Fernando Alonso will have to stick around for some time yet if he wants to become the oldest driver in Formula One history. That claim belongs to Louis Cheron, who in 1958 entered the Monaco Grand Prix at the age of 58 years and 288 days.
Records have always appealed to Alonso, which is why he left the sport two years ago in an effort to win motorsport’s ‘Triple Crown’ – the Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours. He came mighty close to winning at Indianapolis in 2017 only for his McLaren-Honda to let him down – quelle surprise – and will return to F1 as a two-time Le Mans winner, having proven an endurance racing success in his time with Toyota.
The Spaniard will certainly have another crack at the Indy 500 next month, but in 2021 he will be back in F1 for a third stint with Renault, the team who took him to his two world championships after signing a two-year contract.
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Alonso’s return, which will come at the age of 39, was decided with the regulation changes in mind as the former McLaren and Ferrari driver had been vocal about his opposition to the current cars, which essentially forced him away from the sport at the end of 2018. However, the coronavirus pandemic resulted in those changes being pushed back by an extra year to 2022, leaving Alonso with a decision to make: risk missing out for another year, or agree to a multi-year contract.
“The open door that I had left in 2018 was (to return with) the new regulations in 2021,” Alonso said. “They were delayed for a year due to the coronavirus and well, that left the door open to think again or put everything on the table. In the end I decided that I want to return, that I am strong and motivated to do it next year.”
After leaving to experience Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship, Indy Car and the Dakar Rally, Alonso has made a clear decision. At this stage of his life, he needs Formula One. He has missed the sport that left a hole in him, more so than he imagined when he left it.
The big question though is does Formula One need Fernando Alonso?
The evidence suggests not. Last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix was more than enough to quench the first left by seven months without F1, with reliability struggles and rusty drivers combining for the most entertaining season-opener in over two decades. This weekend the Red Bull Ring remains the canvas with which Formula One will paint its picture, and for a track that consistently delivers such dramatic wheel-to-wheel racing, it is unlikely to disappoint. For starters, Lewis Hamilton cannot afford to endure another weekend like he did in the curtain-raiser. With the reigning world champion outclassed by his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas and the team expecting similar reliability troubles due to the aggressive Austrian kerbs, Mercedes will be slightly exposed once again.
Hopefully this time, there will be a Max Verstappen-shaped missile tracking them down alongside his Red Bull teammate Alex Albon, with both eager to make up for last weekend’s disappointment that resulted in the team drawing a blank due to a double retirement. But both Albon and Verstappen are part of the reason why Formula One doesn’t really need Alonso anymore.
They are both under 25 years old, as are Charles Leclerc, Esteban Ocon, Lando Norris and George Russell, while Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz remains one of the younger drivers on the grid having just tipped over that age barrier. Together, they are the new breed of F1 that have brought life to a championship that has been dominated by one man for the last three years, and who in the right car may just be able to challenge the stranglehold that Hamilton has on the sport.
Alonso is a supreme driver, better than most on the planet, but he has done little in F1 in the last decade to warrant another tilt at the top. But his arrival blocks a seat on the grid for one of those talented youngsters coming through, one of which will be the eventual successor to Hamilton as the king of F1.
That fault lies with Renault, who hold two very promising youngsters within their academy in F2 drivers Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard, and who are now almost certain to miss out on F1 in 2021 if Renault stick by their word with Mercedes’s on-loan driver Ocon alongside Alonso.
With Sebastian Vettel also likely to be floating around on the free driver agency, teams face a conundrum over experience and world titles versus the exciting yet untested characteristic of youth. The evidence so last weekend suggests that its the latter that makes the sport more watchable and more appealing, and that could well prove to be the case once again this weekend.