Sunday morning in the FIA pit garage at the Circuit de Catalunya and Fernando Alonso was tidying up. Yes, dear reader, you did read that correctly!
Posing behind a logo-emblazoned board, Jean Todt had just hosted a mass gathering of every F1 driver – and various hangers-on – for a group photo promoting a no-doubt worthy cause. Picture opportunity over, the board fell forwards and lay forlorn and trampled upon pit road as the multi-millionaire horde departed stage left.
Showing signs of a well-taught childhood, Fernando stopped, stooped, and picked up the sign before walking into the empty pit box and gently placing the board against a wall.
Alone with the Spaniard I walked over to him and, with the Indianapolis 500 just a week away, offered my encouragement to McLaren’s main man: “Be careful and make us proud.” Looking up at me, Fernando calmly replied, “I will.”
And he did.
Not in my long F1 photography career has any driver had anywhere like the levels of charisma possessed by Ayrton Senna. He’d walk into a room and time would momentarily pause, such was the aura surrounding the great Brazilian.
Not Prost, not Hakkinen, not Raikkonen, not Schumacher, not Hill, not Hamilton – none of them, none of them could or can hold a candle to Senna’s allure.
Fernando Alonso is the only driver that comes close. Sure, he doesn’t have that all-encompassing X-factor that Ayrton had, but he’s the nearest since that dark day in May 1994.
Cool in a kind of effortless way, respected, liked, admired by his peers, but all the while possessing a ruthless streak that many may sometimes not like but secretly wish they had.
He’s a double world champion, but oh how we all want a third. Sublime on track, Fernando has puzzled us all with off-track team choices that have so often taken a wrong turn. Leaving McLaren at the end of 2007, and refusing a 2008 Red Bull deal, before signing for Ferrari for 2010 were all ill-advised. Of course Alonso wasn’t to know that the Milton Keynes upstarts would – from 2009 onwards – become a bona fide F1 super team, but the signs were there, and really the sinister Sirens that sing from the island of the Scuderia should’ve been ignored by our Spanish hero...
Now back at McLaren, Alonso faces another fork in the road. Stay at the English team – they’ll no doubt let him drive the 500 again – and likely enjoy the benefits of a well-handling chassis pushed quickly along by Mercedes power, or leave. Who knows where? Renault are mentioned, but really would that be any better? Jump the F1 ship for a full-time drive in the national championship IndyCar series, or maybe go all closed-cockpit in the World Endurance Championship? Both have a certain appeal but Fernando can do those when he’s properly done with F1.
Driven in a monstrously committed fashion, Alonso’s 2017 McLaren appears in timing screen positions that – given the utterly wretched under-performance of his Honda ‘power-unit’ – it has no right to occupy.
Just one glance at the Canadian qualifying session speed-trap figures will give you an idea of the level at which Fernando is driving his MCL32. 19th out of 20 runners, the McLaren was 16 kilometres per hour slower than the quickest car and a full five down on the 18th placed machine. You, I and Alonso know well that a 2018 non-Honda-powered MCL33 will be an entirely different proposition to his current ride.
Of course, Honda may stay, Fernando may go, only time will tell. The collective desire – both within and without the sport – for Alonso to stay is palpable in its force, but in reality that will have little or no effect on decisions made.
What is certain is that Formula 1 will be a way poorer place without the guy many still consider to be the best driver in the sport.
Bernie would’ve sorted it. Back in the day, Ecclestone would be having a quiet word. Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari would be ‘encouraged’ to make a seat available for our man. The F1 supremo was all too aware that his sport without one of the superstar drivers would be a less appealing watch.
But Bernie’s gone, so this may be Fernando’s F1 swansong.
Fingers crossed it’s not.