How Good is Alonso?
Fernando Alonso is an enigma to me. He seems to have sprung from nowhere in a very short time, won the Championship almost before I’d learned his name, and seems set to win another with apparent ease this year. Can he really be as good as his results suggest?
Assessing any driver in F1 is a complex business. One has to take into account experience, race craft, speed in qualifying and the race, quality of the car, and performances against team mates. Alonso’s F1 career is so brief that it’s very hard to say whether his results come from outstanding talent or luck in being in the right car at the right time. It is inevitable that much of our assessment depends heavily on comparing him with his team mate at Renault, Giancarlo Fisichella.
Interestingly, both drivers got their start in F1 with Minardi, although Fisichella’s was five years before Alonso’s. In his early years, Fizzy was regarded much as we see Alonso today: a young lion about to set the world alight with his talent. Although he did not have Alonso’s luck in being with the right team, Fisichella managed to post some surprisingly good results, often in inferior machinery.
But it all seemed to lead to very little until last year, when Fizzy bagged a seat in what we knew to be one of the best cars. Surely his day had come at last.
Well, it might have, had he not been teamed with Alonso. The young Spaniard has been quicker in almost every race and has had all the luck going. If a Renault is going to fail to finish, you can bet that it will be Fisichella’s.
This happens so often in F1 that I think we have to recognize it as a major part of any driver’s array of talents; there are lucky drivers and there are drivers so unlucky that they make you want to scream in frustration. It is impossible to look at the two Renault drivers’ results over the last year and a half and not be impressed with how often Fizzy has had the bad luck while Alonso sails on to yet another victory.
To some extent, this is a self-perpetuating thing. Once one driver has a few good results under his belt, his team mate will feel the pressure begin to rise, the need to post some wins to re-assert at least his equality with the winning driver. So he tries harder, risks more. And, in doing so, he puts more strain on himself and his car; suddenly it looks as though it’s not just luck causing the string of retirements and errors. The very fact that one driver is winning more often makes it harder for the other driver to turn things around.
But that is not the whole story. There is such a thing as bad luck (just ask Chris Amon) and I have no doubt that Fizzy is one of the unlucky ones. He’s quick, as he demonstrated in getting the upper hand over Ralf Schumacher at Jordan, but probably not quite as fast as Alonso. Add in Alonso’s lucky streak and there’s just no contest.
All this means that I have to give Alonso his due: he’s one of the best drivers in F1. Not only is he fast but he has a level head and copes well under pressure. What remains to be seen is whether he has the stamina to go on for year after year, still winning races.
Next year, Alonso will be in a McLaren. We might think that this will be the real test of his ability but that would be omitting the luck factor. It’s very possible that McLaren will suddenly come good and, once again, Alonso will be in the best car.
After all, it’s happened before. Does anyone remember how Alain Prost left Renault at the end of a year in which they’d been the best and went to a McLaren team that was just about to become a world beater? Even the teams are the same…