Fernando Alonso’s return to the front of Formula 1 has been a long, long time coming. Modern fans less familiar with his game will now be learning how much he has to offer off-track as well as on it.
Alonso’s box-office potential has been largely unfulfilled during his decade or so in the midfield wilderness that meant he was only ever occasionally competitively relevant.
It’s no longer the case in Aston Martin’s whirlwind start to this season, which has put the two-time world champion back in the spotlight. And he just can’t help himself.
Alonso is, perhaps unusually, universally popular at this stage. His place in the pecking has helped put more focus on him but there’s been a shift in the perception of Alonso since his return to F1 in 2021. Essentially, there’s a lot to like.
His sharpest edges seem a little smoother in general (in a good way), his professionalism and dedication remains incredibly impressive, and the Aston Martin story is a nice distraction from the prospect of a season of Red Bull and Max Verstappen domination.
But the steel beneath the surface remains. Whatever perspective has been gained with time has not softened his competitive resolve or blunted his tongue. Alonso still has a penchant for speaking his mind in a way that just so happens to lob a grenade or two at his rivals.
It is very rarely done with malice. Alonso probably says what a lot of drivers think themselves.
That he vocalises it is more of a feature of the pantomime villainy he’s become famous for, and the mind games, and the fact he’s someone who is so obviously one of F1’s greatest drivers ever yet feels the need to find ways to stress it, after a decade of not winning races.
It’s ironic that this still happens when Alonso finally has a car more capable of letting his driving do the talking again. But such is the make-up of the man.
In the last week Alonso’s taken aim at Mercedes with a little dig at how it has criticised its own car, he made a dismissive comment suggesting he doubts his Aston Martin predecessor Sebastian Vettel would be doing as a good a job as he is right now, and comments have emerged from an interview with L’Equipe in which he said Hamilton’s weaknesses are being exposed now he is not in F1’s best car.
His fans may dismiss it as banter, fans of his targets might see it as disrespectful. It’s probably just…Alonso being Alonso. You can read into it as much or as little as you want. But if you end up talking about what he’s been talking about, he is getting his way.
Any criticism or dig or jibe (or whatever you want to call it) from Alonso is usually not said for the sake of it, and is probably at least semi-serious. Yet the one thing it should not be taken for is a lack of respect, for Alonso does sincerely hold the likes of Hamilton in high regard.
He just believes he is better. Than anybody. Just like Hamilton will believe the same of himself.
Hamilton’s first podium of 2023 came just 24 hours after the Mercedes dig from his long-time adversary, and with Alonso finishing third it gave us the rare sight (these days) of the two former team-mates and title rivals sharing a podium.
If you’re wondering just how uncommon that’s been of late, or how marginalised Alonso has been in the second half of his F1 career, consider this: the Verstappen/Hamilton/Alonso combination in Australia was just the second time these drivers have made up the top three, after Qatar 2021 (pictured above).
Alonso and Verstappen seem to get on very well off-track but they have an almost completely non-existent on-track relationship.
Their career paths briefly crossed in the midfield in 2015/early 2016 before Verstappen swapped Toro Rosso for Red Bull and veered off on a dramatically different trajectory.
Obviously, it is very different between Alonso and Hamilton. These two have a burning desire to beat each other, which is obvious when they are in the car and noticeable (if more subtle) even when they sit in the same press conference. Their back stories are intertwined. Each believes they are the superior driver. Neither can resist the odd little jab here and there. But there remains an underlying respect.
This was clear after the race in Melbourne, in which Alonso chased Hamilton for the whole grand prix and the Aston Martin looked like the faster car, just not by enough to ever get close enough to launch an attack.
“We were very close to Lewis all through the race, but every time that I tried to get close, he seemed to pick up the pace,” said Alonso.
“I tried to put some pressure but he had an incredible race, no mistakes at all, as you probably expect from him, a champion. Only one lock-up, I think, Turn 13, in 58 laps.
“I was trying to put pressure but nothing happened.”
Hamilton said: “I was just counting it down. He was very, very consistent. From what I could tell, didn’t make any mistakes. Fernando doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
“So, it needed to be a good job.”
It was an intense race that never quite exploded into a full-on wheel-to-wheel battle, but there is time for that yet.
The Hamilton-Alonso rivalry burned so brightly once upon a time that it seems pretty amazing we’ve barely seen an on-track battle between them in the last decade.
There have been exceptions, such as Alonso’s stern defence against Hamilton in Hungary 2021 that was key to his Alpine team-mate Esteban Ocon winning that race. But Mercedes’ slip and Aston Martin’s rise means the prospect of a straight fight for a top result, like in Australia, is now more realistic.
We’re seeing them fight for position, in pretty equal machinery, and unless something dramatic happens to change the pecking order in F1’s three-week gap before the next race in Azerbaijan, that should continue for the foreseeable future.
That’s something to savour. Alonso tried for years to get Hamilton and Mercedes in his sights again and, even though another team and driver has nipped ahead in the meantime, he has finally succeeded.
Count on Alonso to make the most of that, on track and off it. You will not agree with everything that brings. But it should be anything but boring.