Outside Line: A Farewell to Fernando

Taking his final bow this weekend at the season finale Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso’s presence on the grid will be sorely missed, warts and all.

After 17 years, 313 races, 22 poles, 32 wins and two world championships, the sun finally sets on Fernando Alonso’s F1 career this weekend in Abu Dhabi.

Unfortunately for Alonso, this race is unlikely to give him one glorious final bow. Instead, he’ll spend the weekend languishing in the ignominy of a car short on pace and long on problems, but that shouldn’t stop us from celebrating an all-time F1 great, and his exceptionally unique career.

Indeed, where most of the greats are defined by their highs, Alonso’s legacy is equally shaped by his lows. Where any conversation about Schumacher, Senna, Fangio et al. usually starts with their championships, one about Alonso can go in myriad different directions, good and bad.

For some, sure, dethroning Schumacher to become a world champion at 24, then doubling-up a year later would be the first thing they mention, but for others, it’s his tumultuous 2007 with McLaren, or crashgate, or the dual heartbreaks of 2010 and 2012 with Ferrari, or his second stint with the Woking outfit – which has turned out to be disastrous well beyond anything experienced in the first.

For me, the one that most sticks out is that 2012 season. Driving a Ferrari F2012 that wasn’t even the second-best car on the grid (Red Bull and McLaren were both faster), put forth one of the sport’s most definitive examples of a pilot outperforming their machinery, coming within three points of the title.

He’s never been one to play the “team” game

Qualifying outside the top four at 15 of 20 races, he still managed three wins and 10 podiums, even leading the championship through the first 15 races, only to see Sebastian Vettel make a second-half surge and hold on under dramatic circumstances in the final race in Brazil.

By every measure he was the driver of the season, and yet all he got to show for it was a front-row seat to Vettel’s coronation ceremony as the German passed him in the record books with his third title – the shellshocked look post-race at Interlagos said everything.

Of course, as sympathetic a figure as he has been at such times, there’s no denying he has also been a divisive personality. None of his last four stints across McLaren, Renault, Ferrari and McLaren again have ended on the best of terms, and that’s definitely no coincidence.

Even if allowances can be made for his outspokenness in recent years, he certainly deserves a large portion of the blame for the way he interacted with Lewis Hamilton and Ron Dennis in 2007 (including spygate), his complicity in crashgate (for which he probably deserves more scrutiny than he’s been given), and the falling-out in 2014 with a soon-to-be-resurgent Ferrari.

He’s never been one to play the “team” game, and it’s fair to suggest it’s cost him in the long run.

That said, for all the drama and headlines he’s generated over the years, it’s only because of his undeniable ability as a driver that they’ve persisted. The expectation was always there that he could be the difference maker, and rightly so.

Even in his current predicament that ability is evident, and if for that reason alone, it’s disappointing that he won’t get the chance to fight for one more title. Who knows? Maybe he makes his way back in a year or two, but for now, this is it, and the grid will be worse off because of it.