Two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who raced to victory three times at the Bahrain International Circuit, will leave Formula One at the end of the season.
Fearless Alonso, who turned 37 in July, is competing in his 17th F1 season, his fifth with McLaren, and has amassed 32 wins, 22 pole positions and 97 podiums to date.
Beyond his two titles – in 2005 he became the then-youngest world champion in F1 history – and has been championship runner-up three times.
“After 17 wonderful years in this amazing sport, it’s time for me to make a change and move on,” he said. “I have enjoyed every single minute of those incredible seasons and I cannot thank enough the people who have contributed to make them all so special.
“There are still several races to go this season, and I will take part in them with more commitment and passion than ever.
“Let’s see what the future brings; new exciting challenges are around the corner. I’m having one of the happiest times ever in my life but I need to go on exploring new adventures.”
Next stop is potentially a move to IndyCar in the United States.
McLaren Racing, partly-owned by Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat, confirmed last week the Spaniard will not return to F1 next year for an 18th season, and Alonso said F1′s leadership group tried to persuade him to stay with the series.
“I made this decision some months ago and it was a firm one,” Alonso said. “Nevertheless, I would like to sincerely thank Chase Carey and Liberty Media for the efforts made to change my mind and everyone who has contacted me during this time.”
There is speculation that McLaren will enter IndyCar with Alonso as one of its drivers. Alonso ran the Indianapolis 500 last year and was in position to win the showcase race until his engine failed.
He also ran the Rolex 24 at Daytona as a warm-up for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in which Alonso was part of the winning team. Alonso has been pursuing the top motorsports events and has said he would like to return to Indianapolis and add a win in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ to his resume.
IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR used social media accounts to urge Alonso to race next year in the US following his announcement. NASCAR mocked up a formal invitation to the Daytona 500 that ‘requests the honour of your presence’.
Alonso delivered a farewell video to F1 and in it noted he had ‘some other bigger challenges than you can offer me’ as the camera showed Alonso standing in front of his Indy 500 helmet.
Alonso enjoyed his one IndyCar race, which was a partnership between Andretti Autosport and McLaren. He led 27 laps and had one of the strongest cars on the track until the engine failure ended his race. IndyCar drivers have openly called for him to return to the series.
“It would be appealing to me, if I were him,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, winner of the 2014 Indianapolis 500. “He’s as hungry as ever to win. I think IndyCar is a great sport. This series is the most competitive series in the world. You cannot name who is going to win each race. There are no favourites.”
That’s not the case in F1, where it appears, unless a major incident occurs, only a handful of drivers are in contention each round. The top teams are evident at the start of each season and catching the leaders is a virtually impossible task. Alonso is behind only Kimi Raikkonen as the oldest driver on the F1 grid. His last championship was in 2006 and his last F1 victory was in 2013.
He made a second return to McLaren in 2015 with the belief he could help turn around the team as it paired with manufacturer Honda. It led to three frustrating seasons as McLaren-Honda was unreliable and unable to compete. Alonso didn’t hide his unhappiness and McLaren split with Honda at the end of last season.
Now with Renault, McLaren is still struggling and Alonso, who is currently ninth in the standings, had been debating his future, although this year the season didn’t start off too badly with McLaren scoring points in consecutive races with both cars for the first time since the 2014 season. But despite the progress, Alonso conceded after the second race in Bahrain - where he finished in seventh place with teammate Stoffel Vandoorne just one behind - that the result flattered the car’s performance.
He was not permitted to skip the Monaco Grand Prix to return to Indianapolis in May, but he was allowed to compete in the World Endurance Championship super-season and enter Le Mans. A two-time winner at Monaco and now a Le Mans winner, Alonso only needs to win the Indy 500 to complete motorsports’ unofficial Triple Crown.
Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing, called Alonso ‘the pre-eminent driver of his generation’. “There is a time for everyone to make a change and Fernando has decided the end of this season to be his,” Brown said. “We respect his decision, even if we believe he is in the finest form of his career.
“Our open dialogue with Fernando has meant we could plan for this eventuality. While evaluating his future during the past months, Fernando’s competitiveness has been undimmed. He has continued to perform at the highest level throughout, as we know he will do in the remaining nine races of this year’s championship.”
Brown was a key player in Alonso’s entry at Indianapolis, Daytona and Le Mans. He supported Alonso’s quest to enter other series and signed off on the driver skipping the Monaco Grand Prix in 2017 to race at Indianapolis.
Brown is also behind McLaren’s potential entry into IndyCar and the team is believed to have courted four-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon to be Alonso’s teammate. Dixon on Monday announced a contract extension to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing, but acknowledged the presence of McLaren in his free agency talks made it a ‘noisy’ process.
Alonso will be remembered for ever Bahrain having won the grand prix here in 2005 and 2006 driving for Renault and 2010 sitting in the Ferrari hot seat.
04-04-04 will always be a date to be treasured in Bahrain. That was the day the kingdom witnessed its first Formula One race at the brand new $150-million circuit. According to Martin Whitaker, who was then the BIC’s chief executive officer, although the Ferraris conquered a new frontier as Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello completed a second one-two finish of the season, for Alonso, who was to win the next two races here, it was ‘a good learning experience’. He proved his growing reputation finishing sixth after having started from 16th on the grid.
In 2005 Bahrain got a corner seat as Formula One witnessed a change of guard. Alonso, who later that year became the youngest champion, made it a pole-to-podium victory. He was in a class of his own as Ferrari’s hopes of making a winning debut with its new car evaporated in the stifling desert heat. He further piled on the world champions’ misery lapping Barrichello towards the end of the race while Schumacher went off the track on Turn 10 of lap 12.
Whitaker described Alonso’s victory as a ‘one-man super show’, years later reminiscing in GulfWeekly: ‘The day clearly belonged to the superlative Spaniard who was in imperious form’.
The same thing could be said for the following season’s outing in Sakhir which featured classic Formula One action as Alonso won the race with an air of a chess grand master.
The 24-year-old star, who started fourth on the grid, outwitted the seven-time champion Schumacher in a magnificent move coming out of the pit lane and held on for a memorable victory. That deft move was the defining moment of a daring race embellished by six classic overtaking manoeuvres, two spin-offs and a car blaze.
The BIC kicked off the 60th anniversary season of the FIA Formula One World Championship in 2010 with a new layout from its existing 5.412km circuit to 6.299km and Alonso made his mark again. He celebrated a triumphant Ferrari debut with his first win since 2008.
Even if a bottle of non-alcoholic vintage was the victor’s traditional reward in Bahrain for cultural reasons, the double Formula One champion splashed the superlatives.
“It’s a very special day for me,” said Alonso, savouring his third sweet victory in Bahrain, the first driver to complete a hat-trick of wins at the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, one more than his Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa, who came second. “Coming back to the top of the podium is always special but I think it is even more special with Ferrari, with all the history behind the team and all the expectations a driver has when he drives for Ferrari. There is no better way to start the relationship. I am in the best team in the world,” added Alonso.
But it was all to turn sour. Despite his two titles, some motorsport analysts suggest Alonso’s time at Ferrari will provide the pervading memory, the way he dragged so much more out of uncompetitive cars than they deserved and, in 2010 and 2012, came agonisingly close to the title in cars that were not the quickest.
In 2010, he missed out only because of a massively misguided strategy call by Ferrari at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. That year, the Ferrari was on average 0.7secs a lap slower than the Red Bull in qualifying - although only 0.3secs off in the second half of the year, when Alonso closed a 47-point gap with driving of a consistent excellence no-one else could achieve.
In 2012, when the Ferrari was only the fourth fastest car, he somehow contrived to win three races and lead the championship for much of the season. Only a late-season burst by Sebastian Vettel, ironically now with Ferrari, after a decisive development on the Red Bull, and Alonso’s awful luck in being involved in first-corner accidents in Belgium and Japan for which he was in no way to blame, cost him the title.
Alonso’s relationship with Ferrari went downhill after that, as the frustrations of fighting against ever-bigger odds grew too much.
In hindsight, it’s hard not to see his move to McLaren-Honda for 2015 as an emotional one after the titanic ructions of his time with McLaren-Mercedes in 2007.
To say that year defined Alonso’s career would be over-simplistic, the BBC’s chief F1 writer Andrew Benson, suggested. He was at McLaren for only a year the first time around. But the seismic nature of events certainly coloured opinions of him ever since.
In short, Alonso fell out with the then McLaren team boss Ron Dennis, who it’s claimed reneged on a promise to give him priority status in the team over then-novice Lewis Hamilton. In the vortex of distrust that followed, a cataclysmic weekend at the Hungarian Grand Prix, in which Hamilton also shares some blame, proved the effective end of the line.
In one massive row with Dennis, Alonso threatened to reveal incriminating emails to governing body the FIA in the ongoing ‘spy-gate’ case in which McLaren were accused of illegally possessing Ferrari technical information and stormed off. He sent his manager back to apologise and withdraw the threat, but it was too late. Dennis had phoned FIA president Max Mosley, and told him of the emails.
The resulting hearing cost McLaren $100m when they were fined by the FIA. Mercedes, as 40 per cent shareholder, had to pay $40m.
The other controversy for which Alonso will always be remembered was ‘crash-gate’ in 2008, when his Renault team were found guilty of orchestrating a crash by his team-mate Nelson Piquet to help Alonso win the Singapore Grand Prix. Alonso was cleared by the FIA of any involvement.
For the past three years with McLaren, Alonso could only dream of having a car reliable enough to compete with the top teams in Formula One. Or at least finish races.
After several years marked by technical issues and race retirements, Alonso failed to finish 17 races over three seasons.
In the first race of the current challenge, Alonso showed that his team now at least had new fight since switching from its Honda-made engines to ones made by Renault as he took fifth place with a strong performance at the opening Australian Grand Prix, while Vandoorne finished ninth.
“The last couple of years have been difficult, and I think the winter has been difficult, as well,” Alonso said afterwards, referring to technical mishaps in off-season testing that limited McLaren to the fewest laps of the 10 teams running at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
McLaren Group’s two main shareholders are Mumtalakat and businessman Mansour Ojjeh. Shaikh Mohammed bin Essa Al Khalifa, is executive chairman of the holding company which combines British racing and manufacturing conglomerate McLaren Technology Group and McLaren Automotive.
Despite the F1 challenges, the entire team joined Brown in paying tribute to Alonso’s ‘enormous contribution’ to McLaren, with the CEO describing him as ‘a legend both for the championship and for the team’. “Fernando is an important part of our story and will join an illustrious line of McLaren drivers,” he said. “On behalf of Shaikh Mohammed, Mansour and our entire board, we wish Fernando every success in the future.”
Rima Al Masri, chief operating officer at Mumtalakat who sits on the McLaren Group board, posted a photograph of herself with the race ace holding a coffee table book full of images of the kingdom on the internet business network site LinkedIn and wished him ‘all the success’ in the future.
But perhaps the last words, should go to the driver himself, hinting his departure from F1 may not be forever. “I want to thank everyone at McLaren,” Alonso said. “My heart is with the team forever. I know they will come back stronger and better in the future and it could be the right moment for me to be back in the series; that would make me really happy.
“I have built so many great relationships with many fantastic people at McLaren, and they have given me the opportunity to broaden my horizons and race in other categories. I feel I am a more complete driver now than ever.
“Finally, I would also like to thank my former teams, team-mates, competitors, colleagues, partners, journalists and everyone I have worked with in my F1 career. And, especially, my fans all over the world. I am quite sure our paths will cross again in the future.”
Stanley Louis Szecowka
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