Stuff happens. Take for example a man who has had a spectacular crash in a motor race. He feels OK afterwards but in the following days the pain lingers. Checks reveal he has, among other things, a broken rib.
He turns up to the next round hopefully to drive, but the powers that be don’t let him take part. Mainly on the sensible grounds that were he to have another accident that already detached rib is near to his lungs and other organs.
So far, so straightforward. As I said, stuff happens. That is, unless that is your name is Fernando Alonso in which case stuff doesn’t happen. Everything no matter how normal on the surface has a sub-plot. Must do.
So it was in the matters outlined above with his barrel roll in Australia and resultant injury that forced him to sit out of Bahrain proceedings two weeks later. Rather than being taken as an episode in which stuff happened once again, instead there was in response the usual, inevitable, murmurings that there was more to this. That Alonso was finished. Was dodging the race. Was about to walk from F1.
The BBC for reasons best known to itself later on the same day that Alonso’s benching was confirmed published an online article that read rather like an obituary. Then during Friday practice, presumably in an attempt at humour, published an online poll which read “If you were Fernando Alonso would you… a) Continue and fight for that quite frankly non-existent world title; b) Quit now and save the ageing body; c) See out the contract and enjoy the money.”
I even stumbled across an online comment elsewhere opining that, given that this followed on from Alonso missing a race last year due to concussion sustained in a testing accident in Barcelona, it must be indicative of an underlying medical problem. I’m not a doctor admittedly. But I struggle to understand how a concussion and a broken rib sustained in separate accidents can be linked…
With his barrel roll in Australia and resultant injury that forced him to sit out of Bahrain, there was in response the usual, inevitable, murmurings that there was more to this. That Alonso was finished. Was dodging the race. Was about to walk from F1
But it was all trumped by Johnny Herbert. Herbert is a good pundit in my opinion as well as seems a pleasant person. But for whatever reason in his Sky F1 column published early on Saturday morning during the Bahrain weekend, written about Alonso and all that, he succeeded in being wrong on a multitude of levels.
“I don’t think Fernando should come back,” Herbert said. “He seems to be out of motivation and all these elements add to the performances you don’t expect of a two-time world champion.
“He had the incident in Barcelona and he didn’t go racing, but when a driver has an accident usually they want to get back in the car – when I crashed I told everyone I wanted to get back in the car. But even with his crash in Australia we still didn’t get that”.
Well, where to start… For one thing if Herbert is suggesting that Alonso 12 months ago should have raced in the week or so after a concussion then I suggest he reads up on secondary impacts, and pronto. Admittedly such dangers are fairly newly-discovered and precautions fairly newly-applied, but still…
And without wanting to give the claims more credibility than they deserve the thought occurred that had Alonso been minded to skip this one as Herbert and others have hinted strongly at, then for several reasons it would have made more sense for Alonso to have made the call before flying out to Bahrain. It also doesn’t fit with that up to the end of Friday Alonso and Ron Dennis still were haranguing the FIA to let him behind the wheel; Martin Brundle adding that “Behind the scenes McLaren and Alonso have been knocking on every door and kicking every desk to get him in the car”. Apparently too in the doctor’s assessment on Thursday Nando went so far as to do some press-ups in an attempt to demonstrate his readiness. And with all of this Herbert’s central premise that Alonso didn’t “want to get back in the car” falls down.
It doesn’t fit either that Alonso then chose to hang around the McLaren garage for the rest of the weekend, keeping a close and active involvement and aiding his rookie replacement Stoffel Vandoorne to the point that the young Belgian paid public thanks.
Behind the scenes McLaren and Alonso have been knocking on every door and kicking every desk to get him in the car – Martin Brundle
As Phillip Horton noted dryly on Twitter just after Friday’s practice running: “Alonso, who wanted to race a midfield car with a fractured rib, helping a rookie to acclimatise. But I thought he was not committed…”
Perhaps though it was all an elaborate ruse to put us off the scent. Mighty dastardly that Nando, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Herbert wasn’t done though. “If it was a race-winning car and possibly there was a world championship at stake I think he would be in the car,” he insisted. “You always find a way, just like Niki Lauda did after his burns in 1976.”
There are at least two problems here. One is that Lauda’s case was 40 years when the sport’s medical precautions barely existed. Another is that Lauda in fact missed two races following that notorious fiery Nurburgring shunt. Perhaps Johnny views that as evidence of a lack of motivation too.
Lauda also in his F1 career missed a grand total of seven races with injuries. This includes the Spanish race in 1977 which he sat out with, you guessed it, a broken rib. In addition he sat out two more races in late 1977 because he’d fallen out with his team, meaning nine Grands Prix missed by him all told. Alonso with only two has nothing on him. Niki doesn’t provide the best analogy for Herbert’s purposes.
One wonders too whether each of these occasions were accompanied at the time by ‘Lauda to quit’ rumours and yelps. Particularly given that post 1979 Lauda had a previous for walking from the sport at literally a moment’s notice. I think we can guess the answer though.
And quite how, as Alonso himself explained patiently to at least one interviewer on Thursday, he’s supposed to “find a way” in Herbert’s words to drive when the FIA forbids it is anyone’s guess too.
Moreover, proof of the pudding, there is nothing in Alonso’s driving lately to suggest a man letting things relent. Throughout the Melbourne weekend just passed he looked utterly committed on track and habitually a step or two ahead of Button on the stopwatch. In short it was the sort of performance expected since his McLaren switch but not always delivered last season.
Think too of debutant Jolyon Palmer after the race, talking in awe of Alonso after his dice with the Spaniard on lap one, which needless to say Alonso came out on top of.
“We spent the first half a lap wheel to wheel” said Jolyon. “I chucked it up the inside of Turn 5 and thought, ‘I’ve got him’ and suddenly he turns up on my inside. He’s a wily old fox still…”.
Throughout the Melbourne weekend just passed he looked utterly committed on track and habitually a step or two ahead of Button on the stopwatch
Habitual trackside observer Brundle added also in refuting his Sky colleague Herbert’s view that “when I see him [Alonso] on the track he’s as committed and as fast as anyone”.
Herbert went on though. “He doesn’t like these new cars which is another reason for him to quit”. Well that puts him alongside Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and many others.
And on. “The mistake we saw in Australia was an error on his side” Herbert continued. “One incident that flashes before my mind is how similar it was to the Michael Schumacher-Jean-Eric Vergne incident in Singapore.” Sorry Johnny but you’re largely on your own on that one. Alonso’s Australian accident was more readily explained by an unfortunate range of circumstances coinciding – and the stewards agreed. Two cars fighting furiously in a braking zone; the one behind braking later with much fresher tyres; the one ahead moving a little to reclaim his line and for good measure his power unit’s energy harvesting kicking in losing him horsepower at the worst moment. You know, stuff happens.
Herbert even so wasn’t done. “He’s commented that he’d be happy to leave F1 with two world championships – that is a man who has not just given up the chance of winning another, but that effectively is giving up on racing.”
This follows presumably from an interview Alonso gave to Channel 4 prior to the Australia race. Alonso did in this look noticeably at ease, and did as Herbert noted speak of ending his F1 career possibly without winning more championships. A point that got a few tongues wagging.
Yet perhaps we’re misinterpreting. If nothing else in Japan last year when Alonso by contrast showed audible frustration with his predicament it was interpreted just as widely and with as much certainty, including by Herbert, as a portent to him quitting too. It seems we’re sometimes guilty of starting with a firm outcome in mind and then interpreting all evidence as being in support of it.
But more broadly being relaxed is not necessarily debilitating to your performances, it’s just as often reinforcing. Ask those who were at McLaren in the 1980s, they’ll tell you that it was once Alain Prost learned how to lighten up, to tone down on the worry and micromanagement, that we saw him at his absolute best behind the wheel. And this was something Prost himself acknowledged.
“I am much better than I was,” he said in late 1985, after his first title was won. “Maybe the biggest influence on me has been Jacques [Laffite]. We are very close friends, we love all sports, and he has shown me you don’t have to be at the circuit for hours worrying about the car. Sometimes it’s better to get away, have a swim or something…”
“Detroit, for example, I hate. But this year I went back to my hotel room after the warm up, and watched the golf for a couple of hours. I relaxed, forgot about the race; but I never could have done that a few years ago”.
We can hypothesise that similar happened with Ayrton Senna who drove his best in 1992 and 1993 when he’d shed the almost frightening intensity of before, helped by Gerhard Berger just as Prost was by Laffite. We all know about Senna’s stunning drives of early 1993, not least that at Donington. Less widely remembered was that at that point Senna was driving on race-by-race contracts, sometimes signed mere minutes before Friday practice started, and more than once him missing the weekend altogether looked a genuine possibility. And for much of the intervening periods Ayrton was sunning himself on Brazilian beaches…
Alain Prost was 34 in 1989. Michael Schumacher was 34 in 2003. Both at these points had plenty more years, and championships, in them
Senna was aged 33 then, and this brings me neatly onto another point. One of my pet hates. We heard the BBC light comedy department refer to Alonso’s “ageing body” (though all bodies are ageing, technically), and they’re just the latest to talk of Alonso as one on the point of being pensioned off. Yet Alonso is 34, which despite the insistence of some these days really for an F1 driver is no age. Indeed for the overwhelming bulk of the sport’s history it’s been thought roughly the point that F1 drivers are at their peak. Certainly it’s not the point where they should be forced out of F1’s door, almost like a timer somewhere has reached zero and set a ringer off that indicates it’s their automatic time to quit.
Take a few historical examples. Prost was 34 in 1989. Michael Schumacher was 34 in 2003. Both at these points had plenty more years, and championships, in them and there wasn’t much of a noticeable decline of their performance in the years immediately after either. When Schumi ‘retired’ for the first time he was 37 and by consensus going about as well as ever, then a year later he returned to do some tyre testing for Ferrari and was immediately faster than the regular pilots, including Kimi Raikkonen who’d just claimed the drivers’ title for the Scuderia himself. Heck Nigel Mansell was 39 when he finally took his sole drivers’ championship.
And if you’re tempted to say ‘yeah but things were different then’, it’s hard to make a case that it was much less demanding for drivers. Indeed in this age of gumball Pirellis the main complaint is that drivers have to drive within themselves, and feel at the end of a race could quite easily do another right away. The main change instead has been in the sport’s apparent mind set, that at some point it’s got infatuated with youth.
So in other words Alonso has plenty more in the tank. The only consideration is whether Alonso is minded to continue. And the best evidence is that he is. Plenty have been determined to write him off before. None of them, yet, have been proved right.