What makes Alonso so good?

“I don’t believe that I’m better than anyone on pure speed in qualifying, I don’t think I’m better than anyone in wet conditions, dry conditions, qualifying, race. But if you put me in the same car at the same moment and same track as anyone, I think that I will beat them.”

The straight-talking words of Fernando Alonso to Sky Sports in 2016 as he assessed where he believed he stood in Formula 1’s driver pecking order.

The analysis underlined a theory many in the sport have long subscribed to: few, if any, tick as many boxes when it comes to the ‘complete racing driver’ as Alonso.

“He’s been one of the greatest drivers and, for me, arguably the greatest driver I’ve driven against,” said six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton before Alonso left the sport two years ago.

So as Alonso gets set for a return to Renault, it’s an apt time to reflect on the 38-year-old’s achievements and the skills behind his success.

Alonso the achiever
Given so much debate in his last seasons focused on what more Alonso might have achieved in different circumstances, what he has achieved remains significant and will inevitably carry even greater historical weight once memories of specific seasons and certain career decisions fade.

The headline achievements are certainly impressive:

Two drivers’ world championships.

32 race wins.

97 podium finishes.

Those race wins and podium tallies place him in the top six of all-time on the respective lists, while he is just one of 10 world champions in history to successfully defend his title.

Racing and winning races for three of the sport’s most famous names – Renault, McLaren and Ferrari – is another prestigious career achievement which, arguably, has passed under-recognised.

Alonso the ‘bare-knuckled fighter’
So what has been the secret to one of the great Formula 1 careers?

“There’s three things that make Fernando so good,” explains Sky F1’s Ted Kravitz.

“He’s from a fairly obscure part of Spain – Asturias is remote, and it’s not industrialised. He’s had to work very hard to come through the ranks as he did.

“He was picked up by Renault and Flavio Briatore who obviously saw he was talented, but it’s that kind of grit that has stayed with him and his character. Sometimes it hasn’t worked for him in the sense that his decisions have been clouded by a feeling of being wronged or that something was unjust, and we saw that in the early McLaren days – but he’s a fighter.

“He’s a bare-knuckled fighter of a driver.”

Fernando Alonso in numbers

F1 race driver 2001, 2003-2018
Teams raced for Minardi, Renault, McLaren, Ferrari
Race starts 310
Championships 2
Wins 32
Podiums 97
Points finishes 202
Pole positions 22
Front-row starts 37

There has always been an impressive consistency and intensity about Alonso.

Even during the tough final years at McLaren when points rather than podiums came to be the measurement of a weekend’s success, Alonso could rarely, if ever, be described as obviously ‘off form’ – as his whitewash of Stoffel Vandoorne in qualifying in 2018 testifies. Every battle has always mattered to him.

“What I love about him is that you get the sense that sometimes he drives angry,” said Kravitz. “Murray Walker always said that he commentates like his trousers are on fire and I’ve always thought that Fernando drives like his trousers are on fire.”

How that desire translates into his well-honed driving style was recently explained by Mark Temple, who was Alonso’s race engineer at McLaren between 2015 and 2017.

“He drives it in a very aggressive manner,” Temple told McLaren’s website.

“He really attacks the braking areas and throws the car into the corners, but he doesn’t lose out on corner exit. Often, if a driver’s aggressive on entry he loses out on exit, but Fernando manages to keep the car on the limit in both areas.”

Alonso the intelligent racer
Natural speed is one thing for an F1 driver, yet the most successful ones marry that with a wider skillet to help make the difference over the course of a race weekend and, when championships are at stake in particular, a whole season.

“What’s also so impressive is the experience that leads to his race intelligence,” added Kravitz. “He knows what’s going on, not only in his race, but his immediate competitors and actually people at the front as well.

“He seems to know the bigger picture, the complete picture. That obviously comes from longevity, which is his third key trait.”

Indeed Temple describes Alonso as “the most intelligent driver I’ve worked with”.

Kravitz continues: “They say you become an expert in your chosen field when you complete 10,000 hours, and I’d love to tot up how many hours Fernando has done of grand prix racing. In every one of those racing hours, he’s got that recall that the greats have, like Senna. He uses that to amazing effect.

“As he says, he might not be the quickest in qualifying, he might not be the best overtaker, and he might not be the best in the wet, but he will get from lights to flag quicker than anyone else.”

F1’s all-rounder he most certainly has been.

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