Is Alonso Cursed?

Is Alonso Cursed?

There are 724 other Formula 1 drivers who would have loved some of Fernando Alonso’s curse. He is one of only 33 world champions the sport has seen. But it’s fair to say, Fernando’s days with the crown feel like a lifetime away now, whereas bad luck seems to follow with permanent DRS enabled.

It was the recent attempt at IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 that endeared him to a new legion of fans but once again showed the stars will not align for the Spaniard. It would have been the stuff of dreams had he won the big one in his rookie race. Ability wise, it wouldn’t have been shocking, but it is more Hollywood than reality.

This isn’t to say IndyCar is to be taken lightly.

It may appear a simplified sport to F1 aficionados but there is an art to oval racing. On many occasion fans of other motorsports laugh at the idea of going around in a circle. It’s as if they see the Indy 500 as a simple foot down and steer experience.

In contrast, an average of 16.7 turns are dealt with during each race weekend on the current F1 calendar. During the course of the season, 334 are taken, the highest for an individual track is 23, the lowest being 9 (which still dwarfs the Indy 500). This means each circuit becomes a compromise on setup.

No car can perfect each corner and the straights.

Oval endurance racing is about how to optimise the car for what appears to be a narrow choice between downforce and speed. But the changing conditions – both on track and in car – require gentle tweaks in weight distribution and balance. Rather than the optimisation of several sections, with a knowing sacrifice elsewhere (often offset with ERS or DRS), it is a tightrope walk that requires intelligence combined with a supernatural feel.

The two elements Alonso has above all F1 drivers, past and present.

Such a linear setup target, relying on the feel of the car, should sound like second heaven to someone like Jenson Button. Often described as unbeatable when the he feels the setup is perfect. But he dismissed IndyCar in the clearest terms when interviewed at Monaco. Perhaps the greatest acknowledgement: to get that perfect setup isn’t an easy task.

Alonso took to the Andretti based McLaren-Honda and the new formula as if he’d lived on oval circuits. He won hearts and minds in America and ensured his status as an all-time great. Transcending F1 and proving he doesn’t need an Indy 500 win and Le Mans 24 trophy to solidify his legacy.

But again, he does this through failure, not success.

If life is trying to send him subliminal messages, it’s getting bored with how slow he is to take the hint, so it sent a glaring one. The architect of his demise was once again a Honda badged engine. It forms a long line of conspirators against the Spaniard.

His personal choices can, of course, be questioned. But aside from conduct during his first McLaren stint, he’s appeared to be the loyal and dedicated professional teams pay $40m a season to secure.

With his unfortunate turn of luck stuck in a perpetual cycle, one has to consider a sinister form of fate is driving him to retirement without a third world title.

Time and a narrowing market of professional opportunity compound the issue.

McLaren will not be competitive this season and even the most optimistic Honda engineer cannot be expecting to produce an engine on par with the leading pack in 2018. Such a turnaround would be nothing short of miraculous but the talk of it sounds nothing short of folly.

There’s potential for movement in the top two teams of Ferrari and Mercedes. But the Prancing Horse always has a clear Alpha and Omega when enjoying periods of competitiveness and it’s hard to see Vettel losing his number one spot.

Mercedes sell the idea of equal footing but after the strain of the Hamilton/Rosberg dynamic, they’ve opted for the safe Bottas. He’s formally managed by Wolff and likely still influenced by the Austrian. He’s certainly more malleable than Alonso would be if it came down to an awkward in-house championship fight.

Which leaves Red Bull, probably the best driver balance at the front of the grid with years of longevity, should they wish to retain and are able to fend off third parties.

This leaves Alonso stuck in a seat he sought out after giving his prime years to a failing Ferrari. A Ferrari that came good not so long after he departed. Detractors could claim this is indicative of a negative effect he has teams.

Sportsmen are notorious for being superstitious. Whether it be always placing the left glove on before the right or a lucky meal that can never change on the day of the event. Alonso’s must be to break mirrors every seven years, or driving around for hours hoping to see magpies sat on their own. (I personally don’t have any superstitious tendencies and hope to keep it that way . . . touch wood.)

Since the Indy 500 experience, his return to F1 has continued to be tainted by poor luck. In Azerbaijan he collected a bittersweet two points. The not so subtle remark about how they could have won the race was aimed squarely at his engine supplier.

Austria witnessed a good Alonso start off the grid, only to be wiped out at turn one. An innocent party in a collision where the fates conspired against him.

The British Grand Prix at Silverstone underlined the woes of living with Honda. Starting from the back of the grid after a thirty place penalty, a mechanical failure added another DNF to this season’s tally.

It must be difficult to remain upbeat when faced with repeated setbacks.

Is it just bad luck? Poor judgement? Or does someone, somewhere, have a voodoo doll that looks like a little Spaniard in a racing suit? Is it a curse that means Fernando Alonso will never complete a hattrick of F1 world titles, let alone the triple crown of Formula 1 Champion, Indy 500 winner, and a 24 Hours of Le Mans victory?

Should he secure any of the above, his arduous journey since his last world title in 2006 will feel like it was worth all the ill-fortune in the world. However, all signs point to his misery continuing indefinitely.

 

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Rosberg and Hamilton: Two Different Champions

Rosberg and Hamilton: Two Different Champions

Nico Rosberg shocked the world with the announcement he would be retiring from F1 after reaching the top of the summit. Well, shocked everyone except teammate Lewis Hamilton. His former best friend and championship protagonist managed to turn the news into another demonstration of his negative attitude.

After a belated congratulation to Nico on Twitter, he sat in a press conference looking smug that the German had left the sport and claimed to have not been moved by the news. He got the dig in that it was the first time Nico had won in eighteen years, so he wasn’t surprised he was packing it all in. The implication – in fact, direct statement – is that he always defends his crown, whereas Rosberg has run away from the challenge.

This is classic Lewis, only seeing the world through his eyes, judging others by the standards he sets himself. Standards that have recently, once again, been called into question. The old adage about being a bad winner and a bad loser will now follow Lewis around until he retires. He hinted that could also be soon but it was likely bravado, an attempt to steal back some of the limelight.

What Hamilton and Rosberg present us is a unique opportunity to see the two sides of the same coin. That coin being what it takes and what it means to be a champion.

Lewis Hamilton is the natural born talent. Billed as the fastest man but this doesn’t – and hasn’t – made him a true champion. He’s the idea of a perfect racer, the deserving winner. The reality is a guy that has off days, managing to cover up his shortcomings with the attitude of a spoilt brat. But distraction and misdirection have helped build a legend.

Hamilton’s talent speaks for itself. Any Formula One fan will tell you he’s one of, if not the greatest, driver of his generation. Perhaps only Fernando Alonso could be said to have more raw talent but poor career moves have damaged his chances to prove this. Sebastian Vettel has amassed more titles, he being the opposite to Alonso and benefitting from an extended run in the dominant car of the day.

A look at the list of F1 records and it’s clear to see Lewis will leave a lasting legacy, one that only the most gifted can achieve. He has scored more points than any other man in the history of the sport (admittedly, he benefits from the new scoring system); he ties with Michael Schumacher and Vettel for most podiums in a season; is third in the all-time list for podium finishes with a higher percentage of podiums than Prost and Schumacher above him; third for total poles behind Senna and Schumacher; most wins at different circuits.

The list goes on, he appears in most categories in a high position, and tops fifteen of the all-time charts (many from his debut season run). That side of Lewis Hamilton cannot be doubted. It is what’s led to him becoming a champion. It’s also what separates him and Nico.

One is driven to go on, smash records. One content and complete following the ultimate success. For Rosberg, reaching the pinnacle was the end of a journey. Each step of that the German was mindful of how a champion should behave, something that has eluded Lewis.

Hamilton’s ultimate goal is to be mentioned as an equal to Senna and Schumacher. He’s mistaken their ruthlessness and transformed it into petulant behaviour and entitlement. They could never accept defeat with a smile but they wouldn’t tarnish the fair success of others.

Lewis attempted this following the Abu Dhabi grand prix. In an interview with Channel 4, he was offered a chance to pay respect to the new champion and was asked if on this occasion, Nico had won in a fair fight with the same car. Hamilton openly scoffed and said: “I wouldn’t say that. No.”

The Briton has been unlucky with failures this season. Those are elements beyond his control. The “what ifs” aren’t helpful and take away from Nico’s hard work. They also cover up the moments he made mistakes that hindered his championship push. Had his starts been more consistent, the mechanical failures wouldn’t have mattered.

Also, as Lewis points out, he’s the only Mercedes driver (including customer teams) to have suffered failures. Rather than this point to a conspiracy, it should be a pause for consideration. It seems reasonable the most ragged, on the edge racer would ramp up engine modes more frequently. It’s possible his racing style took the finite life out of the engines at a faster rate.

But Lewis has never taken a gracious approach to failure or the success of others, why should he look inward for problems when he can blame imaginary “higher powers” within the team.

Nico Rosberg may lack the God-given minerals that make Lewis a natural competitor but there is more than one way to be a success. He has become champion through focus and dedication, hard work and sacrifice. These alone aren’t what make him the opposite side of the champions’ coin: it’s his demeanour and attitude.

Rosberg was the ultimate professional. He took his setbacks with a smile, the lips sealed to avoid uncomfortable comments that could come back to haunt him. Working alongside Schumacher and then Hamilton, he never looked out of place as a driver, he was more than an equal with how to present himself.

For all of Lewis’s derogatory antics, Rosberg has the last laugh. Hamilton will never be able to wrest the crown from his head. He retires undisputed champion with nothing left to prove.

People will claim he was scared to defend the title, and while Hamilton would still have been favourite going into the new season, it wouldn’t have been shocking had Rosberg retained. Just as the Brit wasn’t surprised by Rosberg’s retirement, no one would have been by another close challenge from the German. The psychological hold over Rosberg had been broken.

And why should Rosberg satisfy Hamilton’s desire to recapture the title by beating him? Lewis talks of how he’s always allowed people the chance to challenge for his crown as some act of nobility. Rosberg has been the noble man of the pairing and doesn’t need to hinder his personal life to please the wants of a self-centred man-child.

Hamilton’s recent comments will remove any doubts about the content of his character and anything lingering in Rosberg’s mind about whether it was a decent exit strategy.

He retires proving the adage “nice guys come last” to be codswallop. As a nice guy, he came first. Technically less times than Lewis this season, but first where it mattered most: top of the championship standings and attitude stakes.

Lewis will most likely repeat the former of those himself – he’s too talented to avoid a fourth title (unless he falls foul of the decisions that have blighted Alonso’s career path) – for the latter he’ll need further education on behaviour and mental approach.

Hamilton lacked the gracious, humble approach a decent gentleman would having taken following the climax of the Abu Dhabi grand prix. But he can learn from these mistakes as long as he takes constructive criticism on board. There were enough former drivers and champions highlighting the error. A good man has open ears.

Nico Rosberg was the man who didn’t need such lessons. He bided his time and struck when the opportunity arose. He leaves the sport as the perfect example of how a champion should carry themselves.

He drives into the future with the number 1 pasted to his car for all eternity

Damon Hill: Watching the Wheels

Damon Hill: Watching the Wheels

Damon Hill was always a different type of motorsport star. In the flamboyant world of Formula One he came across as reserved. In a sport dominated by money, he struggled to the top. A successful family name, that should have eased the transition, proved to be a burden. Unlike stars today, he never cashed in with a cheap autobiography at the time. Twenty years later, Hill explains why in his book Watching the Wheels.

Damon Hill was unique and also a first. The history books will forever state he and his legendary father Graham were the first father and son to win F1 Driver World Championships. His father’s career and untimely death shaped Hill’s formative years and adult life in ways that took decades for him to understand.

Before Hill begins his story, the foreword explains his absence during the decades between retiring and re-emerging into public life as a broadcaster. In a brave and important move, he discusses his battle with depression. Raising awareness to the issue and explaining its nature will give hope to many sufferers.

After facing up to his demons, and sharing them with the reader, it’s understandable that Hill doesn’t shy away from how they were created. Before diving into the autobiography, it’d be fine to expect little of Graham Hill’s story. His shadow loomed over Damon’s career and it was something he could never find the speed to race away from.

His account of his younger years explains what it was like to live with a larger than life character. How Graham, like Damon would be himself, was a late addition to the sport. The effects of his fame did affect his mother at times and there’s a sense Damon adored, admired, and worshipped his father while feeling he was inaccessible.

The showcase of F1, in days where it was a different type of showbiz and the community was close rather than filled with suspicious rivals, didn’t appeal to the young Hill. He was a shy, under confident child. The attention that came his way he tried to avoid, feeling it wasn’t deserved, and he didn’t want to be defined by the success of others.

Despite the negatives that came with fame, like being singled out in school, he had a happy childhood. Sadly, when he lists the reasons why, labouring the point, it reads like a top ten of superficial positives. It could be a sign that even before his father passed, Damon was destined to have emotional difficulties.

The painful realisation Damon was getting closer to his father before his passing is even more upsetting. He uses the book as a means to exonerate Graham’s role in the plane crashed that took his life and those of his team on board. It rightly lays falsehoods to rest, explains how rumours had played like Chinese whispers over the years. And refers to a crash investigator that offers probable causes for the incident. It enables the legend of Graham Hill to continue untarnished.

After his father’s death, he buried the pain, choosing not to mourn, believing his father would have done the same. He had to assume the role of man of the house before he was a legal adult. The lavish lifestyle started to fade away. Lawsuits against the family and the loss of income meant the Hills went into survival mode.

Fast forward to adulthood and Damon found himself working in the building trade. The graft enabled him to focus, stopping his mind from dwelling on his father. It’s quite telling that during these stories he refers to “that Scottish man” and “the Irish man” he worked with for four weeks. Even after a month the class divide meant they were labels, not named people. Or at least, people not worthy of remembering now.

His passion was racing bikes, and he became a delivery driver around London, claiming the day-to-day hustle in the traffic honed his driving skills. During this period he met his future wife Georgie. Theirs was a stop-start relationship but it’s clear they had a deep connection early on. Sadly, the reader only gets an insight during the early days. Once F1 begins, the chapters are filled with a notable lack of family life.

His journey to Formula One wasn’t through desire. Damon preferred motorcycle racing but realised the chance of career-ending injury was high, the rewards low. So he took the decision to race single-seater cars.

It wasn’t a smooth transition, he lacked funding but it’s hard to fully empathise with his hardships when he explains how a Beatle rang him to offer the £75,000 required to race the following season. Through a good sponsorship deal he finally secured a safer drive and managed to get on the radar.

By his own admission, he was never the standout performer, and people like Johnny Herbert and Martin Brundle were the established names of his generation. But he had an inner grit that people overlooked all his career.

He wasn’t trying to capitalise on his father’s fame, quite the opposite. He wanted to right a wrong, complete the family mission, and discover his true self.

Of course, he achieved that aim. He added a British Grand Prix victory to the family heirloom, a thing that had eluded his father. And repeated the feat of being crowned champion of the world.

The standoffishness and inaccessibility that made him less lovable than people like Nigel Mansell, permeates the pages. But this shows how he has always been genuine, wearing his heart on his sleeve.

A quiet heart doesn’t mean a smaller one.

The brooding intensity was mistaken for not being passionate enough. He explains his treatment at Williams, how he was never a preferred choice, even after keeping the team close-knit following Ayrton Senna’s untimely passing.

The comparisons to rate Hill have always been lopsided. No one would ever claim he was a Senna, he even called upon the spirit of the great Brazilian to help him in Japan, but he wasn’t below the likes of fan-favourite Mansell. Hill never had a number two like Riccardo Patrese.

He partnered the best of all time, a David Coulthard in his peak, Mansell himself, world champion Jacques Villeneuve, and the brother of his chief nemesis Ralf Schumacher.

Those looking for a better insight to the battle with Michael may be disappointed. We get a glimpse into his mindset but a golden opportunity is missed when he mentions driving to see the German laid up in hospital with broken legs. This was after the 1999 British Grand Prix.

Instead we break to hear about more contract woes, it would have been nice to see that interaction. What was their relationship like as Michael was bed ridden? Especially poignant now the seven-time world champion may never communicate with the wider world again.

Early on in the book Hill talks about how motorsport is dangerous and we should never move away from the part of nature that is drawn to it like moths to a flame. Ultimately, the sense of that danger is what made him want to leave.

People will draw their own conclusions as to how successful Hill’s endeavours were. He was a victim of the British media’s classic “build ‘em up, to knock ‘em down” formula. As a wronged loser, they adored him. As a champion, they tore strips from him.

Perhaps this has had Hill on the defensive ever since. Parts of the book read like a list of excuses rather than reasons. He also has a sense of entitlement that can’t be overlooked. There are undertones throughout that Michael Schumacher was the chosen driver, protected by his team and given preferential treatment.

Later he demands special treatment believing he has earned it and paid his dues. Many drivers before and since have sacrificed just as much and never had the gifts that were delivered to Damon.

Hill should be applauded for speaking out about mental health issues and be thanked for taking a trip to the nostalgic years of his racing days and the enduring memory of his father’s. It’s unlikely this self-written book will win over many new fans but its greatest triumph is detailing the recovery of a man lost in the wilderness.