Is Alonso Cursed?

Is Alonso Cursed?

There are 724 other Formula 1 drivers who would have loved some of Fernando Alonso’s curse. He is one of only 33 world champions the sport has seen. But it’s fair to say, Fernando’s days with the crown feel like a lifetime away now, whereas bad luck seems to follow with permanent DRS enabled.

It was the recent attempt at IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 that endeared him to a new legion of fans but once again showed the stars will not align for the Spaniard. It would have been the stuff of dreams had he won the big one in his rookie race. Ability wise, it wouldn’t have been shocking, but it is more Hollywood than reality.

This isn’t to say IndyCar is to be taken lightly.

It may appear a simplified sport to F1 aficionados but there is an art to oval racing. On many occasion fans of other motorsports laugh at the idea of going around in a circle. It’s as if they see the Indy 500 as a simple foot down and steer experience.

In contrast, an average of 16.7 turns are dealt with during each race weekend on the current F1 calendar. During the course of the season, 334 are taken, the highest for an individual track is 23, the lowest being 9 (which still dwarfs the Indy 500). This means each circuit becomes a compromise on setup.

No car can perfect each corner and the straights.

Oval endurance racing is about how to optimise the car for what appears to be a narrow choice between downforce and speed. But the changing conditions – both on track and in car – require gentle tweaks in weight distribution and balance. Rather than the optimisation of several sections, with a knowing sacrifice elsewhere (often offset with ERS or DRS), it is a tightrope walk that requires intelligence combined with a supernatural feel.

The two elements Alonso has above all F1 drivers, past and present.

Such a linear setup target, relying on the feel of the car, should sound like second heaven to someone like Jenson Button. Often described as unbeatable when the he feels the setup is perfect. But he dismissed IndyCar in the clearest terms when interviewed at Monaco. Perhaps the greatest acknowledgement: to get that perfect setup isn’t an easy task.

Alonso took to the Andretti based McLaren-Honda and the new formula as if he’d lived on oval circuits. He won hearts and minds in America and ensured his status as an all-time great. Transcending F1 and proving he doesn’t need an Indy 500 win and Le Mans 24 trophy to solidify his legacy.

But again, he does this through failure, not success.

If life is trying to send him subliminal messages, it’s getting bored with how slow he is to take the hint, so it sent a glaring one. The architect of his demise was once again a Honda badged engine. It forms a long line of conspirators against the Spaniard.

His personal choices can, of course, be questioned. But aside from conduct during his first McLaren stint, he’s appeared to be the loyal and dedicated professional teams pay $40m a season to secure.

With his unfortunate turn of luck stuck in a perpetual cycle, one has to consider a sinister form of fate is driving him to retirement without a third world title.

Time and a narrowing market of professional opportunity compound the issue.

McLaren will not be competitive this season and even the most optimistic Honda engineer cannot be expecting to produce an engine on par with the leading pack in 2018. Such a turnaround would be nothing short of miraculous but the talk of it sounds nothing short of folly.

There’s potential for movement in the top two teams of Ferrari and Mercedes. But the Prancing Horse always has a clear Alpha and Omega when enjoying periods of competitiveness and it’s hard to see Vettel losing his number one spot.

Mercedes sell the idea of equal footing but after the strain of the Hamilton/Rosberg dynamic, they’ve opted for the safe Bottas. He’s formally managed by Wolff and likely still influenced by the Austrian. He’s certainly more malleable than Alonso would be if it came down to an awkward in-house championship fight.

Which leaves Red Bull, probably the best driver balance at the front of the grid with years of longevity, should they wish to retain and are able to fend off third parties.

This leaves Alonso stuck in a seat he sought out after giving his prime years to a failing Ferrari. A Ferrari that came good not so long after he departed. Detractors could claim this is indicative of a negative effect he has teams.

Sportsmen are notorious for being superstitious. Whether it be always placing the left glove on before the right or a lucky meal that can never change on the day of the event. Alonso’s must be to break mirrors every seven years, or driving around for hours hoping to see magpies sat on their own. (I personally don’t have any superstitious tendencies and hope to keep it that way . . . touch wood.)

Since the Indy 500 experience, his return to F1 has continued to be tainted by poor luck. In Azerbaijan he collected a bittersweet two points. The not so subtle remark about how they could have won the race was aimed squarely at his engine supplier.

Austria witnessed a good Alonso start off the grid, only to be wiped out at turn one. An innocent party in a collision where the fates conspired against him.

The British Grand Prix at Silverstone underlined the woes of living with Honda. Starting from the back of the grid after a thirty place penalty, a mechanical failure added another DNF to this season’s tally.

It must be difficult to remain upbeat when faced with repeated setbacks.

Is it just bad luck? Poor judgement? Or does someone, somewhere, have a voodoo doll that looks like a little Spaniard in a racing suit? Is it a curse that means Fernando Alonso will never complete a hattrick of F1 world titles, let alone the triple crown of Formula 1 Champion, Indy 500 winner, and a 24 Hours of Le Mans victory?

Should he secure any of the above, his arduous journey since his last world title in 2006 will feel like it was worth all the ill-fortune in the world. However, all signs point to his misery continuing indefinitely.

 

Formula None

Formula None

Formula One is a sport that thrives in controversy. Thankfully, the element that could have undermined an entire Drivers’ Championship – Double Points – played no part in the end. That was a small rest bite during a time when F1 is under the microscope for different reasons.

With two teams in administration, and others close to the wall, its finances and wealth distribution require a review. Bernie and the large teams need to realise the product as a whole is only worth something if there is diversity across the grid. The current model almost ensures the big teams will remain near the top of the field but if this continues there’ll be no one else left to compete against. Three car teams would eventually become a three team championship.

Love or hate Bernie Ecclestone, the improvements made to the sport under his leadership can be clearly seen. It still is the pinnacle of motorsport and rather than keeping up with the times, it has defined them. New circuits, however bland some may be, come with state of the art facilities. The product generates more money than ever. Luxury companies pay a premium to be associated with each event. All this should bode well for the sport. But it somehow hasn’t helped abate the current situation.

It’s easy to see Bernie as a cantankerous old man. He’s holding all the cards, the ultimate power broker. He dismisses the pleas from the smaller teams out of hand. His remarks appear ill-informed and uneducated. With Caterham and Marussia heading to collapse he made numerous remarks, none of support, just disdain. Bernie doesn’t want to see begging jars in the paddock and claims the teams are mismanaged and haven’t ran their businesses correctly.

Berne F1

By doing this Bernie has quickly washed his hands of a problem he helped facilitate. These teams didn’t throw caution to the wind and spend big bucks to buy a title. They were scraping together the budget each season just to survive. When the now defunct HRT, Caterham and Marussia (badged as Virgin) came into the sport as the three fresh teams, they did so under the impression F1 would implement cost-cutting measures. Of course teams like Ferrari, with their seemingly bottomless pot of cash, felt uneasy levelling the playing field like this. A compromise of sorts was reached: the teams would slowly reduce running costs without a hard cap being installed. To this day it has never happened.

So the new teams haven’t been mismanaged as such, they’ve just been the victim of being told one thing then living another. To make matters worse the gulf in affluence is exacerbated by the distribution of wealth. Ferrari receives an extra cut of the cash, before any prize money is distributed, for just being in the sport. This is similar to the way Real Madrid and Barcelona negotiate their own TV deals in Spain. A fairer system is the English Premier League that splits its deal twenty ways. Obviously prize money will, and should, go to the most successful teams. But all teams need the same starting point. It’s ludicrous to give handouts to those that need them less.

It’s also clear that the teams can’t be trusted to introduce fair cost-cutting measures. The time has come for a fixed budget cap which excludes driver wages. When I have discussed Financial Fair Play in football, my tone has always been against the system. In that sport it handcuffs safe wealthy owners, maintaining a status quo for the elite teams across Europe. In any business a company should be able to make a loss in order to catch its competitors. However, the current system in F1 has created and facilitates a continuing status quo of its own. Smaller teams are losing money, but not to catch-up, just to stay in business.

USA F1 Empty Grid

The largest spenders, like Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari, may resist a cap because it removes their advantage. But long term they may be racing amongst themselves, at which point, they’d also be at the back of the grid . . . and the middle and the front. Fans need variety. Imagine a future where every F1 race resembled the grid from the infamous 2005 United States Grand Prix. That’s where we’re heading. And Bernie doesn’t mind because the cash cow still has plenty of milk. Some circuits are paying around $70M just to host an event, and all the race revenues combined only equate to 30% of F1’s income.

Another 30% is from the television deals. This would be the first victim of a decline in the sport. If the ratings fell so would the sale price. It’s this fear that gives us the ever changing rules to make the sport more competitive. Tighter regulations to create a narrower band of creative manoeuvre. The best designer in the modern era, Adrian Newey, decided he’d had enough of these restrictions so took on a different role within the Red Bull group. It’s a shame that the pinnacle of motorsport is hindered by its own self-inflicted parameters. Rules to increase excitement that will never work as long as a gulf in spending exists.

All the teams need to realise they need one another. An independent body needs to be set up to implement the cost-cutting measures and to clarify what goes on in the murky waters of F1 management. At the moment Bernie and the big teams feels more corrupt than a FIFA World Cup bidding process.

It’s ironic F1 spends so much time and energy tweaking itself to make racing closer without making the money in the sport fairer. A much better model would be one that has a hard budget cap, and at the same time has wider design windows. Cars would be cheaper to run, so the small teams wouldn’t be facing extinction, but a relaxation of the rules would add greater variety across the design process. The more creative or forward thinking would have the ability to flourish. They could even return to multiple tyre manufacturers with a set price for the season support. The entire onus would then be on those tyre providers to produce the best rubber at an affordable price. The difference in compounds would create exciting races as different teams on different rubber face unique race strategies. There’d be less tyre management and more non-stop pushing.

Whether you agree with the idea of a fixed budget or not, Bernie’s ignorance is something that is fact not opinion. He recently remarked he doesn’t care for social media or the younger generation of F1 fans. That his product is aimed at wealthy men in old age. That no young man on Twitter is going to buy a Rolex, a product his sport is paid to advertise. This is sheer arrogance and short-sightedness. Sponsorship accounts for 15% of F1 income, another 15% from merchandise and corporate hospitality, but that 30% from TV deals should have greater importance to Bernie.

To ignore the poorer young fans is to care little for the viewing figures that account for a third of his income. The same people whom the regulations are forever tweaked to create closer racing. The people that could be watching the sport for decades to come. But Bernie isn’t a man of the people. He isn’t even a man that cares for teams within his own sport. Unless you’re a big red Italian car company, or a 70 year old man wearing a Rolex sat in a corporate box, he won’t give you a second thought.