Feature: Remembering Alonso’s finest season

by William Brierty
Fernando Alonso celebrates victory at the 2012 European Grand Prix

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a weekend where Fernando Alonso distinctly left the door open to a potential Formula 1 return. Indeed, Flávio Briatorie – one of the sport’s most reliable Alonso whisperers – even started talking of the Spaniard’s exit in terms of a sabbatical. However, for all that a potential return would be an exciting prospect for the fans, Fernando could certainly be forgiven for wanting to bid the sport a final farewell. With his devastating abilities squandered by the backmarker McLaren and with the top teams expressing an understandable preference for younger, more malleable drivers, it’s difficult to see what more F1 has to offer the prodigious Spaniard.

Alonso’s eighteen-year career has already been the consummate F1 experience. He has driven everything from a backmarker Minardi to a title-challenging Ferrari. He has driven V10s and V6s, screamers and hybrids. He fought a seven-time world champion for the championship in 2006 and played an awkward role in the discovery of an overnight superstar during a turbulent season with McLaren in 2007.

However, across such a varied and chequered career there has been one unshakable constant. Through it all Alonso has been nothing less than outstanding in the cockpit. His swashbuckling relentlessness quickly made a younger bandana-wearing Alonso the prime candidate to unseat the dominance of the great Michael Schumacher. As he matured, he grew ever more tenacious behind the wheel until he finally perfected his patented brand of gritted-teeth intensity. An older, wiser Fernando would arguably evolve into one of the most complete driving packages the sport had ever seen.

It was in this sweet spot between youth and experience where Alonso produced his greatest season; even eclipsing his championship years. With seven different winners from the first seven races in a season where the top step was shared by six different teams (half of the teams in the entire pitlane), 2012 was not only one of the finest seasons of modern times but was perhaps the ultimate showcase of Alonso’s ‘never-say-die’ mentality.

A ban on the exhaust blown diffuser had robbed the big teams of much of their advantage over the midfield and on top of this more level playing field the ‘designed to degrade’ Pirellis created the potential for plenty of unpredictability going into 2012. Unfortunately, Alonso’s Ferrari F2012 was to suffer a difficult arrival as it fell well short of the McLaren’s pace in preseason testing. A completely redesigned exhaust assembly was brought to the car for Melbourne, however, this didn’t stop Alonso from qualifying a lowly twelfth; some 1.6 seconds slower than Lewis Hamilton‘s pole lap.

MELBOURNE (AUSTRALIA) 16/03/2012

Credit: Ferrari/FOTO ERCOLE COLOMBO

A terrific drive to fifth in the race was the first glimpse of the extraordinary racecraft that would come to define the Spaniard’s season. But Sepang was another thing entirely. In qualifying, Alonso again trailed the McLarens by more than a second before scoring an extraordinary victory in the Sunday deluge that followed. The F2012 had started the season with the look of a car that would never reach the top step; averaging a 1.5% pace deficit across the first four races of the season. However, Alonso’s genius behind the wheel had not only wrestled the car to victory in Malaysia but catapulted him to the top of the standings after two races.

In Martin Brundle’s words, it was the work of a “magician”, but there was little to suggest that this outwardly freak result was the start of a championship assault. A forlorn ninth in Shanghai followed by an equally difficult weekend in Bahrain (largely characterised by an amusingly apoplectic verdict on Nico Rosberg‘s racecraft) would only hammer this home as Fernando immediately relinquished the championship lead. A large update package deriving from the Mugello in-season test would immediately re-energise Alonso’s season, with consecutive podiums in Barcelona and Monaco heralding the start of a crucial European season.

However, the F2012 remained firmly behind the McLaren, Red Bull and Lotus on pace; perhaps on par with the deeply impressive Sauber C31. Despite this, Alonso kept pace with Hamilton and Vettel for much of the Canadian Grand Prix before an over-optimistic tyre strategy left him off the podium. For added dejection, an ultra-competitive qualifying session on home turf in Valencia left Alonso outside the top ten in eleventh. Indeed, having made significant gains in qualifying trim to poach a lofty third on the grid in Canada, the failure to make Q3 for the first time since Melbourne was a sobering blow for Ferrari.

However, Alonso would make amends come the chequered flag on Sunday; taking a remarkable victory in what Fernando himself regards as his finest drive in F1. He would gain three places on a frenetic opening lap before perfectly navigating the assorted crash damage/tyre wear chaos to somehow inherit the lead when Sebastian Vettel‘s alternator failed on lap 34. But in no way did Vettel’s retirement gift Alonso the win; he still had to resist a pair of Lotuses that had dominated the Friday long run pace.

Indeed, even before Vettel dropped out, Alonso would overtake Romain Grosjean around the outside of the tight hairpin of Turn 2 in one of the most inspired overtakes of the Spaniard’s entire career. It was also one of the finest examples of the opportunistic mindset that made Alonso so lethal on opening laps and on safety car restarts. Fernando’s racing instincts were at their sharpest in 2012; he would instinctively release the brake pedal and lunge at any F1 car-sized gap. Indeed, the 2012 European Grand Prix as a whole would totally encapsulate the indefatigable, intuitive racing flair that was fast making Alonso a leading contender for the championship. Small wonder why the man himself considers this one of the most emotional races of his life.

Fernando Alonso celebrates victory at the 2012 European Grand Prix

Credit: Ferrari

Valencia would also mark the start of an upward ebb in the performance of the recalcitrant F2012, with a sodden Silverstone the perfect setting for Alonso’s first pole for almost two years. Whilst Alonso couldn’t quite resist Mark Webber’s dry weather pace in the race, another water-logged pole lap in Germany became a foundation for Alonso’s third win of the season, and by far the most comfortable of the three. Unfortunately thereafter the steering wheel would be taken out of Alonso’s hands as the Ferrari’s persistent lack of downforce left the Spaniard firmly out of podium contention on the twisty Hungaroring layout.

Whilst Alonso’s trip to the Ardennes was lucky in that the airborne Sauber of Sergio Perez didn’t cause him serious injury, a DNF in the midst of the first corner pileup would mark the start of a terminal downward spiral for the Spaniard’s title hopes. Fastest in Q1 and Q2 on Ferrari’s home turf, a broken rear anti-roll bar in Q3 would deny Alonso a much-needed shot at victory. Truthfully, Monza would be the last hurrah for the Scuderia’s winning aspirations in 2012, as a lethal combination of downforce-dependent circuits and a freshly updated Red Bull kept Alonso far out of range of the top step.

Albeit seeing his championship lead rapidly eroded by a rejuvenated Sebastian Vettel, some of Alonso’s damage limitation performances during this painful phase of the season were just as majestic as his European heroics. Fernando would catch and pass the Red Bull of Webber during an Indian Grand Prix where the RB8 was truly in a class of one. He would also skilfully thread his way through a chaotic race in Abu Dhabi to finish P2; albeit only one place ahead of pitlane starter Vettel.

However, a retirement on the opening lap at Suzuka following an innocuous brush with Kimi Raikkonen’s front wing endplate had the look of a fatal blow, and following another win in South Korea, Vettel would take the championship lead. There was little doubt in the paddock that the German had the package to seal the deal. Going into the Brazilian decider, Ferrari’s increasingly alarming pace deficit (most graphically illustrated in qualifying in Austin, where Alonso fell short of pole by 1.6 seconds) had seen the gap to Vettel grow to 13 points. But even against those odds, as F1’s resident magician, there was a moment where it looked like Alonso might just do the impossible.

With a visibly tense Vettel down in a somewhat tentative fourth on the grid, the nightmare scenario played out as he was spun out by an overly ambitious Bruno Senna into Turn 4 on the opening lap. With a hobbled Vettel at the back of the pack with floor damage, Alonso took the projected championship lead as he passed both Webber and team-mate Felipe Massa in a single pass. In one of the most incredible races of the modern era, Alonso played the headline act, doggedly clinging on to the faint hope of a third world title.

GP BRASILE F1/2012 - INTERLAGOS 25/11/2012

Credit: Ferrari/FOTO ERCOLE COLOMBO

Ultimately it would prove an impossible task; with the encroaching rain masking the effect of the damage on Vettel’s car and with Alonso simply unable to get into any contention for the full 25 points; the battle was finally lost. Albeit dignified in defeat, there was no small sense in the paddock that the wrong triple champion was being crowned. In what was undoubtedly the most tragic image of the season, Alonso stood motionless in parc fermé as he came to terms with the defeat; doubtlessly reflecting on costly non-finishes in Spa and Suzuka as he stared into the middle distance.

Alonso was understandably distraught. He had produced a Herculean effort at each and every race and, but for the costly failure to allow enough room for Raikkonen’s front wing in Japan, had scarcely made a single error all season. In the eyes of many, 2012 was a year where Alonso completely outperformed his machinery, a year where the Spaniard had strained every sinew to keep in touch with faster cars. Yes, the F2012 was no shopping trolley, but it was still only the fourth fastest car in terms of the average percentage deficit to the ultimate qualifying lap (McLaren: +0.18%, Red Bull: +0.38%, Lotus: +0.68%, Ferrari: +0.75%).

Certainly, Alonso and Ferrari were not at their strongest in qualifying, but the F2012 was not the only car that found a new lease of life on Sundays with the Lotus and Sauber often proving most frugal on the Pirelli tyres. Indeed, compared with the previous year the field spread reduced dramatically in 2012, with the top six teams covered by less than 1%; a gap that would only span the top three teams in 2011. But that in no way diminished the brilliance of Alonso’s year; the tighter field spread simply brought the faster cars within range of Fernando’s ferocious racecraft.

It’s also important to remember that Alonso was not the only man driving the F2012, and whilst the field spread reduced compared to 2011, Fernando’s margin to team-mate Felipe Massa grew dramatically. Massa was already on a low ebb since being told that “Fernando is faster than you” in 2010, but in 2012 the Brazilian would out-qualify Alonso on just two occasions (the final two races of the season, ironically) and would never beat the Spaniard to the flag. But most strikingly, Felipe would score less than half of Alonso’s 278 point total. A certain amount of driver favouritism was certainly a factor, but Ferrari equally spent much of the year trying to motivate Massa so he could at least play some semblance of a supporting role. Unquestionably the devastation that Alonso inflicted on his team-mate is just another marker of an irrefutably astonishing season.

If judged purely on the headlines, Alonso’s championship duel with Michael Schumacher in 2006, perhaps even surpasses the Spaniard’s 2012 heroics. After the controversial ban on the Renault R26’s mass damper, Fernando would brilliantly massage the narrowing points gap with the German maestro to take his second consecutive world title. However, as a portrait of Fernando Alonso the athlete, 2012 cannot be beaten. He has always been a driver that relishes an uphill battle; a driver fired up by adversity. Alonso’s inner samurai warrior was at its most ferocious in 2012, and in the process arguably produced one of the most complete seasons of recent decades. A stunning year of wheel-to-wheel action also serves as a poignant reminder of the driver F1 should be ashamed to be losing.

Fernando Alonso - 2012 European Grand Prix

Credit: Octane Photographic

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