Any sport in a storm for Alonso?
JULY 28, 2010
BY CLYDE BROLIN
"I am a sportsman. I love sport. I love the fans. But I don't consider Formula 1 any more a sport."
These were Fernando Alonso's words on the morning of the 2006 Italian Grand Prix. Hours earlier he'd been given a five-place grid penalty for 'blocking' Ferrari's Felipe Massa in qualifying - though Massa was 100 metres away. This was part of a bizarre run of difficulties he faced as he fought off the Ferrari of retiring Michael Schumacher for his second championship.
Alonso's public statement earned admiration from many F1 followers, who were glad to see someone with such profile taking a stand against outside manipulation. But any hope that this was the new Senna, a voice to challenge authority, now seems sadly misplaced. Instead the words sound like the declaration of a man abandoning his own sporting ambitions to reap all he can from this 'non-sport'.
Alonso's involvement since - from tantrums at McLaren to two manipulated victories - hasn't exactly reinvigorated Formula 1 as a 'sport'. In case anyone needs reminding, battles between team-mates are the only truly sporting element of F1 because they are the only two guys with, supposedly, the same equipment.
There are plenty of F1 bigwigs who see no problem with Sunday's German GP, they just wish it could have been done more subtly. Similarly, many were disgusted when Nelson Piquet blew the whistle on Singapore 2008. If they believe they are covering their own backs they could not be more mistaken.
Sport is a glorious dance between moments of order and chaos, helped by a sprinkling of a magic ingredient called luck. Team orders aim to take this lucky chaos out of the equation and impose their own pre-stamped order. The resultant public outrage seems to surprise the perpetrators every time. So for future reference, please note: sports fans love watching the capricious ups and downs of this 'luck'. Feel free to make your own luck but don't mess with it because without luck, sport is not sport. It's business. And we won't waste our Sundays watching that.
No one should underestimate the lack of luck Ferrari have endured of late and the desperation with which they headed to Hockenheim. Rightly or wrongly they felt victimised in Valencia, then came the hilarious timing of the safety car after Alonso's penalty in Silverstone. Luck. In Germany Massa lucked in as a gap opened up for him on the way to the first corner. 48 laps later he, and we, lucked out.
If Alonso still believes his Singapore win counts, it's no surprise that Germany should too. One of his reasons for feeling no guilt was that he was the faster driver on Friday. And Saturday. And Sunday. Heck, he's been the faster driver all year. But reputation is not sport either. Otherwise they and we needn't bother showing up.
Of course, even the irony of Massa falling foul both at Singapore 2008 (the fuel hose and the Keystone Kops response) and Germany 2010 can't match that of Jean Todt policing this latest transgression as FIA president.
Sunday's team orders have been widely compared to Austria 2002 but Ferrari did the same a year earlier, to similar indignation if less publicity, when they forced Rubens Barrichello to give up second place for Michael Schumacher. After that race I asked Todt, then Ferrari 'sporting director' (surely an oxymoron) if Barrichello was still a sportsman or just a businessman.
The Frenchman's reply was as curt as it was candid: "You really think people in F1 only think about sport? You don't think there is some commercial interest? There is a big motor car industry and we are there to deliver the win. Sometimes you have to take some decisions. You may regret today's decision but I feel very comfortable with it. We had to do what's best for Ferrari. Rubens is a professional driver. His job is to work for the team - a driver must respect that like an engineer. All that matters is that Ferrari is at the top of both championships."
If that's really "all that matters" I can't be alone in finding myself wishing they'd get rid of the championships altogether. Much has been made of the fact that there was no ban on team orders then, but here's more irony. The response to Austria 2002 was to bring in such a rule, the line pumped out this time is to get rid of it again.
The problem was the rule was only ever brought in for show. The unwritten subtext was that team orders would only be penalised if they were 'obvious'. So a nod and a wink to all those mysterious mechanical glitches, pit stop screw-ups, etc. Some have commented that the rule's introduction drove team orders underground but they were ever thus. Personally I can't wait for Barrichello to pen his autobiography and reveal the full extent of what went on in his time at Ferrari.
After Austria 2002, Todt trotted out his usual excuse that the gap between his drivers was already 38 points. He neglected to mention Barrichello had failed to finish three times in five races due to failures by a Ferrari that was so reliable for Schumacher that he made the podium in every race that year.
Why, I asked, preparing to duck, should we believe those failures were not as staged as the finish in Austria? "If you start saying things like that," came Todt's steely reply, "then maybe we should not start with a second car. It would be cheaper." Now there's an idea. But Barrichello's points did come in handy for constructors' titles. And the F1 rulebook does require teams to enter two cars.
To those calling for the team orders rule to be rescinded, fine. But all teams intending to favour one or other driver should have to tell us - and the number two - as soon as they make that decision. If that means before race one, fine. If it's race two, once one driver is in the championship lead, fine. But don't mess us around, fudging it in the hope of getting by without declaring your favouritism.
I'm dreaming, of course. So I'll just add that since the last time there was no team order rule the stakes have been upped: a team ordered its driver to crash a car. That will presumably now be legal again too.
If there is any hope it rests with the drivers themselves to refuse any 'help' due to the harm it does to reputation. Alonso is partially shielded from this because in Spain F1 may as well be called FA. The uproar about Sunday was met with typical derision on the day his countryman Alberto Contador brought home the Tour de France - now there's a team sport loosely involving individuals...
I didn't agree with Michael Schumacher's assessment of Sunday either, but it shows that even the pummelling he took post-Austria did not dampen his own enthusiasm for victory at all costs. As such, it is to his eternal credit that he is persisting as his winning reputation plummets. Would Alonso have lasted this long?
In Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone, Barrichello's long-time physiotherapist Raniero Giannotti points out one subtle difference between the two beneficiaries of Ferrari's policy: "Of course Michael Schumacher has talent, but his force came from smiling and having fun. That's the secret to success in every area of life. Valentino Rossi is always joking around on the grid right up to the moment he gets on the bike. What separates him out is the fact that he enjoys himself when he rides. That's where his force comes from, just like Michael.""Fernando Alonso will never win so many titles - not because of his driving qualities but because he doesn't enjoy himself so much. He feels too much pressure. Michael was also involved in politics, but driving was what he enjoyed most. When he put on his helmet these problems were no longer his worries."
But here's the thing: Alonso also well knows the unfettered, pure joy of racing at the limit. For the purposes of Overdrive I cornered him to enquire about his trips to the Zone during his first winter test session for McLaren early in 2007, months after he took his second world championship.
"In motor racing you have better days and worse days," he said. "But sometimes you achieve something where the set-up and track conditions reach a certain point that the car responds really well to all the things you do. Everything goes so smoothly and feels so beautiful that you enjoy yourself so much and you push yourself even further in terms of driving. Finally you arrive at a point where you cannot imagine you can do anything more to improve. The car feels like a Scalextric and you feel like you are not inside a Formula 1 car but a toy.
"For a driver this is the best feeling in the world. You need to feel like that once every couple of months. It is the same for every sportsman. Take tennis players. They will have some matches where they play so well that any ball they touch will land on the line and they keep winning points. But you don't understand why it is happening and I think it is impossible to understand why. If you ever manage to work that out you will win every race."
We well know how much winning means to Fernando Alonso. This is an intensely competitive man who can't bear to lose even a tennis match in pre-season training. Yet he surprised me when I enquired how the feeling of winning a championship compared to the Zone.
First a pause, then... "Winning a race or a championship leads to recognition from everybody," he said. "So it is good for self-confidence because everybody thinks you are doing well. But from the inside, when it comes to the personal feeling that is inside your heart and inside your mind, maybe this feeling is better."
This feeling is better, Fernando. And you don't have to stand on anyone's shoulders to get it. You won't need acting lessons to explain it afterwards either. Concentrate on finding this elusive magic and the wins will flood in without the help of anyone else. What's more, the rest of us can have our sport back again.
Clyde Brolin is the author of 'Overdrive - Formula 1 in the Zone'