His 41st birthday fast approaching, and on the ninth anniversary of his last Formula 1 victory, Fernando Alonso is philosophical about life, career, everything.
The competitive fire burns as intensely as ever inside a driver who has won 32 grands prix and two world titles. In the past, this led him to some questionable decisions. Perhaps it still will.
But as Alonso chats in his museum in Oviedo in the week of the Spanish Grand Prix, surrounded by the cars that have shaped his 20-year career, he is in reflective mood. Now driving for the Alpine team, he relates his struggles in the past decade to the very different path of his former team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
After an unprecedented eight years of success, Hamilton is suddenly in a very similar to position to Alonso this season – in the midfield, held back by an uncompetitive car.
“This is the nature of the sport,” Alonso says. “Sometimes you have a better car, sometimes you have not such a good car and you still need to fight and make some progress.
“This year we see that the driver is very important in F1 but not crucial.
“Lewis is driving as good as he has been the last eight years. He was dominating the sport and breaking all the records and 100-and-something pole positions. And now he is doing a mega lap – as he said in Australia or somewhere like that – and he is one second behind. So, yeah – welcome.”
In an extensive interview with BBC Sport, Alonso is expansive on a wide range of topics, and when asked about Hamilton, he is also referring to himself.
“This is F1,” he says. “It is not going to be a fair sport in terms of numbers. This is a team sport more than anything and we tend to forget this, especially when we have success. We are so happy for what we are achieving that even if we try to share with the team, all the headlines are for the driver.
“It happened to me when I won the two championships [in 2005 and 2006 with Renault]. I was beating Michael Schumacher. This was a big topic, but my car was more reliable at that time and had very good performance and you cannot praise enough that package because the headlines will still be the driver. And with Lewis it’s the same.
“To have more than 100 pole positions in F1 is something unthinkable. You need to have the best car and package for many, many years.
“We were doing magic laps sometimes and we were P15, and how do you explain that to people? It will be impossible.
“He deserves everything he’s achieved in the past but this year is a good reminder that in all those records and numbers there is a big part on what you have in your hands as a package in the car.”
Alonso applies this realism to the fact Hamilton is behind new team-mate George Russell in the championship so far this season.
Ask if he is surprised Russell has run Hamilton so close, and Alonso says: “Yes and no. George has been very fast in the last few years and I think everyone was expecting him to be a tough competitor for Lewis.
“But I still believe Lewis will eventually finish the championship in front. This is just a five-race championship, but eventually when things are more tricky or [there are] difficult situations, Lewis will still have more experience and maybe more talent.”
Dealing with frustration
This weekend, Alonso’s home race brings with it a sobering statistic for a driver of his legendary status. He last stood on top of an F1 podium at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, nine long years ago.
That period, Alonso admits, “has been rough times, with uncompetitive seasons fighting for midfield positions, difficult years”.
“I am a very competitive person, and if you are not winning, you definitely miss that feeling and there is some frustration building always during the season,” he adds.
These emotions were ultimately what led him to leave Ferrari, with whom he scored that Barcelona win, at the end of 2014.
Back then, Alonso seemed to radiate a brooding intensity, and the desire for a third world championship burned so strongly inside that it appeared almost to overwhelm him.
He came agonisingly close to winning two further titles at Maranello, in 2010 and 2012. But as time went by he lost faith in Ferrari’s ability to deliver his goals, and he left for McLaren, who were then unaware of how far they had fallen as a team and starting an ill-fated partnership with Honda.
As the years have passed, the impression is that Alonso has found a way to temper the effect of the flames of his ambition. A third world title seems as far away as ever, and I ask how he feels about the idea now.
“It is different, for sure,” Alonso replies. “Those years in Ferrari, they were a lot of pressure. We were very close a couple of times and those missed opportunities were quite heavy on the shoulders of everyone.
“The atmosphere in the team was not happy enough at one moment and I decided to stop the relationship there, even if I had two more years’ contract, because it was the best for both parties.
“Now, I still want the third championship so bad, but at the same time I understand how the sport works right now and you have only one car or maximum two when you can fight for the championship.
“You try to build with the team that car, and that process is interesting – how to grow up together with the team, the facilities in the factory and all the resources just to be one of those two teams that can fight for the championship.”
Pleased with his speed; disappointment in the new era
Years of struggle led Alonso to step away from F1 at the end of 2018 to focus on other projects. He won the classic Le Mans 24 Hours twice and became world endurance champion with Toyota, competed at the Indianapolis 500 three times, and tried his hand at the Dakar Rally.
In 2021, though, he returned to F1 with Alpine – the Renault team rebranded – hoping the new rules being introduced this year would achieve their aim of bringing the field closer together.
But the much-vaunted ‘new era’ of F1 looks pretty similar to the last. Two teams remain way out in front – even if Mercedes have been replaced by Ferrari – and Alonso and Alpine find themselves still in the midfield.
There have been flashes of promise this year – Alonso was on course to qualify on the front two rows, among the Ferraris and Red Bulls, in Australia last month before a car failure stopped him, for example – but five races into the season he finds himself with just two points, partly because of poor reliability.
“I would say it was a good comeback for me personally,” Alonso says. “I felt good. I felt competitive, which is never a guarantee.
“Everybody expected [me] to be fast, but after two years out of the sport, anything could happen.”
He mentions Schumacher’s comeback in 2010-12 and how the great German “was struggling after the sabbatical years”, adding: “I was happy that I felt competitive and into the rhythm.
“Maybe the first five races of last year were rough for me and I was not super-competitive at first. But after that I am proud of what we achieved, and this year we have been more competitive than last year, but we didn’t score so many points yet because a lot of things were going on in the first five races.
“The rules? Probably I was expecting a little bit more from them, to have more balance between the teams, more possibilities for different teams to perform well. There are still only two teams that can win races.
“But I have to say that those two teams were good enough to achieve those results. There was a reshuffle on everything on performance and they did a better job than others so at least they took that opportunity and it seems we didn’t take that opportunity fully.”
A rare admission of fallibility
Alonso turns 41 in July, but he insists the number is irrelevant.
“Age is not a factor in motorsport,” he says. “In other sports it is different. You have to rely on your physical condition and things like that, but in motorsport I would [rather] have one new front or rear wing than three years less than I have. That would give me more performance for sure.
“The two years out of the sport was enough to completely reset my mind and also the physical condition and be happy training and preparing the races. I am as good as when I was 25 or 30.”
But is he, really? At times he has looked it, certainly.
Think of the sprint race at Silverstone last year, when he jumped from 11th to fifth with a stunning first lap. Or keeping Hamilton at bay for 11 remarkable laps in the closing stages of the Hungarian Grand Prix, guaranteeing team-mate Esteban Ocon’s unlikely victory. Or his brilliant third-place finish behind only Hamilton and Max Verstappen in Qatar towards the end of the season – the trophy for which takes pride of place at the entrance to his museum.
But I put it to him that perhaps he is not always achieving the consistently outstanding level of performance that characterised his Ferrari years, and mention the most recent race in Miami. After a typically flying start, he was penalised for a collision with Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly and was demoted out of the points by another, albeit questionable, penalty.
It’s hard to imagine him having that race 10 years ago, I say. Is that a fair observation? It elicits a rare public admission of fallibility.
“It could be a fair observation,” Alonso says. “When you are fighting for the championship, you have a sixth sense of things that are going around you and you take care of things.
“When you are fighting for seventh and eighth, sometimes you go into different moods or different manoeuvres that are way more risky.
“When you have to fight every single millisecond on every corner and you are fighting against some of the circumstances of that race, you don’t have maybe the package that allows you to drive 99% and thinking on 360-degrees picture on that race.
“Maybe you are more prone to make mistakes. But I don’t think I did too many mistakes so far, and Miami it was the circumstances also not helping.
“And in terms of the speed, I could be happier maybe in a couple more races but we are working on that.”
What does he mean by that?
“My thing, the driving side,” he says. “There are things we are still improving. The starts, I am still not fully comfortable with the system and the procedure we have; sometimes I make mistakes.
“There are things I need to improve myself and also together with the team working in things that can help me get that consistency back.”
‘Je ne regrette rien’
When one thinks back over Alonso’s career, it is always with a sense of what might have been.
What if he and McLaren had handled things differently in 2007 and stayed together? What if instead of rejoining Renault in 2008 before a planned move to Ferrari in 2010, he had taken up Red Bull’s offer? What if he had not left Ferrari in 2014, and had instead driven their competitive cars of 2017 and 2018?
Does he have any regrets?
“If you do something at one point in life it is because you felt it was right and, thanks to that decision, other opportunities came,” Alonso says.
“So if I was to stay in different teams for longer, or whatever, I don’t think I could have a shot of winning because the sport was very dominated by one team and in that team I didn’t have the possibility to go.
“I never spoke with Mercedes. So apart from that, to finish second in a red car or an orange car or a blue car, it doesn’t change much. You are second anyway.
“At least all the decisions made me try and fulfil a lot of dreams, like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or try the Indy 500. So I am happy where I am now.”
Indy return looks unlikely
When he left F1 at the end of 2018, Alonso said he was set on a new ambition – to follow Graham Hill as only the second man to win motorsport’s fabled ‘triple crown’ of Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.
But it seems he will probably not return for another attempt at Indy.
His debut there in 2017 was outstanding, and he contended for victory driving a McLaren-branded car for the Andretti Autosport team.
But he says his return in 2019 and 2020, when his McLaren-run car was uncompetitive, and following the introduction of Indycar’s head-protection system – the ‘aero-screen’ – was not as enjoyable.
“It’s less of a goal now, I have to say,” Alonso says. “The last two attempts in Indy with the aero-screen made me feel the car a little bit different, and talking with some of the colleagues there definitely the cars are more difficult to drive and difficult to follow each other. So it is less fun.
“In 2017, there were a lot of overtakings, and I loved that race. There was a little bit less love in the last couple of years when you cannot overtake.
“And there is the danger factor. In the Indy 500, there are a couple of big crashes every year. Now I am fully focused in F1. And when I stop F1, I don’t know if I will be tempted to try again. It is not a complete no, but I would say it is less of a project.”
No intention of quitting F1
Alonso’s immediate focus is continuing his F1 career with Alpine, with whom his contract runs out this year. The team have not made the step forward they or he wanted in 2022 but ask if he wants to continue into 2023 and beyond and he says: “Yeah, I want.”
The team have the choice between continuing with Alonso or promoting their reserve driver, the promising Australian Oscar Piastri, but Alonso says he believes he will be able to continue. The topic has been broached with Alpine chief executive Laurent Rossi but formal negotiations have not yet started.
“We didn’t talk officially,” Alonso says. “We just had a couple of coffees. But, yeah, I think the possibility will be there.
“The motivation is still there to win and to close that gap [to the front] even if we know how extremely difficult it is going to be.
“We know there are a couple of things we can do. This first year of the new regulations you learn a lot from other cars and other philosophies, so there are a lot of shortcuts in performance you can find very easily.
“Next year or the next two years I would love to continue and keep driving because I feel at my best right now and it would be wrong to watch F1 from home and from the living room while I still feel 100% of my abilities.
“When I feel it is not that way, I will be the first to raise my hand and stop because F1 is very demanding; you have to sacrifice a lot of things in life to keep racing. But at the moment it is still worth doing it.”