Revealed: Fernando Alonso’s secret weapon in battles with F1 rivals

Oliver Harden
A promo shot of Fernando Alonso from Aston Martin's F1 2024 car launch

Fernando Alonso pictured at the launch of Aston Martin's AMR24 car launch

You can criticise Fernando Alonso’s career moves and level at him the accusation that he never maximised his true potential in F1. 

But questioning his style of racing? Now that’s just insulting.

Fernando Alonso: F1’s king of dirty air

Yet that is what the FIA stewards effectively did at the 2024 Australian Grand Prix by hitting Alonso with a 20-second penalty – and three penalty points on his licence, if you please – for an incident with (by which we really mean ‘near’) George Russell in which the two cars did not even make contact.

The verdict – with an explanation that was one “sort of” away from reading like a Johnny Herbert hit piece – that the two-time World Champion was guilty of “potentially dangerous driving” was an attack on his very identity, for Alonso has always treated turbulent air as his secret weapon in combat.

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Whether it’s feeding his front wing a stream of fresh air to give him a decisive edge in attack, or using the wake from his own car in defence to disturb the one behind, Alonso has long been the king of dirty air.

And just how much did his three trips to the Indy 500, where running in traffic transforms the car’s balance and behaviour, further deepen his understanding of how turbulence can be utilised in wheel-to-wheel battles?

As he comes under attack, let’s examine three classic examples of Alonso using dirty air to his advantage over the course of his F1 career…

Spain 2013: Art meets science

Few moments this century have better captured Formula 1 as an expression of art meeting science than Alonso’s move on the opening lap of the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix.

It had it all: Alonso’s alertness to the opportunity combined with his bravery in committing to it, nudging open the door for physics to take over and pull him past Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton.

Watch the onboard enough times and you’ll soon notice the precise moment – to the very split second – when Alonso lets go of the baton for downforce to do the rest.

It only made it better, of course, that this pass provided the foundation for what somehow remains his last F1 victory.

As the four cars ahead of him filtered single file into Barcelona’s Turn 2, Alonso had the presence of mind to dance his Ferrari to a different beat by taking an offset line, easily out-accelerating Raikkonen on exit.

With Hamilton pinned to the inside of the long right-hander of Turn 3, directly in the tracks of Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg ahead, Alonso used the open expanse in front of him to swing around the Mercedes’ outside – his hands jockeying at the wheel as he hung on for dear life, his right thumb pinned to the KERS boost button – and through into third.

It looks so simple, placing his car in a space the others do not.

But if it was so easy, so obvious, wouldn’t they all be doing it?

Hungary 2021: Teaching Lewis Hamilton a trick or two

Which brings us to Exhibit A, when F1’s old warrior wrestled with the Big Bad Wolf over 10 laps at the Hungaroring in 2021, delaying Hamilton’s Mercedes for just long enough to allow Alpine team-mate Esteban Ocon to escape to victory.

Alonso claimed to have taught Hamilton a trick or two after the race, commenting that his old foe “learned a couple of different lines in the last three corners after the 10 laps behind me.”

Hamilton and Alonso raced inches apart at Turn 2, and at one stage scuffed tyres entering Turn 4, yet the key corner of this battle was – and was always likely to be – the final one, after which DRS and the Mercedes’ inherent straight-line advantage would both come into play on the pit straight.

As long as Alonso was faultless through that winding right-hander, though, he would have him covered.

And so time after time, lap after lap, he would find a way to hold back the tide, using his own turbulent air though that last corner to create a forcefield and preventing Hamilton from getting close enough to even consider trying his luck into the braking zone of Turn 1.

Still the most shocking aspect of this tussle almost three years on?

Just how long it took a driver of Hamilton’s calibre to A) read what Alonso was doing, and B) work out how to counter it.

It was only when he finally realised, and began using an offset line to sidestep that dirty air through Turn 14, that Hamilton finally began to put Alonso under serious pressure, soon forcing a lockup into Turn 1 and the chance to complete the move on the exit.

Hamilton was destined to win this battle eventually, the difference in machinery and tyre compounds (Alpine hard, Mercedes medium) rendering it inevitable.

Yet after making his great rival look out of ideas for so long, Alonso could claim a moral victory.

He really did school Hamilton that afternoon.

Qatar 2021: Feeding a hungry front wing

Normally the best overtakes are only witnessed in all their glory through the prism of an onboard camera, letting the rest of us see a little of what the driver sees in the heat of the action.

Not this one.

Alonso’s pass on Pierre Gasly at the start of the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix can only be fully appreciated via the logic-defying trackside footage.

Think of Alonso’s front wing as a hungry pet, which requires feeding at specific times. The more you feed it clean air, the more it pays you back.

The front wings had never been hungrier than in the closing races of the previous era of extreme-downforce cars after the teams had all but maxed out their development potential over five full seasons.

And so the drivers who would give their front wings that sweet, sweet clean air when they needed it would naturally be the ones rewarded most handsomely, especially on circuits – like Qatar – lacking slow-speed corners.

Cars of that nature, and circuits of those characteristics, require the kind of inventive thinking for which Alonso is renowned.

So as second-placed Gasly followed Max Verstappen’s wheeltracks into the left-hander of Turn 2, Alonso once again took the path less travelled on a wider line.

The difference between two cars – one in dirty air, the other in clean – had never been more stark as Alonso, at least a couple of car lengths behind Gasly’s AlphaTauri on the approach to the corner, somehow found himself ahead by the exit.

Again it seemed so simple – a question of clever car positioning rather than some act of superhuman genius – so how to explain why so few of his peers follow his lead in these scenarios?

It is purely a matter of personality, Alonso being one of the few adventurous and creative enough to experiment with different lines and trajectories as the rest play follow the leader.

He is, in other words, a lion surrounded by sheep.

All hail the king of dirty air.

Read next: Unfair and inconsistent: The problem with Fernando Alonso accusations and harsh FIA verdict