If Fernando Alonso is somehow destined to never again stand on the top step of a Formula 1 podium, there are worse ways to sign off than a glorious win at home.
Today (May 12) marks a full decade since his last – no, most recent – F1 victory, for Ferrari at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.
Who back then could have foreseen what Fernando was in for, just weeks after his previous win and so soon after 2012, possibly the greatest work of individual brilliance to ever be stitched together by a racing driver over a single season?
Who was to know that Alonso was about to develop an F1 form of locked-in syndrome, a driver with all the ability and skill of his competitors but without the car to convey it fully?
So frustrating, so unfair, so unjust.
When you think of Barcelona 2013, the first image to come to mind is the last: Alonso standing triumphantly on the monocoque of his car in parc ferme with both arms raised in celebration, one hand clenching a fist and the other clutching a Spanish flag he picked up on the in lap.
That blue-and-yellow helmet (a shut visor always more dramatic in the glow of victory), those red overalls, the sun gleaming off him to create a contrast with the grey clouds behind in the distance – it just looks so powerful. It just looks so right.
So much so that even now it leaves you asking how Alonso and Ferrari, those two perfectly suited forces of nature over five years together, could get it wrong.
The other abiding image of that afternoon takes us right back to the start – and that pass.
Study Alonso’s onboards for any length of time and it soon becomes clear that he places a greater value than most on staying out of the turbulent air of the car ahead.
That consideration would only have increased in light of his trips to the Indianapolis 500 over recent years, where the car’s behaviour is transformed in traffic, and upon his return to F1 late in the era of extreme downforce.
Look closely and all of his most memorable overtakes over the last few seasons – taking six cars on the opening lap of the Silverstone sprint in 2021, charging around the outside of Pierre Gasly later that year in Qatar – have been built on the basic principle of feeding his front wing a constant stream of clean air, retaining a greater proportion of his car’s overall downforce compared to those around him.
Was that, maybe, what Alonso was referring to when he claimed to have taught Lewis Hamilton a trick or two as the old warrior fought with all his might to contain the irrepressible Mercedes for 11 laps in Hungary in 2021?
If Hamilton had been paying close attention, he would have noticed that a taster session in Fernando’s Racing School had come more than eight years earlier in Catalunya.
With a good launch from fifth on the grid, Alonso positioned himself on the outside on the approach to the first corner and – already a step ahead, plotting where he wanted to position the car a couple of corners later – hesitated slightly before turning in behind Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus to cut back to the inside.
“The start was very good, but then it was very narrow and we didn’t have the space to move even a little bit,” he later explained. “So I waited for a better opportunity. It came straight after Turn 1.”
As the four ahead began to filter through Turn 2 one-by-one on the conventional racing line Alonso, placing his car wherever they did not, again danced the Ferrari to a different beat, a sharper entry into the corner buying a straighter exit – and his front wing all that clean air.
Now he was in business.
“I saw Kimi and Lewis running a little bit wide in Turn 1, so I changed trajectory and had a clean exit from Turn 2.”
Raikkonen was easily out-accelerated but there was still a gap of a car length to Hamilton at this point. Until downforce did its thing.
With Hamilton pinned to the inside of the long right-hander of Turn 3, directly in the tracks of Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel ahead, Alonso used the open expanse before him to close the gap, then pull alongside – his hands frantically jockeying at the wheel as he hung on for dear life, his right thumb pressed hard on the KERS boost button – and then through into third.
“I passed Kimi and I thought, ‘Why not Hamilton too?’
“I had a little bit of KERS that I saved from the start for Turn 3, so I used that to pass him.”
Few moments this century have better captured Formula 1 as an expression of art meeting science, Alonso’s alertness to opportunity combined with his bravery in committing to it nudging open the possibility for physics to take over and pull him beyond Hamilton.
“I think we knew that to win the race we needed to pass people right away.”
This race, of course, was still in the early years of Pirelli as F1’s only tyre supplier, characterised by extreme degradation and multiple pit stops.
Alonso’s winning strategy here incorporated no fewer than four – four! – stops, the need to preserve the rubber doing for most of his closest competitors.
Rosberg and Hamilton were fast over a single lap, but the Mercedes’ murderous treatment of its tyres on a track surface pushing 40°C saw them fall from a front-row lockout to sixth and 12th at the chequered flag.
Undercut for second by Alonso during the first round of stops Vettel, with Red Bull still to take off in 2013 (that would come soon enough…), faded from view to finish a distant fourth, leaving Raikkonen as his only danger.
The black-and-gold Lotus was handy in the area of tyre management and Kimi was just one of six drivers to complete the 66 laps on three stops, but – on this day, at this track, in this nation – had no answer for the phenomenon of Alonso Power, ultimately finishing nine seconds behind.
With that shield on his chest and that flag in his palm, Alonso was the cock of the walk at Ferrari and the king of Spain.
Yet a single passing comment in the joy of the celebrations, read all these years later, almost seems to tempt fate given the direction his career would soon take: “I am so happy for the team, for the fans, and hopefully this result won’t be a one-off.”
Well, that was then; this is now.
Having gone seven years without even a foot on the podium between 2014 and 2021, Alonso’s four third-place finishes in the first five races of the 2023 season have renewed hope that a 33rd career victory could be just around the corner.
The Aston Martin team have already done in 2023 what many had assumed was no longer possible – shattering F1’s glass ceiling over a single winter’s development to intrude the VIP lounge of the grid for so long reserved for Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes – and Alonso himself commented after the opening race in Bahrain that he hasn’t felt this optimistic at the start of a season since 2013.
The logical next step for 2023’s disruptors and their arch-disruptor? A statement victory to validate the enormous potential of the project.
In an interview with Sky Sports F1’s Martin Brundle at the recent Miami Grand Prix, Alonso was asked if he could win a race this year and where it would most likely come.
His response, delivered in an instant, offered encouragement to anyone hopeful of seeing him rewarded for his refusal to ever stop chasing that setting sun.
“We seem to have a car that is maybe not the fastest on the straights. We need to improve that but we are very good on the corners.
“So I will say that the slowest [tracks] of the Championship – let’s say Monaco, Budapest, Singapore – this kind of circuit I think we put our main hopes at the moment.”
So… is it on?
“I think so, yes. Hopefully soon.”