Granted, one should take the tabloids' F1 coverage with several truckloads of salt. It's clear they have their own needs, and accurate reporting that will be appreciated by F1 enthusiasts isn't a priority. Instead, they seek to appeal to the 'mass market' or casual F1 observer, whose interest in the sport probably doesn't extend far beyond supporting the British drivers, and appealing to such readers' sense of moral outrage makes good copy. Yesterday's Sun article ticks those boxes. But it's not just in the tabloids that contempt for Alonso can be found: fans' forums have plenty, as does the specialist motor sport media (I won't name names). As Nigel Roebuck has commented: 'anti-Alonso sentiment...seems rife in this country'.
It surely cannot be denied that F1 is a better sport for Fernando Alonso's presence. The more quality drivers in the sport the better it is for everyone, and Alonso has to be ranked among the best of the best. Martin Brundle's absolutely correct to say 'if you were starting an F1 team, there are three guys on the "must have" list...Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso'. He has won two world championships, has 26 race wins to his name, and his relentlessness, tenacity and extreme pace and aggression have been widely showcased for a number of years. And just imagine what the 2010 season would have been like without him. Sure, some intrigue would have provided by the Vettel/Webber relationship at Red Bull and by Vettel's late-season surge, and Lewis's sterling hanging onto the Red Bulls' coat tails would still have been worthy. But it took Alonso's presence, and his dragging of his Ferrari to places it probably didn't deserve to be, for the 2010 season to go down as a great one.
And a less well-recorded point is that Alonso, on the track at least, is as clean as they come. Unusually in modern F1, it's very hard to cite an egregious stunt he's pulled on a competitor (that's of course not counting the pit lane as part of the track). Schumi can barely go a weekend without one.
On that point, it's undeniable that a lot of the hate can be traced back to 2007. That's of course the tumultuous year in which Alonso partnered Lewis Hamilton as team-mates at McLaren. Indeed, it's easy to forget how popular Alonso was prior that that year, demonstrated by the sympathy he received at the Italian race in 2006 when he was properly mucked about by the stewards. He was the young fighter who had finally toppled Michael Schuamcher, and against the odds. How things changed in a short period of time.
The details of that 2007 season, and the rights and wrongs of the protagonists, would require an article all of their own (and we still haven't really heard Fernando's side of the story). But safe to say it was an unhappy year for him, he rarely drove to his potential, made lots of uncharacteristic errors, and his relationship with his team and team-mate broke down irrecoverably long before the year was out. Further, the year revealed character flaws of Fernando's only seen briefly before and since, wherein he clearly became rattled at the pace of and attention towards his younger team mate (to be honest Lewis's immediate pace was such that it probably surprised even Lewis himself).
Things came to a head in the Hungarian round. In qualifying, in a tit-for-tat with Hamilton, who had refused to let Alonso ahead to serve his turn of running ahead in the fuel burn phase (remember those?), Alonso famously blocked Hamilton in the pit lane, thus not allowing his team-mate to complete his final qualifying run, and earning Alonso a grid penalty. Then, the next morning, Alonso was alleged to have threatened team boss Ron Dennis with revealing incriminating evidence to the FIA of McLaren's 'spying' on Ferrari.
The reality of the Hungary case, and the 2007 year more generally, is much more complex than the common narrative presented in the media and by others (for example, he quickly retracted the blackmail threat, and who hasn't said something stupid in the heat of an argument?). But unfortunately for Fernando, his behaviour fitted neatly into a very 'sellable' storyline, namely that this is a conniving foreigner using underhand tactics to get one over the British golden boy. It's a narrative that's sold a million British school boy comics, and it helped that Alonso's pitlane blocking, unlike Lewis's stunt, was highly visual. The tabloids in particular had a field day about it.
It cannot be denied that in 2007, and in the Hungarian round in particular, Alonso did not cover himself in glory with his actions. But it seems odd that three-and-a-half years on he's still serving penance in many quarters, when sports fans usually show themselves capable of forgetting very quickly. For example, look how quickly Man Utd fans forgave Wayne Rooney's apparent 'treachery' and his demanding of a transfer away from the club for no other reason it seemed than shoehorning even more lucrative wages from them, once he signed a new contract. My impression as well is that Senna's and Schumacher's misdemeanors (and there were plenty) did not get anything like the same criticism, and were forgotten far more rapidly, than Alonso's.
And a further problem for Alonso is that his subsequent actions, however benign they are, are invariably viewed through that 'Dick Dastradly' prism. The poisonous criticisms of him are therefore to an extent self-perpetuating. He has subsequent to 2007 been associated to varying degrees with other controversies, such as Crashgate in the 2008 Singapore race (my thoughts on that are here) wherein his team mate crashed on purpose in a pre-arranged act to help Alonso, and the fuss around team orders in Hockenheim (my thoughts on that are here). It seems in both of these cases, and others less high profile, the willingness to give Alonso any benefit of the doubt is extremely limited, and instead the wide assumption is that he must have had dead hand and malign influence on events. This is despite the complete absence of evidence that he knew anything of Crashgate (to paraphrase Bob Dylan: he can't help it if he's lucky). That his fuel strategy was set the day before the scheme was cooked up, thus making it entirely possible that Alonso was oblivious to the crash plan, was barely recorded. And as for the team orders at Hockenheim, as I've said before that there was a huge overreaction to that in my view, team orders happen right across the F1 grid one way or another, and always have done. To criticise Alonso for his supposed role in the case begs the question - I can't help but suspect that the fallout wouldn't have been anything like as great had the beneficiary been any driver other than Alonso. (As an aside, I hope that those who criticise Fernando Alonso at every opportunity aren't nearly as judgemental with those that they know in their own lives - if they are then I'd suggest they'll end up living very lonely existences).
Nigel Roebuck has no doubt that Alonso has an undeserved reputation which precedes him: 'Every sport has to have a villain, of course...Fernando has increasingly been portrayed as The Man In the Black Hat. Foreigner, of course, swarthy sort of cove. Drives for a foreign team. Doesn't care too much for Lewis Hamilton. Pretty damning, all in all, wouldn't you say?'
It's a strength and a weakness of Alonso's, that if it doesn't directly impact the stopwatch he doesn't give it much thought, and it seems media campaigns are very much in this category as far as he's concerned. Part of this wariness is also possibly related to his relatively humble and (with all due respect to Oviedo) somewhat off-the-beaten-track background contributing to a slightly brooding, guarded and suspicious outlook in the F1 arena. This certainly seemed a contributory factor in his relationship breakdown with McLaren in 2007, as a Spanish racing insider commented at the time 'He's a charming guy up close, is funny and charismatic, and he doesn't lack intelligence. But I think he lacks wisdom...he's not from a place like Barcelona or Madrid. I think he...hasn't accommodated the realities of the environment he's in.'
It's a pity though, as I believe that, as well as a higher media presence allowing him to put his side across more effectively when under attack, Alonso is one of the sport's more interesting personalities, and often refreshingly frank about a variety of matters. And by the accounts of those who really know him, he's tremendously fun and effervescent to be around (as our 'insider' said). It's probably no coincidence that in Spain and Italy, where he's more open with the media and generally, he's tremendously popular. Apparently the Tifosi love him more than any driver since Gilles Villeneuve - high adulation indeed.
Fernando Alonso is a massive asset for F1 as a sport, and will surely go down in history as one of the best ever. It's therefore frustrating to see Alonso's actions followed by such negativity. Moreover, it's based on a rather pantomime villain persona that has been constructed for him, and which in my view has very little basis in reality and is to a large extent self-perpetuating. As Formula One fans we should be grateful for what Fernando Alonso brings to the sport, and remember as well that, while he like everyone else is open to criticism and scrutiny, he is also, like all F1 drivers, worthy of a lot of respect. They are after all better than us.
And for those who make a habit of pouncing upon him, via whatever forum, I ask you to really think what you are basing it on. And then think again about whether you therefore should lay off.