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.

 

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

F1’s Mexican Standoff

F1’s Mexican Standoff

With three races to go on the Formula One calendar, the Drivers’ Championship hangs in the balance. Lewis Hamilton no longer controls his own destiny; Nico Rosberg doesn’t need to win again to clinch his first world title. In the background Mercedes holds its breath, acutely aware the tense relationship between the pair could fracture the team. Each of the three parties has a loaded gun pointed toward the one they deem weakest. Can there be a happy ending?

Toto Wolff has his pistol pointing at the talented British world champion. In any team sport an individual can never become more important than the group they represent. Wolff has been gifted reasons to come down on Lewis should he feel the need.

The Snapchat episode, and then Hamilton’s decision to leave the following press conference without taking a single question, add to moments that could be interpreted as unprofessional. The most telling is Lewis’s comments that a “higher power” was responsible for his continued reliability issues.

In hindsight, he probably regrets airing this concern in public. All it does is pave the way for more (ridiculous) conspiracy theories and is the slap in the face to those that work hard each weekend to give him the best chance of victory.

It does look bizarre only one driver using the Mercedes engine is victim of all the failures, especially when they are unique and do not follow a pattern. Nevertheless, it is still more likely to be coincidence than the team sabotaging results to ensure they have a German champion in a German branded car.

As hard as it will be for Lewis to hear, Toto will – in a roundabout way – remind him the Mercedes is the best car on the grid, that anyone would jump at a chance to be there because it’s the best chance to win a title. Wolff would be sad to see such a talented driver leave but if he did, there’s no reason to believe Mercedes would struggle win the Constructors’ Championship.

But the Austrian points the gun reluctantly. The best teams want the best drivers and Lewis still tops that list for most. A shot fired would be sent with a heavy heart.

Pointed at Wolff’s head is Nico’s pistol. This year he has defied perception. Ever since Lewis joined Mercedes it’s looked like the German has been in his pocket. It’s been said many times that Nico couldn’t compete wheel-to-wheel but the gap between them was more than this. Lewis had better pure speed, he gave the impression he had the ability to find a few more tenths when required while Nico was already at his performance ceiling.

From a psychological point-of-view, this eroded Rosberg’s ability. It was a vicious circle that the German appeared destined to repeat forever.

Then 2016 happened.

Bad luck finding Lewis may have provided impetus to Nico Rosberg, allowing him to amass an early championship lead, but it also allowed him to exorcise some demons. Even when Lewis started his fight back, this new Rosberg didn’t fold. With every passing race, he’s gone from a man in Lewis’s shadow to a man looking like a worthy world champion.

If Lewis does create disharmony within the team, Nico can politely point out he had to suck it up when the Brit was taking titles and that he’d expect nothing less than the same support. The team couldn’t offload their new German world champion who has impeccable conduct, in favour of a guy with a chequered history when it comes to behaviour.

Which leaves Lewis Hamilton: the man with two guns.

The first of those is firmly aimed at his teammate. He can’t fire him from the team but he can break his spirit to such an extent that Mercedes no longer rate him worthy of a drive. When Rosberg outperformed Michael Schumacher, then team boss Ross Brawn commented that Nico could be the fastest man on the grid, implying Schumacher’s performance was still of a high standard.

There is now weight to that remark. Given the best car, Rosberg has held his own with Hamilton. Given some confidence, he stands on the cusp of a world title. It’s the type of belief he displayed after getting results against the old master and legend, Michael Schumacher.

But Hamilton has had the privilege of a better car and scoring the first world title on its behalf. This has given him the upper hand. Their history goes back to childhood and one wonders if there’s some hold Lewis has over Rosberg that the German can’t shake. Every time Nico matches Lewis, the Brit finds another level. A win in Austin and now a pole in Mexico, the doubts must be creeping into Rosberg’s mind.

To be within touching distance of the title and have it snatched would cement the mental edge Hamilton has over Rosberg.

But it’s the gun Lewis holds in his other hand that should be the real concern. It isn’t pointed at the towering Toto Wolff – it’s pressed beneath his own chin.

Despite the impression he can mentally break Rosberg, the person he causes most psychological damage to is himself. He’s a guy that wears his heart on his sleeve but far too often likes to write his own narrative. The early season party lifestyle was moulded into some character transition. That the flying Lewis needed to let his hair down to focus best on the track.

But the truth is, when the going is good it doesn’t matter what Hamilton is doing on or away from the circuit. The problems begin when he starts to write dark chapters instead of taking a step back from the circus.

He has showed cracks in the past, most notably when Button got the better of him as teammate. We saw then, as we have again this season, the exuberant Lewis become a moody, withdrawn, petulant impression of a teenager.

But he’s thirty-one years of age and should be setting an example as a world champion when off the track. Bad winners are worse than bad losers, Lewis is displaying traits of both.

Should Nico Rosberg win the title, Lewis has claimed he’ll, “take it like a man,” which begs the question: why hasn’t he managed to so far? If he did jump from the team, there would be nowhere to go following Mercedes of any worth. He’d become the next Fernando Alonso. A great driver, destined to struggle in second-rate cars.

None of the gunslingers can be confident of what the future holds but all three can be certain of one thing: they’ll be more losers than winners.