Fernando Alonso’s long and illustrious Formula 1 career is over, at least for now, the Spaniard regarded as one of the best if not the best driver of his era having stamped his legacy on the sport as a gutsy never-say-die driver whose talents are indisputable but his character arguably his greatest liability.
At Renault, in his early days and when he won back to back titles in 2005 and 2006, ruled the roost in a team that was built around him. But thereafter polemics reigned wherever Alonso went. His first stint at McLaren in 2007 was bitter to say the least, his arrival at Ferrari in 2010 was a boost to the Italian team but it did not take long for politics to engulf Maranello.
By the end of 2014 the partnership had deteriorated to the point of no return, Fernando departed and was hired to spearhead a new McLaren-Honda era, and we know how that all turned out.
For the past decade or so the common denominator in Alonso’s inner circle was race engineer Andrea Stella who had worked with Ferrari legend Michael Schumacher and was tasked to oversee Alonso during his tenure with the Reds from 2010 and 2014.
When McLaren called, Stella followed Alonso to Woking where they remained working together until the final race in Abu Dhabi last month.
Thus no surprise that the 47-year-old Italian has some fascinating insight into the 32-times Grand Prix winner – a man we think we know, but maybe we really don’t…
For the first time Stella spoke in depth about his time with Alonso in an interview with BBC, “Fernando is one of those cases in which we can’t look at his trophies to place him in the history of Formula 1. If it was golf, if it was tennis, it would be a different story. But in F1 this is not possible.”
Alonso’s final three seasons in the top flight were miserable because he simply did not have the tools to do the job, more often than not it was the man from Oviedo who wrestled the hopeless McLarens at a disposal into positions it had no place being.
Proof of this is the demolition job he did on Stoffel Vandoorne these past two seasons, and the pounding he handed Jenson Button in 2016.
Stella continued, “First of all, you have to understand that driving a car is no different from playing the violin, in that you can do it at different levels.”
“You can be the best player and do the best concerts, and you can be almost there so most people would not recognise the difference between being the best violin player and being just one step away from that.”
“To make this final step, first of all you need to be humble and think: That’s not enough. I need to improve. And second: How do I do that?”
“And while Fernando may look a tough personality, that is more a presentation. It is more when he is part of a competition. When he is inside the group of engineers, he becomes very comfortable. He is the first one to say: How can I improve?”
“When he came to Ferrari, he said to me things I could not understand. Like: I am not a good driver in the wet. I am not good in Hockenheim. I am not good (in this and that)… And I was like, What? I thought you were better than this. He was very open.”
“The process of being humble, of acknowledging the gap to perfection, is a strong characteristic of his, which I can understand from outside may not be perceivable. But within the entourage, the team, it is actually quite developed. Through the years, he has worked on these weaker characteristics.”
“The essence of his qualities is that he is very complete. You struggle to find a weak point, basically, in terms of high-level skills. The technical preparation in terms of driving. The ability to cope with a variety of situations. Intelligence – just capacity to understand the situation while he is in or out of the car.”
“Commitment. Every driver is committed. Every driver will tell you: I am the most committed. But it is so difficult for Fernando to accept he is slower than someone else. It is very essential to his nature. Which potentially might have created problems when he was not mature enough to manage this fundamental aspect of his identity.”
“To manage this inner characteristic, you need to develop yourself as a human and you also need people around you to help absorb this problem.”
“I have seen this with Michael. He had a very strong entourage, part of which was the team itself, to sort of absorb his inner ambition to be the best. This aspect of Fernando is certainly not less than Michael, but it expresses itself in different ways.”
Asked to pick Alonso’s greatest drives, Stella had two tales to tell the first from the 2012 German Grand Prix: “On television, the straight was like a mirror because there was so much water. But Fernando said: Give me one plus one.”
“He wanted to go out with fuel for just one flying lap and a fresh set of tyres. Come back into the pits, refuel again for just one lap and do the same again.”
Stella explained that “if you have one little problem, it’s over” and decided to veto the suggestion because “it was a bit too extreme” and they compromised by “fuelling the car for the entire session but came in for fresh tyres and one final lap after an initial run.”
Alonso got pole and went on to win the race, fending off Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull, the dominant pairing of the time.
“This is a good example of his self-confidence,” Stella explained. “But at the same time his capacity in a pressurised situation like qualifying to process the situation and say, because it was very tight: One lap of fuel. We want the lightest car possible. It will be the first lap, and we will manage the risk.”
“That was very impressive. Who else would have done this?”
The second tale was from this season’s Singapore Grand Prix where McLaren were expected to have the best chance with their woeful car.
Stella recalled, “We knew the chance to score points was all about going long on the first stint when other people would feel they have to pit, but we weren’t sure how long you could go, so we were relying a lot on Fernando to tell us how the tyres were going.”
“We were expecting him to say maybe around lap 20: I can go another 10 laps. But around lap five or six, he came on the radio, and said: I think we can go 35. And we stopped lap 34. And when we stopped, the tyres were finished.”
“I don’t want to create a myth like he is a magician. Nothing like that. It is just a matter of preparation and developing an immense competence in what you do. Similar to playing the violin,” mused Stella – clearly Formula 1 have lost a maestro, for now…