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Alonso - how the dream came undone 24 Oct 2007

Fernando Alonso (ESP) McLaren Mercedes 
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race Day, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, 21 October 2007 Fernando Alonso (ESP) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, Hungarian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, 4 August 2007 Fernando Alonso (ESP) McLaren is interviewed by the media.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 13, Italian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Monza, Italy, Saturday, 8 September 2007 Fernando Alonso (ESP) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22 celebrates his pole position
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, Hungarian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, 4 August 2007 Fernando Alonso (ESP) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22 locks up under braking.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, European Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Nurburgring, Germany, Saturday, 21 July 2007

Amid the razzamatazz of McLaren’s 2007 launch party back in January, the one thing that stood out was just how calm Fernando Alonso looked. After two world-championship winning years at Renault, he’d have been forgiven for seeming a little nervous about the prospect of defending his title with a new team, but in Valencia, Alonso was all smiles.

Indeed so convinced was the Spaniard that he had made the right move at the right time, he was even cautiously looking forward to cementing his reputation with a third consecutive title. With Michael Schumacher out of the picture and the McLaren already looking quick, few observers doubted he could pull it off. The reality, however, would prove much less straightforward, with a season that would evolve into arguably the toughest test of his career.

Firstly there was the stellar performance of his team mate Lewis Hamilton to contend with. No one, especially Alonso, had expected Hamilton to be such a strong competitor and having never faced such rivalry in any previous team, the reigning champion looked a little spooked.

Of course, the inconsistency of Alonso’s early McLaren outings - there were some uncharacteristic unforced errors - may have been down simply to the demands of settling into a new team, but whatever the cause, in the face of Hamilton’s rock-solid performances, the Spaniard’s title defence looked somewhat shaky.

Yes he won races - his Monaco victory was a particular high point - but there were also a few too many disappointments. Indeed, seventh in Montreal was his lowest placing since 2005. Cumulatively it meant that by mid-season he was languishing 14-points adrift of his rookie team mate. For the first time in his Formula One career Alonso was on the back foot and he didn’t seem to be enjoying the sensation.

As the title began slipping from his grasp, the relationship between Alonso and McLaren suffered, the two parties increasingly at odds with each other. The now notorious qualifying incident in Hungary and its aftermath appeared to be just the tip of a very large (and increasingly frosty) iceberg. And when it emerged that emails between Alonso and test driver Pedro de la Rosa had formed part of the evidence in the McLaren-Ferrari ‘spy scandal’, the media quickly branded him a ‘traitor’.

Rather than an impediment, however, the very public breakdown of relations seemed to smooth the progress of Alonso’s title hopes; forcing him to refocus on his original goal and draw on his own reserves to up his game. Several authoritative performances later - including victories at Monza and the Nurburgring - and Alonso’s hit rate was going rapidly upwards.

The upshot was that he gradually closed in on Hamilton’s lead. Looking more and more like the driver who had bettered Schumacher the year before, Alonso’s decisiveness, ruthlessness and speed saw him reel in his upstart team mate. As if to prove his point, after his rare slip-up in the wet Japanese event, he got right back in the saddle and drove a sterling race to second in China, keeping himself in title contention for the final round.

In Brazil too, he showed why he’s a double world champion. As Hamilton’s youthful impetuosity got the better of him at the start, Alonso kept his head and did everything right. But even he was powerless against the speed of Ferrari and the other recovering driver in the mix, Kimi Raikkonen. Thus was lost the chance to achieve something even Schumacher never managed - match Fangio’s feat of consecutive titles with different teams.

There is little doubt that Alonso will return much stronger in 2008, though whether it will be with McLaren remains to be seen. A great driver is not just someone who can win, but someone who can take on adversity and triumph over it, and this season Alonso has proven he can do just that. If and when his next driver title comes along, it will no doubt be all the sweeter for it.