With many of the other F1 greats such drives can roll off the tongue: Fangio at the Nurburgring in '57, Moss in Monaco '61, Clark in Monza '67, Senna in Donington '93, Schumacher in Hungary '98... Even within Alonso's 2012 campaign, one which only the obdurate would suggest was not one of the most persistently impressive seasons from anyone ever, naming individual performances of that rank is difficult, maybe Valencia aside. His year's effort was more based on relentless brilliance, a 9.5 out of 10 performance just about every time.
|Fernando Alonso in the 2006 season|
Credit: Kamalsell / CC
Ah, Hungary. For much of its now quarter century-plus history as an F1 venue its Hungaroring has not won many popularity awards. Yes, it's always attracted a numerous, multi-national crowd; it's the layout that's been the problem. It arguably was the first of the new generation of tight, torturous tracks that gradually replaced the classic high-speed challenges such as the Österreichring and Zandvoort on the calendar. 'Monaco without the houses' was a polite description made in the circuit's early days. Nigel Roebuck noted that when the fraternity first laid eyes on the 'purpose-built' venue in 1986 'we swiftly concluded that part of that purpose had been to prevent motor racing. Tight and sinewy, it amounted to a prescription for soporific grands prix.' Jabby Crombac was less restrained, as when one year he was asked by a local how the track could be improved he replied 'Dig it up'.
Yet somehow, in addition to the Michael Schumacher drive already mentioned, it has developed a partial knack of being the scene of great drivers putting in great drives. And so it was in 2006.
And as in many classic drives, Alonso had plenty of adversity to overcome that day. He'd claimed his first world championship, then the youngest ever to do so, with Renault in 2005. And the following campaign was started superbly: at the year's halfway point from nine rounds Alonso had six wins and three second places on the board - only six points dropped in other words. And this even though Michael Schumacher and Ferrari had strode back decisively after the bottom had fallen out of their challenge in 2005. Alonso then put in a tepid drive in Indianapolis in round 10, finishing fifth, but that was thought to be no biggie as that was a track he'd long struggled at.
But then everything changed. For reasons best known to themselves the FIA decided to ban the 'mass damper' system, one that they'd previously allowed and that Renault had used since late 2005, on the rather absurd grounds that it was a 'moveable aerodynamic device' (even though it was a device that never saw the light of day, given it was under the car's skin). Renault and Ferrari (and others) were using the system, but its banning clearly impeded Renault more, Schumi won three rounds on the bounce (including the Indianapolis race) while all Alonso could claim in the same period was a second place and two fifths. Suddenly it was game on, and as Schumi's engineer Chris Dyer noted after his charge had triumphed in the German round the championship was now in the Schumi-Ferrari combination's hands: if they won the remaining races they would take the title. All the while, Alonso and Renault would have been forgiven for wondering just how many people they had to beat in order to prevail in 2006. Worse on this front awaited them in Monza...
Then in Friday practice for the Hungarian race, perhaps under pressure, Alonso for probably the only time that year scored an own goal. Believing that Robert Doornbos had balked him on a quick lap Alonso pulled alongside him, waved at him, and then moved ahead in order to 'brake test' him. This, in addition to overtaking under yellow flags later in the session, got Alonso a two-second time penalty for his best qualifying effort. It would result presumably in him starting mid-grid on Sunday, on another weekend wherein his championship rival Schumacher was expected to have the place to himself and thus was well placed for a sizeable net points gain.
But the following day Alonso had a significant stroke of good fortune, as Schumi got a two-second penalty of his own. This time for overtaking two cars, including Alonso's, under red flag conditions in Saturday morning practice. There was some dark muttering emanating from the Ferrari camp suggesting that Alonso had 'drawn the foul' from Schumi, by going rather more slowly than you'd expect. But whatever the case the outcome remained the same.
|Fernando Alonso in action|
Credit: Polmars / CC
Alonso's brilliant race-day drive began at its most brilliant on the first lap. He got off the line well, but rather ran out of space in the run to turn one. As it was at that point he was still in P12 (helped by Christian Klien starting from the pitlane), but then Alonso proceeded, and did so as if the track he was on had less water on it than it did for everyone else. No matter your pace advantage passing in the Hungaroring's back section was (and is) considered about as probable as passing around the outside of Casino Square: you don't do it in other words. But no one had told Alonso: at turn one he moved around the outside of Ralf Schumacher's Toyota, then passed Mark Webber's struggling Williams before turn two. Then at turn five, never before viewed as a passing spot, the Spaniard managed to vault past both Nick Heidfeld and David Coulthard in the same swoop - again around the outside! At this point the director of the TV world feed twigged on what Alonso was up to and switched focus, just in time for Alonso to dive down the inside of Robert Kubica, making his F1 debut, into turn nine. And before the lap was out Alonso had ambushed Felipe Massa too, claiming the inside line - and almost ending up in the pitlane as he did so - into the final corner. One lap, and six scalps had been seized.
For various reasons Alonso's opening tour is unlikely to go into folklore in the same way as Ayrton Senna's at Donington has, but it doesn't seem all that unreasonable to put it somewhere within the same league.
As for Alonso's rivals, Jenson Button had only made it up from P14 to P11 by this point, and while Schumi had also shown his class in getting up to P4 most of his gains made were in the run off the line to turn one. Otherwise only Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa had been passed by him on that lap and in the latter case it was when Massa had slid off the track.
Alonso sailed past his team mate Fisichella on lap two and set his sights immediately on Schumacher in fourth. Unusually in such conditions, the Bridgestone tyre Schumi was on wasn't offering much grip at that point, particularly at the rear, compared with the Michelins Alonso and others were on, and it showed as Alonso was capable clearly of going several seconds a lap faster. But Schumi as we've come to expect was nevertheless selling his hide as dear as they come, putting his car in all of the wrong places as far as his pursuer was concerned. For a lap the two cars were as one, Alonso seeking to pass at every angle, before he repeated the party trick of lap one: sweeping clean past Schumi around the outside of turn five. And then he left him.
Alonso's early-race progress seen on board
Alonso then nibbled at the advantage of the three cars that remained up the road, and eventually a further layer of the quality of Alonso's drive was revealed as those ahead - Kimi Raikkonen leading in his McLaren, his team mate Pedro De La Rosa second (providing a stop gap for the Woking team after Juan Pablo Montoya's abrupt walk out a few races earlier) and Rubens Barrichello's Honda (as well as Jenson Button behind) all peeled into the pits for their first stops while Alonso pressed on, now leading. So in other words what Alonso had been doing had been with a much heavier fuel load than most of those around him.
And there was more to come as, aided perhaps with tyres scrubbed in more than those of his freshly-booted rivals, Alonso went into imperious mode. He now started to lap routinely three seconds a lap faster than anyone else, and by lap 25 he was 40 seconds clear of the two McLarens, and some 49 seconds clear of Button, and in each case Alonso didn't look to be planning more pit stops than them before the end. A couple of laps earlier he'd lapped the sport's regenmeister Michael Schumacher (who admittedly had been delayed by a front wing change after running into Fisichella while the latter was passing him). This was a rout.
But lap 25 as well as being Alonso's crowning glory was also the point at which his day began to unravel. Second-placed Raikkonen vaulted over the back of Vitantonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso while lapping him, Kimi later admitted that he'd been caught looking in his mirrors rather than ahead. It put both out, and brought out the safety car. While Alonso was able to pit while the race was neutralised he also lost just about all of his lead, as well as whatever advantage he was enjoying from his more scrubbed in tyres. Alonso remained 6.5 seconds clear of the now second-placed Button (who hadn't pitted under the safety car) as green flag racing resumed, thanks to some traffic. But Button due in part to a combination of a lighter fuel load and tyres more up to temperature (as well as Alonso having a brief scare on lap 34 as he accidentally hit the wrong button on his steering wheel, putting the car into neutral for a few seconds) was now able to hunt Alonso down and by the time of the Englishman's next stop on lap 46 was but half a second behind.
Alonso pressed on and by the time of his own stop five laps later it was just about time for dry tyres (still known as slicks at the time, despite featuring grooves), as the track had dried throughout. With Button still on intermediates it appeared a master stroke by Renault, and one that would ensure that Alonso after all would triumph for one of the finest wet-weather victories of all time. But it appeared that way only fleetingly, as the locking mechanism of Alonso's right-rear wheel didn't work in the wheel change, meaning the nut hadn't gone on properly. After emerging from the pits Alonso just about scrambled through turn one, but come the downhill turn two there was nothing he could do as the wheel worked loose and he was sent straight into the tyre barriers and out. It was beyond cruel.
This gave Button the race on a plate, and having switched to slicks himself a couple of laps later he reeled off the remaining laps to claim a long-overdue first Grand Prix win.
|Jenson Button celebrates his win|
Credit: WrldVoyagr / CC
Of course, one doesn't want to be churlish. It wasn't that Jenson Button did not drive well nor that he did not deserve to win a race. It was much more that Fernando Alonso didn't deserve to lose this one. And somehow that fact got lost somewhat under the descent of nationalistic Button fervour. Perhaps it is high time that Alonso's mesmeric drive of that day was rediscovered.