Should Fernando Alonso finally win an overdue third world championship, he will set a new record for the longest gap between consecutive titles.
Niki Lauda had to wait seven years for his third world championship, and that included two years spent in ‘retirement’.
But if Alonso were to win this year’s world championship eight years will have passed since his last one. During that time he has come within touching distance of the title on three occasions.
He almost made it three championship victories in a row in 2007. His finishing position of third that year belied the fact he was just a single point behind world champion Kimi Raikkonen.
His championship chances faltered that year as his relationship with McLaren disintegrated. That sent him back into the arms of Flavio Briatore and the Renault team who had delivered his first two titles but were now struggling.
A widely-anticipated move to Ferrari followed in 2010. Alonso arrived at the Abu Dhabi finale eight points ahead of Mark Webber and fifteen clear of Sebastian Vettel, but a calamitous strategy decision sent the title Vettel’s way.
If any season reinforced the view that Alonso is overdue a third title, it was surely 2012. Ferrari started the season with a remarkably poor car by their standards, yet by the time a much-improved chassis appeared at the fifth race Alonso was only four points behind Vettel, thanks in part to an inspired victory at a wet Sepang.
Alonso seldom failed to exploit any points-scoring opportunity to its fullest in a gruelling 20-race campaign. But at the final race, a nerve-shreddingly tense encounter at a slippery Interlagos, Vettel mustered a performance worthy of his adversary to deny him the title once more.
But what seems to frustrate Alonso most are the seasons, like the one just past, when he hasn’t had a car capable of regularly competing for victories. This was surely not what he expected when he joined F1’s most experienced, most successful – and richest – of teams.
Four years of grinding pressure from Red Bull and Vettel finally told in the middle of 2013 as Ferrari’s development programme again came up short. At Monza a team radio message from Alonso (from which we usually hear surprisingly little given he is the star driver of F1’s most popular team) hinted at the true extent of his frustrations when their qualifying tactics went wrong.
His management team were widely rumoured to be investigating potential new destinations for their man, who remains contracted to Ferrari until 2016. Astonishingly, it seems even a rapprochement with McLaren is not out of the question, as the team prepares to re-form its great alliance with Honda next year.
But most significant was Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo’s stinging rebuttal to remarks Alonso made about the quality of his car – comments which had largely been overlooked until Montezemolo spoke out.
With that, a fissure appeared in the previously rock-solid relationship between driver and team. This had immediate consequences for Alonso.
Ferrari previously tolerated Felipe Massa’s chronic under-performance in the three years since his return from injury. During this time he was obliged to suffer several indignities in the name of supporting Alonso’s championship bids.
Now Ferrari determined they needed an equally capable driver in the second car. Out went Massa, and back came the very driver Alonso was originally hired to replace: Raikkonen. No one could miss the significance of that hiring.
As he begins his fifth season in red Alonso’s opportunities and threats are clear. The change in engine regulations potentially presents his best chance to break the Red Bull hegemony since he joined Ferrari. The aerodynamics division – a source of the team’s recent weakness – has been bolstered with highly-rated arrivals from Alonso’s former team.
But he now faces a stronger adversary within his own team – the one he beat to the 2005 title, and the one who beat him to the 2007 crown.
For all his qualities as a driver, Alonso has been found wanting the most when under pressure from the other side of the garage. This was true on the infrequent occasions when Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella ran him close at Renault, and most obvious in that tense season alongside Hamilton in 2007.
A fascinating aspect of the coming season will be whether an older, wiser Alonso is better equipped to handle the days when Raikkonen is quicker.
All will be well if Ferrari finally produce the goods and Alonso delivers the title. As in 2005, when he brought Michael Schumacher’s five-year dominance of F1 to an end, Alonso could be the man to break the Red Bull-Vettel hegemony.
But if the cracks which developed in the relationship between Alonso and Ferrari last year continues to spread, it could be a different chapter from 2005 which is replayed: Alonso announcing a surprise change of teams – perhaps even a return to McLaren.
It’s going to be a fascinating 12 months for Ferrari, and much is riding on the next red machine to emerge from Maranello.
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Images ?é?® Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, Lotus/LAT