Fernando Alonso: A man cheated by destiny
It was 2005. A clear evening in Sao Paulo. The crowds had been cheering, howling even, with an excitement that only arises in anticipation of something special.
A man covered in blue overalls, his hair oily with perspiration, came up the steps. He had only finished third in that race but the moment was still his as a podium finish had given him the Formula One Drivers’ Championship.
The throngs fell quiet when he appeared, perhaps waiting for him to acknowledge them, and he waved, a refreshing grin permanently plastered on his face. The masses beneath him instantly erupted in cries of adulation and heads simultaneously bowed in front of their prince.
A new champion, the youngest the sport had ever seen, had been crowned. Fernando Alonso was a relatively inexperienced driver from Spain but he had brought to an end Michael Schumacher’s five-year reign at the top of F1. Ferrari's red had been replaced by Renault's blue.
A drought of titles since 2006
That young man was back next year, winning the championship again, to prove that his success was no fluke. In a paddock of veterans, he was just a kid. Ignore his goatee and his smooth chin looked like it hadn't even sprouted a speck of beard yet.
There must have been quite a party that evening. Alonso was hailed as the future of F1, the man who would rule it for years. Imagine what his reaction would have been if a soothsayer came to him that night and gave him a glimpse into the future.
That win in 2006 would be his last world championship for the next decade. He would never emulate his idol, Ayrton Senna, and his three titles. Alonso would finish the championship with only eleven points in 2015; he would rarely make it to the last qualifying round.
How would a young Alonso have reacted to this revelation? Perhaps he would have laughed disbelievingly. But the sincerity in the soothsayer's voice would have piqued his curiosity and the inevitable questions would follow.
Would he get injured? Or perhaps lose motivation? Would he stop enjoying the thrill of driving a car to its utmost limits?
To all those queries, the seer would have shaken his head as Alonso's thick brow furrowed. What was the reason then, that his achievements would come nowhere close to matching his potential?
The answer would have consisted of just one word. Destiny.
Praise and respect from all
Sport is supposed to be the most meritocratic of all human endeavours. Perhaps that is why sportsmen and sportswomen are so loved across the world. There is an unspoken trust that their success is pure. We believe it is unadulterated.
It doesn't depend on who you know or how much money you have. It doesn't matter if your father is someone famous or if you have political connections. Your wins and losses depend on one thing alone: you.
That is the reason why every injury evokes such great sorrow or why cheating is treated with such anger amongst sports fans. But we tend to forget that life is the greatest sport of all and in that arena, we are mere puppets. Higher powers decide the path for every man and woman.
For Alonso, unfortunately, it seems that path doesn't lead to another F1 world title. He is meant to have praise and he is meant to have respect. Even his opponents say that the fact that he hasn’t had a competitive car for the past three years is a failure of the sport.
But that last step that gives him immortality in the history books? No, that's not for him.
The signs have always been there. In the 2007 season, he let himself get drawn into the politics of the McLaren team and Lewis Hamilton usurped his spot. They finished with equal points and Hamilton edged ahead because he had won more races.
His subsequent time at Ferrari was equally heartbreaking. In 2010, Alonso had the title in his grasp till the middle of the last race when a horrifying strategy call from the team's pit-wall gifted it to Sebastian Vettel.
He drove a car that was universally acknowledged to be much inferior to the Red Bull for five years and yet Vettel found the Prancing Horse beside him, race after race and year after year.
From Kimi Raikkonen to Jenson Button, Alonso’s partners over the years haven’t been able to keep up with him. He has driven with other world champions in equal cars and beaten them. Easily.
A battle against fate
However, none of that will be written in the history of F1. No one will remember his breathless overtaking manoeuvres or explosive starts. Perhaps a sportsman is expected to make his own luck but when destiny pushes you into a corner and knocks you out, how are you expected to fight back?
Maybe Alonso's risky move to McLaren-Honda in 2015 was his last punch, his final attempt to somehow parry his luck's fatal salvos. But it was easily countered in the writings of fate. Honda hasn’t been able to design a remotely competitive engine in the past three years.
As a result, the Spaniard passes his time these days by fighting for scraps at the bottom. His horrifying crash last year hasn’t affected his driving and he still showcases his phenomenal abilities. In the Australian Grand Prix last weekend, he held off Esteban Ocon’s Force India for a long time even with a 27 kmph speed disadvantage in the main straight.
But he is a man who expected to be at the top of his sport and a piece of his soul must get sliced off in every race. If you compare his recent interviews to the ones he gave a few years ago, you will notice a difference.
Earlier, he talked about the desire to equal Senna's three titles but today he says if he retired with just two, he would still be satisfied. He talks more of his love of driving than his need for winning.
Perhaps his situation has given him perspective. Many F1 drivers have moved on to other motorsports and Alonso would be a handful in any competitive car. He is the sport’s perennial fighter. Always has been. Fate may have blocked the road ahead but no one is better at finding a way through than Alonso himself.