very much the natural heir to his namesake Loeb in the WRC, winning four consecutive titles with Volkswagen – overseen by Jost Capito, who would later have a brief spell as Williams F1 boss – following Loeb’s retirement from full-time competition at the end of 2012.
Yet the rug was pulled from beneath Ogier’s feet when in late 2016 VW announced their withdrawal from the WRC in light of the emissions scandal.
Suddenly the greatest rally driver in the world was on the outside looking in, without a drive just weeks before the start of the 2017 season.
The great benefit of being the greatest rally driver in the world was that Ogier was not exactly short of offers – he and co-driver Julien Ingrassia tested the Toyota factory team’s Yaris one week, M-Sport’s Ford Fiesta the next – before settling on the romantic option.
The most familial of family teams based in Cumbria, privateers M-Sport were the Force India of the WRC – making relatively little go a long way but largely living in the shadow of the major manufacturers – before Ogier arrived to touch the place with magic.
Malcolm Wilson, the team owner, made huge sacrifices to secure the signing of Ogier, whose Alonso-esque cult of personality helped elevate the team to a whole new level.
Ogier was denied the luxuries he had enjoyed at Volkswagen – needs must, after all – yet embraced with all his soul every element of life at M-Sport to raise standards and unlock potential perhaps even some within the team had never thought was within them.
Only two victories – including their first event together in Monte Carlo where Ogier, born in nearby Gap, was often unbeatable – came in 2017, yet Ogier’s sheer consistency helped M-Sport to a first Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ title double.
There were tears when Ogier got out of the car as a newly crowned five-time World Champion in Wales and there were more at the three-way title decider in Australia a year later when a sixth crown was secured after a more serious and sustained threat from Toyota and Hyundai.
With M-Sport gradually falling behind their rivals in the development race and Wilson pleading for more assistance – technical, financial – from Ford, Ogier had already agreed a deal to leave the team and return to factory life for 2019 before the title was won.
Yet his emotional words at the end of Rally Australia in 2018 confirmed there would always be a special place in his heart reserved for M-Sport and Wilson.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he told Motorsport.com. “How could I? But when I signed, I would have signed for less than this. It’s been incredible, just an incredible journey.
“It’s very hard to say I am leaving, but it’s like leaving a girl you love; why are we doing that? Why now when we achieve everything in the last two years?
“[Wilson is] a special man. He’s a great businessman, a great human and the best boss.
“I said a long time ago that I would like to work with Malcolm some day and now I have done that and you can believe me when I say that this time didn’t disappoint me.
“When there is problem or something that need to be improved or changed, he would do everything he could to fix it. Sometimes the budget blocked things, but he was always so determined to give me the best; I can’t remember one time when Malcolm said to me: ‘No, that’s not possible, we can’t.’
“Whenever we mentioned something to make the car better, he said we could do it and we would do it. Honestly, I am going to miss him and miss this whole team.”
Amid the constant, wearying battles on and off the track in modern motorsport, here was a charming and reassuring reminder that motor racing – that sport itself – is fundamentally a people’s business.
It is about partnerships. Relationships. Human contact. Flesh and blood.
While title glory may ultimately be beyond them, there are distinct traces of the Ogier/M-Sport alliance – that spirit, that companionship, that notion of two quite unlikely parties extracting the most from each other and working wonders – in the bond between Alonso and Aston Martin.
Wherever this eventually leads, it’s going to be fun watching them both keep growing together into 2024 and beyond…