Fernando Alonso has a reputation for making bad career choices in Formula 1, but is an accusation the two-time World Champion firmly denies.
“Sometimes I feel from the outside that people are a little bit sorry for my career moves [but] the facts don’t tell me that way,” the Aston Martin driver recently told Channel 4 of his previous spells at McLaren, Ferrari and Renault.
It’s time to put Alonso’s claim to the test with our ranking of each of his career moves since his last title triumph in 2006…
7: Ferrari to McLaren-Honda, 2015
A brassier set of balls on a racing driver you would seldom find as Alonso strolled right back into the McLaren Technology Centre in late 2014 – raging beard and huge, mischievous grin on his face – and posed for pictures with Ron Dennis.
Seven years after leaving the team in destruction and $100million down, he was back.
But was it ever his intention?
Legend has it that Alonso entered the decisive meeting with Marco Mattiacci, then Ferrari’s under-pressure team principal, with the target of extending his deal beyond the end of 2016 and finished it with his contract in the shredder.
Reports at the time hinted that Alonso had attempted to engineer a seat swap with Lewis Hamilton or, more plausibly, gambled that Red Bull – in the process of losing Sebastian Vettel – would find him irresistible. Imagine the shock in the Alonso camp when Red Bull moved quickly to sign Daniil Kvyat for 2015…
This is a classic case of a driver leaving himself without options, but there was still hope at that stage that Honda – returning to F1 in the second year of the V6 hybrid rules and theoretically with the chance to learn from others’ mistakes – could live up to their success of the past with McLaren.
That hope soon evaporated when the power unit proved to be slow and chronically unreliable in pre-season, which ended with an unexplained crash for Alonso in Barcelona and set the tone for three wasted years.
It all could have been avoided had Alonso refused to allow himself to be railroaded by a team principal whom he would have easily outlived at Ferrari, Fernando guilty of forgetting one of the first rules of Formula 1: the Prancing Horse never stays down for long.
Had he stuck around, surely Alonso would have put up a more ferocious fight than Vettel against Hamilton and Mercedes in 2017/18 – but we’ll never know.
6: McLaren to Renault, 2008
How could he have known?
When he left McLaren after a single ill-fated season in 2007, how was Alonso to know that the team to be with in time for F1’s next major rule change would be Red Bull?
Sure, Adrian Newey was already in position to work his magic – but an established World Champion joining Red Bull, still dismissed as a mere party team at that stage of their development, would have represented an almighty leap of faith and today be regarded as one of the greatest acts of genius in sporting history, more so perhaps than Hamilton’s move to Mercedes.
Hindsight, you see, is a wonderful thing.
Part of the problem for Alonso was that, even though a split had seemed inevitable for some time, his departure from McLaren was not made official until November 2 – almost two weeks after the title decider in Brazil.
And so like some cornered animal, and having left himself few appealing options, Alonso naturally scurried to his safe space – back into the arms of Flavio Briatore and to the Renault team with whom he had conquered the world in 2005/06.
Yet it was already evident that Renault were no longer the same team, a correlation problem taking them out of contention for wins in 2007.
Alonso would return them there and it was around this time that his reputation as the most complete driver in F1 was constructed – Fernando taking one of his most underrated victories at Fuji in 2008 when his ability to read the race and call the strategy from the cockpit left the pit wall in awe.
Looking back, however, this was the moment when Alonso would have been well advised to take a gamble.
And considering that his Renault return would take a quite sinister turn when the details of Crashgate came to light in 2009, it would have saved him a helluva lot of trouble.
5: Leaving McLaren, 2018
Throughout the Honda years Alonso and McLaren had been utterly adamant that their chassis was of race-winning quality, criminally held back by an underperforming (some might even say GP2) engine.
But the team’s decision, under the new management of Zak Brown, to replace the Honda powertrains with the same Renault engines used by Red Bull uncovered the stark reality.
That McLaren were no better without Honda was tough to take for Alonso, whose retirement was confirmed during the summer break.
But the timing was curious, for Alonso’s decision to step away came at a time his influence within McLaren – with his own clothing brand a prominent sponsor on the car – seemed more pronounced than ever.
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Just weeks earlier, McLaren had announced a restructure that saw Andrea Stella, formerly Alonso’s race engineer at Ferrari, promoted to the role of sporting director and Gil de Ferran, a key member of Alonso’s 2017 Indy 500 campaign, arrive as sporting director.
Alonso in 2018 was the closest F1 has come since Jack Brabham to a driver running a team but, as at Ferrari in 2014, he chose to walk away at the precise point the team were about to turn a corner.
If he had stayed to orchestrate McLaren’s revival, that elusive 33rd victory may have already come his way in the race-winning 2021 car.
4: Returning to F1 with Alpine, 2021
When it became clear that Alonso’s retirement was only ever a temporary break to cleanse the soul, it was revealing that McLaren were never an option for his comeback in 2021.
Flourishing in his role as team principal, no doubt Andreas Seidl wanted a clean break from the Ghost of Honda Past, wary of an F1 team being in thrall to an individual driver as McLaren had been prior to his arrival in early 2019.
Only a distant observer of F1’s lockdown musical chairs as Vettel was released by Ferrari, Carlos Sainz moved to Maranello and Daniel Ricciardo slotted in at McLaren, Alonso had few appealing options for his return to F1 and once again returned to his happy place.
His two years at Alpine may have ended in tears but was mutually beneficial, Alonso contributing to the team’s strongest season in an age in 2022 and the team providing Alonso with the car for his first podium finish in seven years in Qatar 2021.
More than that, though, his third spell at Enstone provided Alonso with confirmation that he had lost none of his pace, precision or judgement after two years away.
Maybe it was only ever meant to be a platform for bigger and better things.
3: Alpine to Aston Martin, 2023
A new entry in third with the potential to shoot to the very top, could Alonso’s final roll of the dice leave him with the last laugh?
More than a few people sniggered when his move to Aston Martin was announced on the first morning of the 2022 summer break, that silly old fool Alonso – with his dream of a third title long gone – walking into an uncompetitive team and rinsing Lawrence Stroll for all he was prepared to pay him.
Yet Fernando looked beyond the team’s teething troubles and the superficiality of the results to see what others could not – Stroll’s commitment to funding a successful team, to building a state-of-the-art new factory and to signing best-in-class figures from title-winning rivals.
How could this combination of investment and brainpower really fail?
Even so the rate of Aston Martin’s rise – from a lowly seventh in the 2022 standings to consecutive podiums at the start of 2023 – has been astonishing, the team shattering F1’s glass ceiling in a fashion few thought possible in the modern era.
Almost a decade after his last F1 win, a return to the top step of the podium for Alonso could now be a matter of time.
And the crowning glory of a third World Championship? Still unlikely – but not quite as impossible as it seemed just a few months ago.
2: Renault to McLaren, 2007
Alonso’s first stint at McLaren has come to be regarded as the first great mistake of his F1 career. How can it be when he came within a single point of becoming the first driver in history to go from zero to three Drivers’ Championships in one giant leap?
A season in which he took four wins and a further eight podium finishes cannot be classed as a misstep, particularly in the context of Renault’s winless 2007.
No doubt Alonso got out of Enstone at the right time, all the more impressive considering his move to McLaren was announced more than a year in advance after Dennis had whispered sweet nothings in his ear during the podium celebrations of Alonso’s first title triumph in Brazil 2005.
Unquestionably it was the right move. Instead Alonso’s difficulties in 2007 stemmed from the threat posed by rookie team-mate Lewis Hamilton or, more accurately, his emotional and paranoid reaction to it.
Rather than rising to the challenge presented by Hamilton, Alonso allowed himself to be driven to distraction by it, his status as the reigning double World Champion closing up a willingness to be self-critical that is common among the greatest in sport.
What exactly could I, the great Fernando Alonso, learn from young Lewis Hamilton? Quite a lot, it turned out.
As the season developed and the team became enveloped in the Spygate affair, Alonso increasingly marked himself as an enemy within and ultimately made a split inevitable.
How different things may have been, how powerful McLaren may have become, had Alonso and Hamilton kept pushing themselves to ever greater heights rather than dragging the team down with them…
1: Renault to Ferrari, 2010
Alonso left Ferrari at the end of a winless season in 2014. The Scuderia’s previous barren campaign in 2009 did not put him off the scent of F1’s most sacred team.
As it would be in 2021/22, Team Enstone was a holding pattern for Alonso in 2008/09, a place for him to kill time and count down the races before his next big move.
His move to Ferrari had been agreed long before then, but Felipe Massa’s accident at Hungary 2009 – leaving a slightly detached Kimi Raikkonen and a couple of substitutes to fill the void – revealed a total absence of leadership from the cockpit at Maranello.
Alonso filled that hole almost immediately in 2010, winning the team over through the force of his personality so that when Massa was ordered at Hockenheim in July to give the win his team-mate on the anniversary of his life-threatening crash, memories of the Brazilian taking Ferrari to the brink of the title in 2008 were already ancient history.
Despite never once having the pace-setting package Alonso and Ferrari complemented each other beautifully, his amazing 2012 the most complete campaign by any driver in recent history – with the possible exception of Hamilton’s 2007 – not to end in title glory (because ‘end in failure’ does not seem appropriate).
After coming so close, Alonso and Ferrari were always going to go one of two ways after 2012 – either going one better the following year or missing out yet again, leaving both to start wondering if it was ever going to happen.
The abiding memory of 2013, as Vettel and Red Bull stormed to a fourth consecutive title, is Alonso’s response when asked in Hungary what he’d like as a birthday present: “Someone else’s car.”
He was publicly rebuked by president Luca di Montezemolo for that comment and the relationship between Alonso and Ferrari was never quite the same.
What a shame.