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Alonso Return: F1 The Biggest Winner

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As Fernando Alonso announces F1 return to Renault; we assess how the key stakeholders would be impacted by the decision and how F1 is the biggest beneficiary. 

After months of speculation, the Renault F1 Team and Fernando Alonso confirmed that they would reunite for the third time come the 2021 Formula 1 season. Renault’s hiring of Alonso now completes the merry-go-round of cockpits since Ferrari’s decision to not extend Sebastian Vettel’s contract after the current season. In this post, we assess the key stakeholders impacted by this decision – Fernando Alonso, Renault and F1.

Alonso: Renault the only option

The former double World Champion had officially quit Formula 1 at the end of 2018. However, in typical Alonso fashion, he had dropped strong hints that a comeback would be possible under the right circumstances. For Alonso, the new regulations that will come into effect from 2022 seem to be the right time for him to make a comeback.

Alonso explained, “I think with the new rules, the sport will finally put the driver back at the centre of the performance with more fairness between the teams and a better show on-track.” This is why Alonso’s decision to return to F1 isn’t as surprising as it is with his team of choice. But truth be told, Renault was Alonso’s only ‘works team’ option.

The top-3 teams in Formula 1 (Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull Racing) have long ignored Alonso’s calls for a chance to race and win with them. Alonso tried and failed to win a title with Ferrari (2010-14) while Mercedes refused to give the Spaniard a second chance after their relationship fractured in 2007 (when it was Mclaren-Mercedes). Despite Alonso’s claims of interest from Red Bull Racing several times in his career, the reality has been Red Bull’s preference for younger talent from their driver program rather than hiring a big star.

Even with Mclaren, the team Alonso last raced with in Formula 1 (2015-18), Daniel Ricciardo was the choice to fill the vacancy created by the Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz Jr. Ironically for Alonso, Mclaren’s fortunes turned around in the season after he left the team – as has been the case with most teams he raced with in his career. While Alonso might not rue the missed podium opportunities with Mclaren (they’ve scored two podiums in the last three races), he will regret not racing for the team when they reunite with Mercedes power units in 2021. Although it can be argued that Mercedes may not have agreed to provide power units to Mclaren if Alonso was still racing for them!

Can Renault-Alonso win again? 

There’s no denying that it’s the lure of a third Formula 1 World Championship that’s bringing Alonso back to Formula 1 at the age of 40. However, the moot question remains – can Renault-Alonso win again? The partnership has been extremely successful in their earlier stints. From 2003-06, they successfully overcame the Ferrari-Schumacher challenge to deliver two world titles. In 2008-09, they delivered two races wins and as many podium finishes. However, 2021-22 will bring unique challenges altogether. For 2021, the regulations are stable and the cars from 2020 would be carried over. This effectively means that Alonso will inherit a package he has had no input in and has at best been the class of the mid-field. However, it’s 2022 – when Formula 1 hits the reset button with new regulations, that Alonso is betting on. Renault too believe that the budget cap and sliding scale aero regulations will help them bridge the gap to the top-3 teams and bring them back into contention for podium honours. While it’s way too premature to predict form factor in 2022, let us not be disillusioned that Renault will go from the mid-field to World Champions in two seasons. Their third reunion will have to be judged by different metrics and Alonso’s patience will be tested time and again.

What about the Triple Crown? 

In his later years in Formula 1, Alonso realised that a shot at a third title may not come his way. This was one of the reasons why he diverted his attention to winning the triple crown of Motorsport. In his final season with Mclaren and in the 18 months away from Formula 1, Alonso was focusing on his racing career outside of Formula 1. He won the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, clinched the World Endurance Championship, raced the Dakar Rally and had two attempts at the Indianapolis 500. In fact, a victory at the Indianapolis 500 is the only missing jewel in Alonso’s quest for the triple crown. While Alonso will participate in this year’s Indy 500 (23rd August), it waits to be seen if his Formula 1 commitments allow him to do so in 2021.

For Motorsport fans, Alonso’s pursuits in other forms of Motorsport elicited louder cheers than his struggles in Formula 1. Alonso’s post-Formula 1 career reminded one of the legends of the yesteryears who would often race in every series possible than do so exclusively in Formula 1. Similarly in his return to Formula 1, Alonso would be looking to emulate some of those legends who actually managed to win a race in their 40s! As he builds on his return to top-flight of motorsport, Alonso will have more than just his tenacious talent to bank on. His time away from Formula 1 would have given him a different perspective on his career as would have the different classes, teams and rivals he raced against. While Renault hasn’t planned to run Alonso in any FP1 sessions in 2020 the team may look to host a private test to help their returning driver get back to grips in a Formula 1 car. As for his exploits in the Dakar Rally and the likes, Alonso could still choose to race in them after he quits Formula 1 once and for all. Carlos Sainz Sr. won the 2020 Dakar Rally aged 58.

Alonso vs Ocon

Esteban Ocon, Mercedes’ junior driver on loan to Renault till the end of 2021, will be Alonso’s team-mate and immediate rival upon return. In his two seasons with Force India / Racing Point, Ocon proved his talent against the mighty Sergio Perez and is still highly regarded by Toto Wolff and Mercedes. An Alonso vs Ocon will be an exciting prospect for Renault as well as for Formula 1 – pitching a legend against one of the most-promising young drivers.

It was in 2017-18, when Alonso was last paired alongside a highly successful junior driver, Stoffel Vandoorne. Mclaren’s struggles with Honda notwithstanding, Vandoorne had almost no answer to Alonso’s pace. As for Ocon, the Frenchman is biding his time with Renault till such time a vacancy at Mercedes comes up. His performances against Alonso in 2021 will either make or break his career in Formula 1. But expect all hell to break loose if Alonso struggles to tame Ocon.

No more excuses for Renault 

At the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix, while explaining Renault’s search for a second driver Cyril Abiteboul said, “We need a quick driver, and we need a driver who can understand and buy into Renault’s project. We are very clear about the nature of our team. We are a bit of a unique team in the F1 landscape, but at the same time also a young team, still in the making, with some struggles – in particular last year. So we need someone who’s capable of understanding all of that, and understand the value of all the work, effort and ethics we are putting into that. I’m not saying that Daniel (Ricciardo) has not understood that, that’s absolutely not what I mean. I’m talking about the future. So we are talking to a few names, some big names, some lesser known names. We are taking the time, making sure there is a good alignment between what we are and what a driver is looking to get in a team like ours.” Since their return to Formula 1 in 2016, Renault has struggled as a works team and are way off their performance targets. However, the team is lucky to have attracted talent with increasing star status despite their repeated struggles. In 2018, the team hired Nico Hulkenberg to lead them followed by Daniel Ricciardo’s arrival in 2019. Yes, it is strange that Alonso will be filling up a cockpit that Ricciardo chose to vacate, but the truth is that with Alonso’s hiring, the team will have no place to hide. Renault will be under even more pressure to deliver a good package.

Why no junior driver at Renault In 2021?

Apart from their on-track performance targets, Renault had also targeted a promotion for a junior driver from their academy to the Formula 1 team. Expectedly, their decision to hire a much-older Alonso instead of a youngster came under much debate but Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul was quick to clarify that the ongoing pandemic robbed them of the opportunity to judge the progress of Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lungaard, the team’s junior drivers. Apart from the fact that a driver of Alonso’s calibre was available for signing, the team would have felt the impact of the loss of their senior most academy driver, Anthoine Hubert.

It isn’t confirmed whether Renault made contact with Vettel and Hulkenberg – the other two Formula 1 drivers who could be actively seeking a cockpit at the moment. However, Renault’s decision to hire Alonso seems obvious – the team wants to be best-prepared as they enter the new era of the sport in 2022. It can’t be denied that Renault is still playing catch-up in the current era of Formula 1 and they hope that Alonso is able to lead them better under the new regulations given his vast experience. It is understandable if Renault felt that an Ocon-Zhou/Lungaard line-up would be way too inexperienced.

F1, the biggest beneficiary?

In the Renault-Alonso reunion, Formula 1 is the biggest beneficiary. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Liberty Media, the owners of the sport, had a role to play in Alonso’s return. Given the ongoing pandemic, positive news about a former World Champion returning to the sport wouldn’t harm either. For starters, Spain is one of the biggest markets for Formula 1 and Alonso single handedly built this market during his successes in the 2000s. His return to the sport will stir up the market, help extend the rights for the Spanish Grand Prix while also allowing time for Formula 1 to build Carlos Sainz Jr.’s profile.

Secondly, if Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen leave Formula 1 at the end of 2020, Formula 1 will be bereft of a World Champion driver apart from Lewis Hamilton (and assuming that a new driver isn’t crowned this year). In such a scenario, the presence of a statesman-like Alonso will be a definite boost to Formula 1 in every way. And of course, Alonso vs the younger drivers will be one of the headlines it hopes the sport will benefit from. But first, all eyes on Renault as they pool in all their resources to give Alonso the machinery he deserves to script a successful comeback.

This post was first published on Firstpost.

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