The DRS flips open and Sergio Perez surges up the Interlagos straight at a top speed of 205mph, closing down the gap to Fernando Alonso until but a few metres separate the two cars. A snap of the wrists and the Red Bull man swings out from the slipstream of Alonso’s Aston Martin, narrowly avoiding contact by the smallest of margins, nails the apex of the corner and makes the move stick – much to the delight of the crowd.
Perez has been locked in a dogfight with the 42-year-old veteran for the best part of 15 laps, left chasing his tail as the two-time World Champion pulled out every defensive measure in his immense playbook to keep the superior Formula 1 car behind him, but with the Red Bull rocketship now ahead and just one lap to go, it appears that this battle is over.
However, Alonso has made a career out of refusing to read the script. In spite of 20 seasons and more than 300 Grands Prix under his belt, the Spaniard has shown himself to be as hungry as ever for new team Aston Martin F1. The constructor has made great strides in the 2023 season and Alonso is making hay.
As the lap counter rolls onto lap 71, the final lap of the race, Alonso clings to the coattails of the Red Bull as they twist and turn through the opening corners of the circuit. A small mistake from Perez takes him off the racing line and leaves the door ajar for Alonso to pounce – and he does so like an underfed lion. The pair lock horns up the back straight, squirming across the width of the track, but the former champion forces his way through.
In qualifying, I think there are better drivers, who can extract the maximum from the car
He crosses the line in third to claim the 106th podium of his storied career – and certainly one of the hardest fought. The margin of victory over Perez at the line? 0.053sec. It’s the cherry on the top of a thrilling season for Alonso in which he has shown himself to be as good as ever.
The natural-born racer might have thought he was in the twilight of his career, but with new machinery in his experienced hands he is once again chasing podiums, victories, and perhaps even a final bid for a third world title.
We sit down with Alonso to talk about his late career resurgence, the art of racecraft and, of course, his old rival Lewis Hamilton.
Square Mile: A new team this year and you’ve had a tremendous season. You’re back at the top of your game and having a great time with Aston Martin. How has it felt chasing podiums and victories again?
Fernando Alonso: Yeah, it feels fantastic. It’s definitely happy days at the moment for me and the team. We didn’t expect to be that competitive this year, so we’ve been enjoying giving every weekend our 100%, because everything that comes is a gift right now.
We knew that the challenge ahead was big. It was very difficult to reduce the gap with the top teams within six months. And, I think even though everyone was trusting the project a lot, I think for the good results to come so fast, was unexpected. Let’s say this year’s results, I think they were in the plan for 2024.
The team is very young. It used to be Force India, then Racing Point, and now Aston Martin, but they were never a team that was contending for a podium every weekend. Really, they are just tasting success for the first time and everyone is really enjoying it.
We are definitely all working hard towards being a proper contender for the championship in the future.
I don’t think that Lewis Hamilton forgot how to drive in the last year
SM: You know as well as anyone that Formula 1 is all about being in the right place at the right time…
FA: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been on both sides of the equation: I won championships, and then I was just fighting to be in the top 10 or top 15. It’s brutal, this is probably the only sport where this happens, but when we get to Formula 1, we all accept this. We know that we need to be in the right place in the right moment. We work hard to have that opportunity, first with our own teams, just giving the best feedback possible and try to grow together with the team, and if not, just to shine and maybe have the opportunity with a winning team in that moment.
We have clear examples. Me, last year to this year, now fighting for the podium. It’s not that I did something magical this winter. We have Lewis Hamilton, seven-time World Champion and now strugglng for podiums. I don’t think that he forgot how to drive in the last year. It’s just that the car is not ready to fight for Hamilton. That’s Formula 1, unfortunately.
SM: You took a sabbatical after the 2018 season. Is this what brought you back, this feeling right now?
FA: When I stopped in 2018, the regulations were very static – only Mercedes were really winning races and it was a little bit frustrating. When I returned in 2021 the new regulations were on the horizon, with the aim of closer racing, bringing the field together, and all these kinds of things that I think we currently have. It’s still one team dominating the sport – in Red Bull – but I think overall everything is much closer. This kind of competition is great to have now.
But definitely there are ingredients in the sport to make sure that everyone will have an opportunity to win. We have the budget cap in place and handicapped wind tunnel hours, so if your team is doing a proper job, eventually you’ll have the opportunity to fight for wins.
SM: Given how much you’ve already achieved, does that free you up to just go out and have fun with it really, without fear?
FA: In a way, yes, I am more free. At this point in my life, I feel respect towards me and my career – both in and out of the team, I don’t need to prove anything. When I go on track, I try to enjoy myself, I try to deliver the result, and bring the points home on Sunday, without the need to overdrive or do anything crazy just to prove something. That weight off my shoulders is making my season more enjoyable, for sure, and maybe delivering better performance.
SM: The thing that never ceases to amaze me is you seem to have this internal clock about when it’s right to attack and when it’s time to conserve. Where does that come from?
FA: I’ve been through many different motorsport categories, as well as races in Formula 1, where I’ve learnt things – and I never forget those experiences. It’s about using those lessons, thinking holistically and focusing on how the race is developing. Depending on that, I decide maybe different things, I’ll talk to the engineer about how the car feels and maybe change the strategy.
SM: I know there’s a story of you when you were a child, your family couldn’t afford the wet tyres so you were driving slicks in the rain. Does that give you a special insight into grip?
FA: Yes, it’s true. That was the case for many years. I think many go-kart drivers had to do that when our families could not afford tyres. I obviously have more experience with Pirelli tyres, in different categories as well, with Le Mans and things like this, that I can pull from.
People might not remember, but in 2003 Flavio stopped the contract of Jenson Button to put me in the car
More than the feeling with the tyres, it’s the strategy of that race – when it’s right to push and when not to so you can have a little bit more juice later on, when you have to squeeze everything out.
But in qualifying, I think there are better drivers, more prepared than me and able to extract the maximum from the car over one lap. Out laps are important, these kinds of things. It’s a never-ending education.
SM: You are universally considered to be one of the most naturally gifted drivers in the sport. What’s your secret?
FA: I don’t think there are any secrets anymore. In Formula 1, everything is now public – even the radio conversations with your engineers – so there is not much to hide or that isn’t shared. No, I’m just trying to extract the maximum from the car and I’m not getting frustrated anymore when fourth, say, is the maximum result.
I think, in the past, when I was younger and I was fighting for the championship, or if one weekend everything went wrong and I was unlucky in free practice, or I had traffic or impeding, or whatever, I would lose focus. Now I just think, “OK, this happens to me here but it will happen to my main competitor next time.” So, I just think in that way, and that puts me in a stronger position than in the past.
SM: Who do you think has been the most important figure in your Formula 1 career?
FA: It has to be Flavio Briatore. I think he gave me the opportunity to get to Formula 1 first, because I started with Minardi and I was then a test driver for Renault. And I think Flavio also helped Minardi from a financial point of view to let me race, as well as Renault.
People might not remember, but back then in 2003 Flavio stopped the contract of Jenson Button to put me in the car. I was just a 21-year-old from Spain with only one year at Minardi and one year as a test driver, but Flavio had the vision, or he was brave enough, to put me in the car instead of Button, who was a rising star at that moment. You have to deliver, of course, but you need the opportunity. I think Flavio was always the man who saw my potential.
That first season at Renault, I remember I had the responsibility on my shoulders, and I had that pressure. There were a lot of hopes put on my driving ability. I knew that it was controversial, but I was happy to prove myself.
SM: You’ve said in the past that you don’t mind being the pantomime villain in the sport, but I think Max Verstappen has taken your place in the eyes of the media. Do you feel a sense of kinship with him because you know what he’s going through?
FA: Yeah, I do. I see some similarities in our careers and starting from a country where Formula 1 isn’t such a household name, compared to the UK or Italy or Brazil. There are other countries that have a lot more history behind the sport, and I think Max and I got to Formula 1 and we were maybe not politically correct in our answers to the media, in our behaviour, in our driving, because we just focused on winning and racing, and we don’t give any attention to anything else. That was not always understood.
I was just the kid that was beating Michael Schumacher, so I was the bad guy at that time
We were both always fighting with the legend of that moment. Michael Schumacher had a huge fanbase worldwide, and I was just the kid that was beating Michael, so I was a bad guy in that moment. When Max came to a position to win championships, it was Lewis Hamilton in that position of dominating the sport. So, again, it was the new guy beating your hero and the one that you support.
SM: How do you see your role in Formula 1 now? Do you feel like a bit of a mentor?
FA: I do a little bit, but I think Formula 1 has a lot of egos. We are all very selfish, and we are not really interested in knowing anything else from anyone. I work very closely with Lance Stroll, because in the team, I feel that I have that role to help push us forward. I know what the team expects from me, giving as much feedback to the engineers, the designers, everyone, because this is a completely new car. So, they want some feedback from my experience. It’s the same with Lance. Every time that I remember something that I did in this circuit or in these conditions, I try to pass it to him in case I can help the team to grow up faster. But, apart from that, as I said, they see me like any other driver.
SM: Have you thought about what you want to leave behind in Formula 1? Or, are you still too hungry for the fight to think about legacy?
FA: I am still completely focused on the present, into next weekend, next race, things like that. In terms of legacy, the media ask me what will be the thing that I want people to remember about myself. I always say I hope that people remember me as a complete driver, not as a Formula 1 driver. I love Formula 1 – this is the pinnacle of motorsport – and we all dream about becoming Formula 1 drivers, but Formula 1 is very specific and very narrow. Only a few people will drive that car.
But I love all motorsport, like karting, which is probably my second-biggest passion after Formula 1. Karting is incredible, and karting, endurance, rally, there are so many incredibly talented drivers in those disciplines. That’s why I wanted to challenge myself in different ones, and that’s why probably in the future, apart from winning a third World Championship, one of my biggest goals in motorsport is to win The Dakar Rally.
I don’t think that there is motorsport discipline further away from Formula 1. Even rally now, they’ve started to have a bit of aerodynamics, they go very fast, but at the end of the day, the conditions are in a way similar to F1 – you have to repeat the same lap in a closed environment, in a circuit, to perfection.
Dakar is just the opposite. There is nothing, really, that has any similarities to Formula 1. So, to win The Dakar, it’s a difficult task that will again challenge myself and prove for my legacy, that I was a driver that enjoyed every form of motorsport.
SM: You’ve seen the evolution of the sport from the early 2000s. Has Formula 1 ever been in such a good place?
FA: I think it would be unfair to say that now is the best moment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good moment, but I also believe that 2007, 2008, was great. I think when I was at McLaren and we had a lot of sponsors in the cars, it was a good era. We had a lot of manufacturers as well in Formula 1, we had BMW, Jaguar, Toyota, as well as Ferrari. I think we were in very good shape as a sport back then. And we had beautiful cars. The noise, everything, it was very different to today.
Now, it’s a different generation, younger generation, a lot more social media guys, a lot of digital content that we have to provide to the sponsors and to the fans. So, it is a different way of communicating the sport. Less elite, less privileged as it was in the past, but it’s difficult to compare. But we always miss some things from the past, and it will be the same in ten years time.
Hamilton exaggerated things. But if I had won seven titles, I would think that I’m God!
SM: Speaking of the car, how does the new generation stack up to previous F1 eras?
FA: I don’t know. It’s a good question. The cars today are so big and heavy. In some circuits, even if we break the lap records now, it’s just because we have slick tyres, the technology, we charge the batteries, it all helps one-lap performance. But then in the race, obviously we put in 100kg of fuel, we have old tyres, we have to run sustainably on the battery. We are several seconds slower from qualifying to race pace.
Even physically, you can feel it. I remember in the early 2000s, a Formula 1 race was the most extreme physical activity that you could do – even on the podium, it was difficult to really be focused. Now, we go into winter testing and on the first day we do 160 laps. We can do that just because the cars are slower and less physically demanding.
So, to answer the question, today’s cars feel fast over one lap, but in the race it feels slow.
SM: I couldn’t let you go without asking about your old adversary, Lewis Hamilton. How do you feel like he’s performed now that he doesn’t have the fastest car?
FA: I think he always performs well, but he cannot win right now. He can’t win races, he can’t win championships, the podium is the best he can achieve and even that is a challenge. So, it proves again that it doesn’t matter how good you are, you need the fastest car to win. When he was winning multiple championships against Bottas, people forget that fact – they call him an inspiration, how he can overcome everything. But this is proof that the car matters. He’s still driving fantastically well, but you always need the whole package.
He was always good, and lucky as well to move teams in the right moment and take the opportunity, but then you have to deliver. Don’t get me wrong, you need to deliver and he has done many times. That was the thing.
In a way, my admiration and respect for him is the same as it was in 2007. When you come as a rookie and you fight for the championship, that proves that you’re special. But then, when you are winning, winning, winning, the media and some people exaggerate things – and even he exaggerated things. But I would probably be the same. If I had won seven titles, I would think that I’m God!
At one point, you lose perspective. It was the same with Michael Schumacher. Michael was a very good driver, but we cannot forget that Rubens Barrichello was in second almost every race. Michael was winning titles, like in 2004, halfway through the season. They are both great and they are legends of the sport, but you always need the car.