Fernando Alonso: The Machinist
I had the pleasure of watching Fernando Alonso drive last Sunday, and in more ways than one it was an education, as much as it was an experience. I have watched formule one for the better part of the last two decades, and even as far as only five seasons apart – I remember a boyish Alonso with a goatee and a funky Elvis like coiffure (which twists itself at the top). Little is it surprising that the legendary Flavio Briatore took another young man under his wings, and nurtured him to a couple of world championships. However, driving for a Briatore managed Benetton is analogous to getting started with Bryan Adams or Bon Jovi when you stumbled into this mystical world of rock and roll in your adolescence. There is nothing wrong with neither Adams nor Bon Jovi, but you eventually want to graduate to either the ferocity of Metallica, or the eloquent six strings of Led Zeppelin.
During his Benetton (Renault) days, Alonso was struggling with the external pressures, as much as his internal expectations. He was a young man struggling to prove himself to the world. Such youth, is inevitably accompanied by flashes of anger, ephemeral rather unjustified disappointment directed towards his own team when he loses a close race, questioning whether his own team supports him – openly in the press, and above all, the unquenched desire to win a world championship during the time of the quite incomparable, Michael Schumacher.
Two championships, a fractured relationship with McLaren when he and his best mate Lewis Hamilton ended up dead heat (109 points each), only to see a scarlet clad Kimi Raikkonen steal a championship right under their eyes, and one more year spent languishing with another mid field Renault team, Alonso evolved, and evolved rapidly. He found the religion of Ferrari, and he needed them as much as they needed him.
The Alonso you see today is complete, and a thoroughbred professional than the young outrageous talent who won double world championships half a decade ago. He no more needs the best machinery in the entire field under all conditions to win. When you watch athletes such as LeBron James, Tom Brady or Roger Federer in action, you almost feel a sense of serenity that relaxes you as a spectator, or even better – a supporter. Its because deep inside you always know, “I know it looks a bit difficult or bleak right now – but I know Roger knows what he is doing, and he has this under control’.
Similarly, watching Alonso is almost like an education in race management, as much as its an exhilarating experience in watching someone at the absolute peak of his career. With the support of an ingenious and an excellent team – Alonso manages multiple constraints on track. He absorbs rapidly uprising pressure when he needs to, drives flawless and handles the risky corners when he can potentially get overtaken, remains half a step ahead in terms of thinking ahead with regards to strategies, and above all – makes no (or almost – no) discernible mistakes on track. He manages a race as efficiently as a driving machine. He does not need the best machine on track to win races, and that makes him even more dangerous as Ferrari develop their summer updates at a blistering pace. What is even better ? his rivals know it as well, that he does not need the best car to win.
The grand canyon sized chasm between him and Massa is emphasised by the difference in points between both of them (154 – 23), and he has out-qualified Massa in all of the ten races this season. Ferrari knows they owe their leader a team mate he can count on consistently. His solitary resistance against a two pronged attached of McLaren and Red Bull only makes his performance stellar.
As we head into the latter half of the season, Alonso needs to drive like a world championship leader. At times he needs to sit back and play the percentages, and at times, he needs to go for broke, for the win. Its a fine line, and no one else on track can walk that fine line with such elegant precision.
Two seasons ago, I saw Alonso lose a 24 point lead in the last race in the infamous Abu Dhabi – where Vettel came back from absolute doldrums to win. Alonso is fitter and hungrier, and he learned from that experience, and something tells me he will not quite let this championship out of his grasp this time around.
Half a year in formula one is an eternity – but for the bleeding heart and soaring passion that is Maranello, Scuderia Ferrari and ‘The Tifosi’ – they need the cold precision of a machinist in Alonso.
Off to Hungaroring in two days …