Alonso’s car had damage. A lot of damage. The entire right side of his floor was compromised from dragging on the ground, his suspension suffered a major bang, and he was also carrying barge board damage from the impact with Sirotkin. Yet, and I cannot emphasize this enough, Alonso finished well in the points. Compare Alonso’s performance to Kevin Magnussen who also damaged his car on Lap 1. The Haas is objectively better than the McLaren (both Haas’s have out qualified the McLarens in three of the four opening rounds), and yet Magnussen was only able to finish in 13th, last of the cars still running at the end. Yes, without the crashes of the two Red Bulls, Hulkenberg, and Bottas, Alonso would have likely finished outside the points, but the fact remains he beat plenty of cars that were undamaged, but piloted by lesser drivers.
Alonso is one of those drivers who can take a car and make it go faster than it was ever intended. Those drivers are very rare: Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna, AJ Foyt, Sebastian Loeb, Alex Zanardi…all iconic names in the world of motorsport. These are the drivers who could take a mediocre car and win with it. These are the drivers who could find half a second when others were scrambling for hundredths. Alonso has been buried in the pack with crappy cars for years and it is easy to forget he has pulled off some amazing drives in his career. I think running in the Indy 500 really gave him perspective after four dismal years in F1. It was a good reminder that racing can be enjoyable and that he is still really freaking good at it. This year, he has the WEC to look forward to, a new way to challenge himself. Far from taking his focus away from F1, I think these outside challenges have both sharpened Alonso’s skills and given him an outlet for his frustrations in F1, helping to rebuild his confidence. McLaren is getting better, Alonso is better than ever, and it really is only a matter of time before he wins again. And while it’s impossible to predict when and where it will happen, I think it is safe to say that whatever race Alonso finally wins, will be one to go down in the history books.
Lady Luck is a Fickle Mistress
In Australia, I made the claim that luck was one of Ferrari’s strengths in 2018. That held up in Bahrain, but in China, Ferrari got thumped in the pits by bad timing of the Safety Car. Vettel also got thumped on track by Max Verstappen when Max went for his ambitious pass. In Baku, Vettel once again had the race in hand, but Ferrari went conservative on strategy and pitted him before Valtteri Bottas. This allowed Mercedes to stretch Bottas long enough to use the Ultra Softs, irregardless of a Safety Car. The Safety Car all but guaranteed that Bottas would get a track position advantage, so Ferrari gambled poorly here. Then, Vettel’s lockup into Turn 1 after the restart assured he would miss out on the podium again.
Of course Lady Luck also gave Mercedes mixed fortunes. Bottas’ awful luck (hitting a piece of debris and blowing out his tire with only 3 laps to go) ruined what could have been a magical comeback for Mercedes. Bottas’ misfortune opposed Lewis Hamilton, who inherited the lead and went on to win his first race of the year.
Of course nobody had worse luck than Red Bull Racing in Baku. Well except for maybe Haas. Once again, Haas looked strong early on and were very competitive. Also, once again both Haas’ ended the day in pieces. Kevin Magnussen collided with Pierre Gasly and broke his barge boards, limiting the Dane’s pace. As we said earlier, 13th was the best Magnussen could muster. Meanwhile, Romain Grosjean was having a stellar day, running in 8th, right along with eventual podium winner Sergio Perez. Under the Red Bull’s Safety Car, Grosjean lost it and went into the wall, ending his own day. This leads to an interesting question: had Grosjean been following Perez at the restart (instead of sulking in the pits), could Grosjean have landed on the podium? It’s a likely possibility after all. Distracted with Vettel, Grosjean could have pulled off a pass that nicked both Vettel and Perez, leaving the Haas to take home its first podium. Instead, Haas finished the day with both cars out of the points again. And of course while the Haas team was shaking their collective heads, Force India and Perez were absolutely jumping with joy as they lucked their way onto their first podium in two years.
Spain brings the return of the “traditional” calendar, aka the European swing and the tracks F1 fans really know and love. More importantly, Spain is where teams bring their first major update packages. In 2017, Spain was the race where RBR figured out the RB13 and Ricciardo began his 5-race podium streak. So who is going to make a big leap in 2018? I’ve got my eye on McLaren. McLaren has made it clear that Spain would be the race they brought a major update package to eek more speed out of the MCL33. Alonso has shown great race pace and with an improved car could actually start challenging the front runners with a bit of luck. No, he’s not going to steal a win (but dear God if he does, the Spanish fans will make Philadelphia after this year’s Super Bowl look tame) and even a podium seems like a long shot, but if McLaren’s long awaited update does the job, he could be on the road ahead of a Red Bull or Fezza when the checkered flag falls. Speaking of Red Bull, I have my eye on them to be the team to beat. Spain is a track that suits their car, much like China did. Also like China, Ferrari and Mercedes will be the ones to beat and any of the six drivers who represent those teams could pull off the win. The season started off a little slow with Australia and Bahrain, but China and Azerbaijan have been much livelier and Spain should be more of the same. 2018 is turning out to be a season that’s both great on paper AND on track, so tune in on May 13 for the Spanish GP and later that week for more Curly’s Corner!