Spain’s motor racing superstar, Fernando Alonso, is set to make a comeback to Formula 1 in 2021. Alonso will drive for Renault alongside Esteban Ocon, replacing the departing Daniel Ricciardo who is on his way to McLaren.
This will be Alonso’s third stint at Renault. After starting his F1 career with Minardi in 2001, Alonso became Renault’s test driver in 2002 and was promoted to a race seat in 2003. He repaid Renault’s faith in him with consecutive championship wins in 2005 and 2006, dethroning Ferrari’s megastar Michael Schumacher.
After a competitive but turbulent year at McLaren in 2007, Alonso returned to Renault for 2008 and 2009. Five years followed at Ferrari that included race wins but no championships, and Alonso then spent a disappointing four seasons at McLaren before stepping away from Formula 1 at the end of 2018.
Alonso’s return can only be good for Formula 1. He’s a global superstar and a double F1 world champion. He will draw massive crowds all over the world and particularly in Spain.
For Renault, Alonso will be the focal point for their championship hopes in 2022. F1 is due to introduce radical new regulations from the 2022 season, which provides an opportunity for the pecking order to be shaken up. Renault are currently in the midfield, some distance away from the front, but that could all change with the new regulations in 2022.
For Alonso personally, whether or not his return is worthwhile will depend largely on the performance of the Renault car. He spent several seasons frustrated in the midfield in uncompetitive McLarens before calling it a day at the end of 2018. It seems unlikely that Alonso will be happy with a return to mediocre results. He will want to win.
While Alonso’s comeback will be positive for Formula 1, Renault and possibly Alonso himself, it is likely to be a bit disappointing for the up-and coming drivers of the Renault Sport Academy, and in particular Guanyu Zhou, who is currently racing in Formula 2. Zhou took pole for the Formula 2 season opener in Austria last weekend and is currently the Renault F1 test driver. He will have been hoping that a strong 2020 in F2 could result in promotion to the Formula 1 team for 2021. That hope has evaporated with the confirmation that Alonso will join Ocon in the Renault F1 2020 driver line-up.
I wonder what is motivating Alonso’s return to F1. He’s already been world champion twice. He’s universally acknowledged as a fantastic Formula 1 driver and arguably one of the greatest all-round drivers in the world at present. But what does he he hope to gain from another go at Formula 1, particularly with a team that has not been at the front for some time? What is Alonso’s unfinished business in F1?
Alonso will be 39 when he returns to the grid next year. That will make him the oldest driver on the grid if Kimi Raikkonen doesn’t renew his contract with Alfa Romeo (Raikkonen turns 41 during 2020). He doesn’t need to build a career or a reputation. Those are already well established.
Alonso must surely be hoping to rewrite the end to his Formula 1 career. He left F1 at the end of 2018 after 4 winless years at McLaren, clearly tired of being an also-ran in the sport he dominated back in 2005 and 2006. I expect he would much prefer sign off from F1 with race wins at least and preferably a championship too.
Most drivers would be over the Moon to have two Formula 1 World Championships to their name. But for a driver of Alonso’s quality, it almost doesn’t seem like enough. He finished 2nd three times at Ferrari, and in two of those seasons the title went down to the final race. In 2007 Alonso was third in the championship but only 1 point behind champion Kimi Raikkonen – Alonso and his McLaren team-mate Hamilton had equal points and won 4 races each, but Hamilton had 5 2nd places to Alonso’s 4 and so Hamilton was classified 2nd in the championship).
Alonso could easily have been a five-time champion and nobody would have doubted the merit of the achievement. He must feel like there is some unfinished business there. One more title would put him in the same company as Ayrton Senna, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Jack Brabham and Nelson Piquet – all three-time champions and all greats of F1.
In all of Formula 1 history, there has only been one true comeback champion (Prost won in 1993 after a year out but hadn’t actually retired). Niki Lauda retired in 1979 with two titles for Ferrari under his belt. A return with McLaren in 1982 led to the title in 1984 and sealed Lauda’s place as an F1 legend. On the other end of the comeback spectrum, Michael Schumacher came out of retirement in 2010 and spent three tough seasons with Mercedes that yielded a single podium, no wins and not even a sniff at the title. If Alonso can crown his comeback with a third title, it will firmly add him to the list of Formula 1 legends. But Schumacher’s comeback showed the extent of the challenge that awaits.
Whatever his motivation, having Alonso back in F1 will be spectacular. He is always on the limit of the car and always giving 100% in pursuit of victory. And isn’t that exactly how racing drivers should be? All on the line, all of the time. Bring on 2021.