Alonso at Renault - joyful reunion or ill-fated return? 07 Mar 2008
The last time Fernando Alonso started a Formula One season behind the wheel of a Renault, he did so on a high. He had spent the winter basking in the glory of becoming the sports youngest ever champion, and returned to the grid in Melbourne safe in the knowledge that he had every chance of defending that title, a feat he went on to accomplish in style, depriving Michael Schumacher of a glorious swansong in the process.
Twenty four months later and Alonsos prospects for the season ahead look far less rosy. No one can take away those two world titles, but pundits who had once lauded the Spaniard as Schumachers spiritual successor are now asking whether the former champion really has what it takes to return to the very top after his bruising 2007 sabbatical with McLaren.
At the time, Alonsos switch to Woking, announced a full year in advance, seemed a wise one. He knew Renaults winning streak couldnt last forever and correctly foresaw McLarens fortunes on the rise. It appeared to be the kind of canny move only the best, or at least wisest, drivers pull off - one designed to keep him in the right place at the right time. It would also prove to his critics that he was no one-trick pony. Like Schumacher before him, with his Benetton-Ferrari move, Alonso knew that taking a third title with a new team would mark him out as one of the true greats.
Of course, it wasnt to be. Alonso, used to number-one status at Renault, was almost certainly aware of McLarens habit of treating drivers equally, but doubtless thought his talent would prevent it ever becoming an issue. The one factor he hadnt accounted for was Lewis Hamilton. The rest, as they say, is history. By the end of the season it was no secret that Alonsos marriage to McLaren was over and with Ferraris line-up already sorted, a Renault homecoming for 2008 always looked inevitable.
The trouble for Alonso is that while the surroundings may seem familiar, Renaults form of late has been rather different to that he was used to. While he was busy winning races with McLaren, his former team were struggling, despite being reigning champions. After working so closely with Michelin, the transition to Bridgestone tyres proved tricky and lead driver Giancarlo Fisichella could do nothing to stop the squad dropping down the grid. In fact, Renault appeared on the podium just once in 2007, a second place in Japan courtesy of Heikki Kovalainen. Now, with Fisichella and Kovalainen departed - the latter being neatly slotted into the void at McLaren - it once more falls to Alonso to spearhead Renaults attack.
But one man alone cannot drag a team back to the top. Alonso famously said he had found 0.6s in developing McLarens MP4-22, but he will have to find a great deal more if Renault are to challenge the silver cars and the Ferraris in Melbourne. Alonso, of course, is not alone. He is reunited with team principal Flavio Briatore, plus one of the best technical line-ups in the business, Pat Symonds, Bob Bell, Rob White et al, all of whom have taken on board the lessons of last year in the design and development of the new R28 - a very different car which in Alonsos hands already looks far more of a threat than its lacklustre predecessor. A threat to exactly whom, though, remains to be seen. Alonso has admitted he is not expecting early podiums, let alone wins (though some suspect he is merely out to play down expectations).
Is such an admission the sign of a man who has already conceded defeat, or merely that of a realist? There is no doubt Alonso would like to wreak revenge on McLaren and Hamilton. Whether he can do so will depend not only on the cars performance, but also on his own mental approach. If the R28 isnt quite up to the job, Alonsos championship hopes will hinge on him pushing the car beyond its innate abilities - something that requires not only large doses of talent, but equally large measures of motivation.
Alonso has proved in the past that he has plenty of both, though after last years dramas there will be those in the media eager to continue portraying him as a somewhat unhinged prima donna, only content when he can have everything his own way. They will suggest that Alonsos motivation will depend much upon how he is able - or allowed - to dominate new team mate Nelson Piquet Jr, like Hamilton a highly-rated rookie fresh from GP2. Such suppositions aside, common sense will surely dictate that Flavio Briatore bias his teams efforts towards his star driver - unless the R28 proves unexpectedly quick, it is his only hope of bringing a world title back to Enstone.
Whether Alonso is cosseted at Renault or not, the reality is that if he displays his true talent - to whatever effect - he is in a win-win situation. If the championship goes his way and he takes a third title, he will once more be heralded a legend. If it doesnt, then as long as he has put Piquet in his place and delivered results his car alone did not deserve, then his reputation will be revived. Pundits predict he already has his long-term future mapped out elsewhere and that only meeting strict performance criteria will allow Renault to retain him beyond 2008. One things for certain - whichever way you look at it, Alonso is now very much the master of his own destiny.