Sunday 2 August 2015

Did Hungary show that Mercedes was wrong to snub Alonso?

In his summing up of the recent Hungarian Grand Prix the BBC's Andrew Benson wrote: "A friend who works in F1 remarked recently how lucky Hamilton was to have as his team-mate in the dominant team Rosberg - rather than Fernando Alonso.

Did Hungary show the down side
of Mercedes snubbing Alonso?
Photo: Octane Photography
"After a weekend like this, when Rosberg's limitations were exposed while Alonso, in the midst of McLaren-Honda's dire season, finally had a chance to show his class and hauled his car to an excellent fifth place, you can see what he meant."

Quite. Indeed neither Merc pilot had a good day in Hungary. Both compromised their races with contact with other cars, while in Lewis Hamilton's case you can add that he had a trip through the gravel on lap one and in Nico Rosberg's odd conservatism on his tyre choices. And if we are to pick up Benson's friend's counterfactual and run with it, whatever you think of Alonso it's hard to imagine he'd have replicated Lewis's impetuousness on lap one apparently seeking to get back places lost at the start pronto. It seems unlikely also that even with Hamilton chasing him down mid-race he'd have forgotten as Nico appeared to that he still had two Ferraris to beat up ahead, and that he was on a converse strategy and the race would therefore come back to him. He may have made the team's choice for him in putting him onto softs for the final sprint. He's done that sort of thing before after all.

He also with but a handful of laps left and a big points gain over his championship rival awaiting him and with an aggressive Daniel Ricciardo on his case would likely have steered a wide berth when retaking the place from him in rather than simply take his line like the Australian was going to disappear. He may have been more cautious than Lewis was on cold, harder, tyres when dicing with that very same aggressive Daniel Ricciardo at the post safety car re-start. And with all of these he'd have been at least as quick between times; quicker than the bewildered Nico at least. It could well have added up to a race victory - in fact from adding together all of the above we can say a win was likely - rather than the silver team walking away with its collective tail between its legs; its best result sixth place when it hadn't failed to reach the podium in near enough two years.

It is of course a little unfair to focus in on such a horrid outlying afternoon for the two Merc drivers - and the above stat shows the extent that it's an outlier - but we know that from taking driving ability and delivering on it consistently in isolation Alonso would improve Mercedes's line-up. But it's fairly well known by now why, despite no shortage of interest from the Spaniard, Mercedes hasn't made it happen. Its team boss Toto Wolff doesn't want him, not so much in a rating of his ability rather that he has two drivers now in Lewis and Nico who, unlike Alonso, don't seek to get involved in the team's running to a great extent. Are fairly passive presences in the team. And this is how Wolff likes it.

Jacques Villeneuve among a few others had some things to
 say about Alonso
"Jacques Villeneuve at Canada's Sports Hall of Fame
Induction Dinner" by 5of7 - Jacques Villeneuve. Licensed
under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
And this for some is mere part of Alonso's 'yeah, but...' side that comes with his driving talent.  He's not a team player they say. He's disruptive. Sometimes poisonous. The accusations have become close to mantra-like.

They say too that his parting with Ferrari last year is conspicuous evidence of it all. Jacques Villeneuve now of Sky Italia earlier this year told Sport Bild: "The Italians loved Alonso, but that love died very fast because he did not stand up for the team.

"Just because you make $30 million a year, does not mean you give up the responsibility to love your team. Where was the respect? I never criticised my team, no matter how bad the car was.

"I call it the 'God complex'...He was thinking more about Twitter and being a politician than team spirit."

Villeneuve added contrast of Alonso's behaviour with that of his Ferrari successor Sebastian Vettel. "Last year Sebastian did not even properly criticise Red Bull, even though he should have done".

Niki Lauda then got in on the act. "Alonso is egocentric, dark and grumpy," he opined to la Repubblica newspaper.

"He's also quite negative. Last year right after the races finished he started criticising: this doesn't work, there's a problem there, this is why we are not winning. How can you keep the morale of a team up if the driver just says bad things? Everybody knows it: if you are racing for Italy that's an attitude you can't afford.

"Maybe somewhere else they can ignore the criticism, but not at Maranello and its surroundings. Vettel is sunny, Alonso is dark...He pushed himself into the abyss."

In this ilk many thought though that the words late last season of then-Ferrari boss Marco Mattiacci that his new signing Vettel "brings with him that sense of team spirit which will prove invaluable" were rather loaded. "It's a plain dig" Martin Brundle reckoned.

Furthermore in an article by Mark Hughes on Motorsport magazine's website again late last year Alonso was accused of "making waves" within the Ferrari team. "The waves created internally by Alonso's remarks have frequently made life difficult for the management’ said Hughes. "His subtexts, the throwaway lines in public or to favoured journalists became all about how the team had let him down. He was the warrior pulling the team along in his wake - and they were being found wanting."

Some have compared Alonso's approach with that
of Sebastian Vettel, and unfavourably
Photo: Octane Photography
The problem here though with all of this is where exactly are these quotes of Alonso criticising his Ferrari team? According to Villeneuve and others they were said to the media, presumably armed with recorders and the like, and each of them make it sound like there are reams of them. But I haven't seen a single one beyond that which inspired then-Ferrari President Luca Montzemolo's 'ear tweak' of Alonso mid-2013, in response to Alonso's throwaway line to the effect of wanting someone else's car when asked what he wanted for his birthday. But if we're hanging the entirety of this case for the prosecution on that...

Alonso's politicking in public somehow all eluded Brundle too, who in sharp contrast to the above claims had this to say on TV as Alonso was on his way out of the Scuderia: "Over the years Alonso's been Mr Positive" he said, "we've always talked about it; his head's down in the race but also out of the car it's like 'well all of your four wheels have fallen off today Fernando, what’s the story?' [and he says] 'I'm confident, we'll get this together'. He's always been the man to say 'it's going to be OK, we’re going to make this work'".

No one told Rob Smedley either, even though he was on the inside of Ferrari for four of Alonso's five years there, who is persistently gushing in his praise of the Spaniard and firm in the view that he'd take him at Williams tomorrow.

Perhaps that the 'Alonso trashed Ferrari publicly' idea has been accepted by so many as a point of fact apparently perhaps demonstrates sadly the truism that if you throw enough muck around some of it, inevitably, will stick.

As for the persistent suggestions this year that Ferrari's upturn vindicates the hypothesis that Alonso had been holding them back, well I'm afraid the best evidence is that it's a red herring. It can be attributed much more to the extremely highly rated James Allison getting a technical carte blanche in 2014 for preparing this year's car as well as vast improvement in the Ferrari power unit, aided perversely by there being conspicuous gains to make from in 2014 compactness being prioritised over power, which proved an error. All of these improvements were put in place when Alonso still was around. Allison too has said that he tried very hard to convince Alonso to stay.

The fleeting Ferrari team principal Marco Mattiacci was
thought not to see eye-to-eye with Alonso
Photo: Octane Photography
Now you'd be terribly cynical to think, given a lot of this chatter appears to be coming from close to Ferrari (note who Jacques Villeneuve's employer is these days), that it is in the Italian team's interest to make its parting with the popular and prodigious Alonso appear noble from its own side of things, and to send some murmurs out to that effect. It is said also that the fleeting Maranello team principal Marco Mattiacci wanted the Spaniard out for reasons that had little to do with the above; that were rather less than noble.

"Why, though, would Mattiacci wish to see him leave?" asked Nigel Roebuck around the time all this was kicking off. "Because, according to the Italian grapevine, he knows that Alonso is the de facto leader of the team, and he wants to demonstrate that he is in charge, that his law must be accepted, and he believes that with Vettel that would be easier to achieve - not least because, unlike Alonso, fully conversant both with the language and the mentality at Ferrari, Sebastian doesn't even speak Italian..."

It fits too that Alonso in Singapore last year suggested that elements at Ferrari were putting whispers out with an intention of discrediting him.

Even Hughes noted the apparent inconsistent story coming out of the Scuderia: "There are those who have worked at Ferrari during Alonso's time there who swear he is not disruptive, that he makes his points but then withdraws" he said.

But the main thing I don't get, and even if we make the grand mental leap of accepting that the worst of what Alonso is accused of is actually true, and Wolff's reasons for not taking him aboard at Mercedes are indeed accurate, is when exactly did F1 get this precious?

Are we not always told what a tough environment it is? That it's a piranha club? A dog-eat-dog world? That under performance is not tolerated? Molly-coddling can't be expected? And that - bottom line - it's a results business? How exactly does shunning Alonso's brilliance on the grounds that he'll require a bit more management and toleration behind the scenes fit in with this? That as well as being a brilliant and uncompromisingly committed competitor drivers have got to be fine upstanding figures of patience, politeness and moral rectitude at all times out of the car too?

Ayrton Senna was uncompromising with his
team, including in public
"Senna 1992 Monaco cropped" by Instituto Ayrton Senna
derivative work: Karpouzi - This file was derived from: Senna
1992 Monaco.jpg. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia
Commons -
It wasn't always this way, far from it. And far from it relatively recently. I grew up watching F1 in the late 1980s and early 1990s when there were three clear driving standard bearers, and a trio moreover that are viewed by history as a vintage driving cast: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. Yet on top of their considerable driving talents all were known for being far from passive presences inside their teams; often they could be downright political. Yet this at the time was considered a positive - one of things that set them apart from their pretenders to the throne it was said at the time was that they banged their fists on tables and got things done their way. It may not have always been pleasant but it was a major factor in them, and their team, getting the required results. All were, to varying degrees, trouble too. But it was thought largely as something you just had to cope with to get the sky-scraping up-side.

Compared with at least two of them Alonso's antics so far are not so much small beer but amount to getting Tesco Value lager in a thimble. I recall reading a quote from Gerhard Berger some years ago saying that, while Ron Dennis will never admit this, when he was at McLaren alongside Senna the Brazilian in effect ran the team. And right on cue indeed the latest copy of Motorsport magazine to land contains an interview with Gordon Kimball, among many other things a McLaren engineer when Senna was there, who in an apposite example it seems confirmed that Dennis had agreed with him to start a McLaren Indycar programme, only for it to be knocked on the head by Senna. "He believed it would be a distraction and that put the kibosh on the whole was Ayrton who stopped it" said Kimball.

"Ayrton was so driven, so insecure, so paranoid and so everything else...Ayrton accomplished a lot but he was a very difficult character."

And for all of the mealy-mouthed stuff about what Alonso may or may not have said in public about his Ferrari team it all appears near-inconsequential compared to what Senna used to get up to. At the start of 1991 for example having spent a few months away on his extended break back in Brazil while the rest of the team slogged away upon returning to sample the car in testing just prior to the first race he grandly declared in public that there was "not enough power or progress" in his new mount. He did though go on to win the opening four rounds that year...

Senna then throughout 1992 and 1993 in the wake of far superior Williams didn't care to veil his feeling in public that he should be in one of the Grove cars, as if it was his sheer right to be in the best machine. In Estoril's post-race press conference in late 1992, by which point it was clear that Alain Prost had outmanoeuvred him for the plumb Williams seat for the following year and had with it vetoed the possibility of Senna joining him, he bellowed that Prost's stance was "like if you're going in an 100 metre sprint and you want to have running shoes and everyone else should have lead shoes". Proceeding with 'lead shoes' is presumably how he viewed his prevailing situation in a McLaren; a team after all that he'd won three titles in the previous four years with. Imagine the fallout if Nando said something like that in a press conference...

"His continual criticism of the team while out of the cockpit...was irksome in the extreme" observed Alan Henry of Senna at that season's end.

Then we have Mansell. "It's not breaking any new ground to say that the guy is hugely confrontational" said Patrick Head of his then-charge. "That was part of what made him so good, in fact, but he wears his competitiveness on his sleeve - doesn't rein it in, in any way at all. It's there the whole time. He also has a very strong persecution complex, and thinks everyone is trying to shaft him at all times. So you had an environment of strain whenever Mansell was around, and on a day-to-day basis that became extremely wearing. However, that was his way of getting the job done, and that he undoubtedly did in 1992 [when Mansell won the title]."

Frank Williams concurs: "Nigel was terrific in the car, but a tough bastard out of it. He knew what he wanted, and pushed to get it it - and when he didn't get it life could be deeply unpleasant. But he did the job, no question about it."

Like Senna, Mansell wasn't always above airing such grievances in front of media microphones either. All things considered by comparison Alonso appears rather a saint.

I read an article on at around the time that Alonso's Ferrari relationship unravelled arguing: "Fernando is a genius behind the steering wheel, maybe one of the greatest of all time, but outside the car he's not as strong as Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna were – and that's crucial when we talk about a long-term project.

"Just quoting the great interview with Pat Symonds in a recent issue of F1 Racing magazine. 'He wasn't a team man like Michael and, from time to time, that would really upset people.'"

That he chose to throw Senna in there suggests that he is one of those to make the mistake of basing his view of the Brazilian entirely on his posthumous deification. But perhaps his mention of Michael is instructive. Schumi indeed over a long career never had the most minor wavering from the line of defending his team absolutely in public, nor as far as we can tell was there any wavering in private either. Certainly no one that worked with him has said otherwise from what I'm aware.

Do our expectations of modern F1 drivers reflect
the legacy of Michael Schumacher?
Photo: Octane Photography
But perhaps this is part of it. Michael, with his scarcely credible long-term success, has cast a lengthy shadow. That we as a result assume that his way in the only way. Perhaps that's the crucial difference between the day of Senna et al and Alonso now. It certainly has the benefit of being timed perfectly to fit the theory.

We can look to a good example from elsewhere too, to the very top of the game of football and the imperious case of Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid. Football journalist Iain Macintosh writing in the recent aftermath of a reported dust-up of Ronaldo with his new manager during training takes up the story: "The problem is that Ronaldo has an ego like a party balloon" he said. "It's inflated and it doesn't take much to make it explode. Everyone knows this.

"Ronaldo is reported to have been upset when he felt that Real Madrid's hierarchy weren't supporting him enough for individual awards. Ronaldo is rumoured to have been upset when it emerged that [Gareth] Bale would cost more than he did, so much so that his club were telling reporters that the world record for a transfer had not been broken while Tottenham's press officers were adamant that it had. Ronaldo is reported to have thrown a fit last season when GPS technology proved that he was no longer the fastest player at the club. But you put up with this and you allow this because he's Ronaldo!

"Ronaldo is a preposterous athlete, the absolute physical pinnacle, a legitimate phenomenon."

Sixty-one goals in 54 games last season says that, as does 17 in 11 in the ultimate test of the Champions' League the season before, on the way to helping his team win it. He also holds just about every world player of the year award going right now. And the idea that Real Madrid, or any other club for that matter, should shun him on the grounds of his peripheral antics would in football be filed firmly under laughable. If Madrid indeed chose to get rid of him on that basis the first thing you'd have to do is dive out of the way of the stampede of competing suitors descending upon the Portuguese wielding chequebooks, who as they did so would be no doubt suppressing sniggers at Madrid's scarcely credible folly.

Macintosh too reminded us of the potential rub, that perhaps a few of us, especially us F1 folk, are prone to forget: "This is Ronaldo, an odd chap but one who has turned himself into one of the greatest footballers of all time through strength of personality and dedication to his craft. Imagine how competitive you have to be to get that good."

This no doubt applies more widely. That to scale such sheer towering cliff edges, to show such an extreme desire to prevail in your pursuit even though you already have a haughty reputation, a glittering CV, an extensive list of honours to your name and more than enough money to live several lives at leisure if you so chose, is likely to require singularity and obsessiveness beyond measure. Perhaps also behaviour that to outsiders appears strange, and at times difficult to be around. This applied to Senna, to Mansell and it seems to Ronaldo; there will be rare exceptions such as Schumacher but they will very much be exceptions. And never once did prospective bosses consider it a reason not to have them and their towering talents on their side. The bottom line was that yes they can be difficult but you work around that because they deliver.

And really they're absolutely right. To pass up such stunning ability and a track record of delivering on it and justify it by sucking your teeth and muttering "it might be a bit difficult" as if you're a small time garage mechanic not only is foolish, not only is a cop-out, it's also not far off a dereliction of duty. Yes Toto with Alonso on board life could be a bit difficult sometimes. Maybe even unpleasant on the odd occasion. You'd have to devote a bit more of your time to managing him. But you'd have walked away from the Hungaroring with another win under your belt, and that nagging chat you hear about the remote prospect of you somehow managing to fumble away this year's drivers' title wouldn't exist. Which really is all that should matter.


  1. What a Great Article totally agree he is unfairly criticised too much