Saturday, 3 October 2009

Fernando Alonso: The Second Coming for Ferrari?

Ending months of mounting speculations and rumours, Ferrari finally confirmed this week that Spain's double World Champion Fernando Alonso will be joining the Maranello team from 2010. He will be partnering Felipe Massa, with the Brazilian set to make a comeback to Formula 1 for the beginning of the 2010 season after his horrendous crash during the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying. But speculations and rumours never stop in Formula 1, do they? Each time, they just take a different turn. Now the questions are already being asked, the expectations are mammoth, the inevitable comparisons have already started and everyone is wondering if Alonso can emulate or even beat Schumacher's record at Ferrari. Is Alonso the second coming for Ferrari?

Let us first have a brief look into Schumacher's career. After winning several karting championships in his childhood and teenage years followed by several sportscar championships and junior single-seater racing series, Michael Schumacher's Formula 1 breakthrough came in 1991 when he got involved with the JordanGP team and drove for them in the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. For the remaining five races of the season, Schumacher went on to the Benetton-Ford team. In 1992, the German won his first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, exactly one year after his debut and at a track that he later went on to describe as one of his favourites. He stayed with Benetton for the next three years. In 1994, Schumacher headed to the last race of the season in Australia with a single point lead in the Championship over his arch rival Williams driver Damon Hill. While leading the race on lap 36, Schumacher intentionally collided with Hill to stop the Briton from overtaking him, and thus forcing both of them out of the race. So he won that year's Driver's Championship with one point, which was not only his first of seven World Championships but also the first ever Formula 1 World Championship to be won by a German. In 1995, with the same Benetton team but now using Renault engines, Schumacher successfully defended his title, becoming the youngest two-time World Champion in Formula 1 history.

In the following year 1996, Schumacher moved to Ferrari, one year before his Benetton contract expired. Benetton was involved in a huge scandal in 1994 when the team was found to have an illegal 'launch control' in their cars. Citing the team's such damaging actions, Schumacher decided to terminate his contract a year early with Benetton and move to the legendary Italian team instead.

In spite of all the legend and history, Ferrari has had some very bad years in Formula 1 back then. Their last Drivers' World Championship was won by Jody Scheckter back in 1979, and their last Constructors' World Championship was won by the pair of Rene Arnoux and Patrick Tambay in 1983. However this was the beginning of a new era for Ferrari. In 1993 they hired a new team principal Jean Todt, who previously had a lot of success with the Peugeot Rally team in the World Rally Championships. In 1996, along with Schumacher, Rory Byrne who was chief designer at Benetton, and Ross Brawn who was Technical Director at Benetton, both came over to Ferrari. So came the change in Ferrari's fortunes.

Over the next few years, Schumacher fought very hard with the likes of Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen before he won his first title for Ferrari in 2000. That was Schumacher's third World Championship overall and Ferrari's first Drivers' title in 21 years. The year before that in 1999, Schumacher helped Ferrari win their first Constructors' title in 16 years. Schumacher's title win in 2000 did not come easy by any means. He fought with McLaren's Mika Hakkinen all year round up until the last race in Suzuka, where one of the best drives of his career saw the German clinch a very emotional World Championship win.

Hakkinen retired in 2001 but Schumacher went on to win four more consecutive titles in the next four years. At the end of 2004, Schumacher had won a world record seven Drivers' World Championship and helped Ferrari get a record fourteen Constructors' World Championship.

After Hakkinen retired, the dominant pace of the Ferrari cars and Schumacher's exquisite driving skills meant that he did not have much of a challenge in terms of winning the World Championships. That is, however, until Fernando Alonso arrived.

Alonso made his Formula 1 debut at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix with Minardi. Then fulfilling a role as full-time test driver for the Renault F1 team (that took over the former Benetton in 2000), Alonso was promoted to a race seat at Renault in 2003. He then became the youngest Formula 1 World Champion when he won the title in 2005. The next year, he fought very closely with Schumacher to retain his title. In the process, Alonso also broke Schumacher's record of youngest two-time Formula 1 World Champion.

After Schumacher retired at the end of 2006, Alonso spent one year at McLaren alongside the then rookie Lewis Hamilton. His relations with the team, and particularly with Hamilton and then team boss Ron Dennis turned very sour about halfway through 2007. At the end of the season, Alonso went back to Renault and has remained there until now.

We all know that Michael Schumacher is, statistically, the greatest ever Formula 1 driver. What is interesting is that Fernando Alonso is the only active driver in the sport who has beaten Schumacher two years back to back to win the World Championship. Even more interesting is the fact that Alonso comes in to Ferrari in very similar circumstances as to when Schumacher joined Ferrari. As mentioned above, Schumacher terminated his contract with Benetton (Renault's predecessor) one year early due to some damaging actions taken by the team. Alonso's switch to Ferrari comes just after the same Renault team had been brought into disrepute once again, this time thanks to their race-fixing scandal.

Another notable point is that when Schumacher came to Ferrari, he was seen as some sort of a saviour. The Maranello based outfit have had a slump for over a decade, and Schumacher seemed like the man to lift the team back up. Although in recent years Ferrari have shown anything but a slump in form, this year has been one of the worst for the Scuderia in almost three decades. Very eager to return back to top form for 2010, who does Maranello turn towards? It is of course, none other than our Spanish superstar Fernando Alonso.

It is because of these reasons why everyone is expecting Alonso to emulate Schumacher's success at Ferrari. It is no doubt that Alonso is one of the most talented and one of the most consistent drivers on the grid. He is very much capable of winning 5 World Championships in a row if given the right car, just like Schumacher did. However, the problems or the challenges come in the form of Alonso's opponents. Between 2000 and 2004, Ferrari were about the only team that had a car capable of winning World Championships. McLaren were a close second, but their performance was just not consistent or reliable enough. In 2005, when Ferrari struggled a little bit due to the poor Bridgestone tyres, Alonso and Renault (who were on the Michelin tyres) were fairly easily able to beat Schumacher and Ferrari. The Spaniard and his French team repeated the feat in 2006, however this time Ferrari contested much more closely. Unlike Schumacher in the early part of this decade, Alonso has many other rivals and teams that are also capable of winning World Championships. As long term title challengers, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and Alonso's next year Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa are all capable of challenging for the World Championship time and again.

Looking at the next few years, it seems unlikely that Ferrari will be able to continuously produce cars that dominate the rest of the field. BrawnGP, Red Bull Racing and McLaren-Mercedes are all very much capable of producing Championship winning cars. That is not to say that Alonso will be just another driver who drives for Ferrari. He is a legend in the making and will no doubt go on to win multiple World Championships for Ferrari to add to his tally of two. Question is, can Alonso win consecutive titles for Ferrari like Schumacher did? I think it will be nigh on impossible for Alonso to dominate like his German predecessor did. That is not just because of his opponents from rival teams, but because the challenge starts from within the house itself. Schumacher was the clear number one driver at Ferrari and his team mate Rubens Barrichello always played second fiddle to him. The team was pretty much ran around Schumacher. Barrichello was only there to support Schumacher's Championship efforts. Difference now for Alonso is that his new team mate from next year Felipe Massa is a worthy title contender himself. On top of that, since the retirement of previous team principal Jean Todt, the current Ferrari team principal has clearly shown that he does not support the number one driver scenario. Stefano Domenicali has said time and again that both drivers will get equal treatment, just like Massa and Raikkonen had equal treatment from the team over the last couple of years.

Over the next few years, I can see Massa and Alonso pushing each other hard and in the process taking turns to win World Championships. However, I cannot see how any one driver on the current grid can get the chance to dominate like Schumacher did in his hey day. On top of that, just to account the sheer number of records that Schumacher has broken will mean it will take any driver years to even come close to those records, let alone beating the records!

So Alonso alongside Massa at Ferrari is a very exciting prospect, but the legendary German's records will be staying intact at least for a few more years.

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