Fernando Alonso is one of the top drivers in Formula 1 at present, perhaps ever. And yet he has not won the Drivers’ Championship since 2006. Why not? I think it’s largely the result of repeatedly being in the wrong team at the wrong time.
Consider Alonso’s career moves since starting in Formula 1. His career began in 2001 with Minardi, where he impressed enough in his first season to land a drive with Renault in 2003. Just a few years later, Alonso won back-to-back championships with Renault in 2005-2006. So far, so good.
For 2007, Alonso switched to McLaren. The car was competitive. Alonso was in form. There was just the quite significant problem of a rapidly deteriorating relationship between team and driver. Alonso never felt at home at McLaren-Mercedes, as it was then, and at the end of the season he and the team agreed to part ways. Alonso went back to Renault for 2008.
Unfortunately for Alonso, the 2008 Renault was nowhere near as good as that year’s McLaren. Alonso finished a distant fifth in the championship while Lewis Hamilton, in a car Alonso could have been driving, won the championship. Had Alonso stuck it out with McLaren, it is quite possible that the 2008 championship would have been his.
Another season with Renault followed, in which it became apparent that the car was simply not good enough. Alonso failed to win a single race in 2009, and at the end of the season made a high-profile switch to Ferrari.
From 2010 to 2013, Alonso gave his all for Ferrari, comfortably out-performing team-mate Felipe Massa and generally competing, to at least some degree, for the championship. But all four of those seasons were won by Sebastian Vettel for Red Bull.
And here is perhaps the most unfortunate of Alonso’s career decisions so far. When he left McLaren to return to Renault for 2008, there was another team rumoured to be interested in his services. That team was Red Bull.
Had he made the move to Red Bull, Alonso could quite conceivably have dominated Formula in the same manner that Vettel did. But it didn’t happen. Instead, Alonso went to Renault and struggled in an under-performing car.
Alonso’s final season for Ferrari, 2014, was another year of struggle with an inferior car. The Ferrari power unit was no match for that of Mercedes, and Alonso once again was not able to challenge for the championship.
In his most recent career move, Alonso made the switch from Ferrari to McLaren for 2015. The much anticipated reunion of McLaren and legendary engine supplier Honda was expected to provide Alonso with a way back to the top of the results sheets.
But again, it seems to not have worked out, although it’s still very early in the season. Alonso missed the first race in Australia due to a concussion from a heavy crash in testing, but in his absence, McLaren drivers Jenson Button and reserve Kevin Magnussen were well off the pace, as Honda struggled to provide the power required for the car to be competitive.
The McLarens occupied the back row of the grid in Australia, and look likely to be quite far down the order again for this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix. It promises to be a tough season for Alonso, unless Honda can get their act together quite quickly.
And here again, Alonso seems to have made the wrong move. Or at least he appears to have moved at the wrong time. A resurgent Ferrari are currently best-of-the-rest to Mercedes, ahead of Williams to the surprise of the entire F1 field. Sebastian Vettel, who moved from Red Bull to take Alonso’s place at Ferrari at the end of last year, is revelling in the pace of the car and scored his first podium for the team at his first attempt.
Will McLaren come good for Alonso? For the sake of Formula 1, one can only hope. It is a real pity that one of the true greats of the sport has had such poor luck with cars. Unfortunately, 2015 doesn’t look like being the year his fortunes will change.
McLaren announced yesterday that Ron Dennis will return to the role of McLaren Group CEO with immediate effect. This is in addition to his role as Chairman of the board of McLaren Group. As CEO, Dennis replaces Martin Whitmarsh, who held the position in addition to his role as team principal of the McLaren Formula One team. No announcement has been made regarding Whitmarsh’s post at the head of the racing outfit.
Ron Dennis has an enormously successful history with McLaren. He was team principal of the Formula One team from 1982 to 2009, presiding over 10 of the team’s 12 World Drivers’ Championships and 7 of 8 World Constructors’ Championships. Dennis was team principal when a formidable list of drivers won world championships: Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton all triumphed under the guidance of Ron Dennis.
But Dennis’s success has not come only on the track. He is largely responsible for McLaren being the large, successful company it is today. The companies in the McLaren Group include McLaren Mercedes, the Formula One team; McLaren Automotive, which manufactures McLaren’s high-performance road cars; McLaren Applied Technologies, which “develops groundbreaking solutions across sport, medicine, biomechanics and entertainment by applying McLaren ‘know-how'” (according to the McLaren website); McLaren GT3 Racing, which is responsible for the company’s sports car programme using the McLaren MP4-12C GT3; and Absolute Taste, which provides catering and hospitality services to, amongst other clients, the Formula One team and its guests as it travels around the world.
Dennis was Group CEO from 1982 to 2012, the incredible period of growth that transformed McLaren from a racing team to the powerhouse described above. After handing over the Formula One team to Martin Whitmarsh at the end of 2009, Dennis continued in the role of Group CEO until the end of 2012 before Whitmarsh was also handed that role. Dennis became Group Chairman but relinquished executive responsibility for the Group.
After just one year with Whitmarsh at the helm, Dennis is back. That must at least partly be the result of the Formula One team’s poor performance in the 2013 F1 season. For the first time since 1980, neither McLaren driver stood on the podium all season. Jenson Button and Sergio Perez finished 9th and 11th respectively in the Drivers’ Championship, and McLaren finished fifth in the Constructors’ Championship, the team’s worst result since 2004.
It’s clear that Dennis intends to make changes at McLaren, and quickly. He said after his appointment yesterday:
“My fellow shareholders have mandated me to write an exciting new chapter in the story of McLaren, beginning by improving our on-track and off-track performance. Over the coming weeks I intend to undertake a thorough and objective review of each of our businesses with the intention of optimising every aspect of our existing operations, whilst identifying new areas of growth that capitalise on our technologies, and where appropriate further investing in them.
“During February, I will articulate a new Group strategy and implement the organisational structure best suited to achieving it. I am excited by the prospect of returning to the role of Group Chief Executive Officer and working with my many colleagues and fellow shareholders to fulfil our objective – which is to win at whatever we do.”
There are at least two major announcements still to be made before the Formula One season gets underway. Firstly, the team has yet to name a title sponsor after Vodafone terminated their McLaren partnership at the end of 2013. And secondly, the position of McLaren Mercedes team principal has yet to be confirmed for this season – after the disaster that was 2013, Martin Whitmarsh may well fear for his job.