The Canadian GP weekend was basically about Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel coming to the party when it mattered most (in Qualifying) as he went on to win the race on Sunday, leading from start to finish. He wasn’t troubled all through the race, with his driver’s championship rival Lewis Hamilton limping home in fifth and giving back the top spot to the German. Vettel now leads the driver’s standings with just a point above Hamilton. But it was a very significant race for a particular Spaniard, the driver on the grid with the highest amount of race weekends, albeit ending in a disappointing DNF as he retired after 43 laps.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso became the fourth driver in history to appear in 300 or more F1 grands prix after Rubens Barrichello (326), Jenson Button (309) and Michael Schumacher (308). He had an exhaust failure, making this the eighth time he failed to finish at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Retiring in his 300th GP wasn’t what he hoped for, especially this season with a Renault engine, but he quickly switched his attention to Le Mans and his Triple Crown dream.
Alonso had caused some discomfort in the Formula 1 universe when he said after the Monaco GP that the race was “extremely boring” due to the processional nature of the race. And immediately after retiring from the Canadian GP, he jokingly said “Le Mans” when asked by a reporter what he wanted to talk about. He looked happy talking about flying to Me Mans that night and hoping for a good race that weekend for his Toyota team and when he was asked if he would be seen in the circuit racing in Formula 1 again, he said “We’ll see” and he spoke about finding more performance out of the car and reliability issues.
After a haul of just 32 points in 7 races, placing him seventh in the Drivers’ standings this season and the previous three seasons not going as planned, it seemed F1 began to bore the great Fernando. The feeling began to grow that this could be his last season in Formula 1.
The Le Mans 24 Hours offers the 36-year old a reprieve from another appalling Formula 1 season with McLaren, and the chance to show everyone that he’s still a top driver in a competitive car. It also gives Alonso an opportunity to write his name in the motorsport record books. With the withdrawals of Audi and Porsche, Toyota is the only manufacturer in the top LMP1 class and they stand a better chance of winning the race this year. If he is victorious at the Circuit de la Sarthe, he would also be just the sixth driver to have won both Le Mans and the Monaco GP. Graham Hill was the last man to do so in 1972, and he is the only man to have ever claimed motorsport’s iconic Triple Crown.
The big question in the minds and lips of F1 fans is: Will Alonso stay in F1 next season?
If the two-time world champion wins the Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend, many believe that he’ll push to sign an IndyCar deal. A Le Mans victory would leave just the Indy 500 on his Triple Crown to-do list and a full IndyCar season would be the best way to achieve that. Moreover, the MCL33 with its Renault engine has been seriously uncompetitive though finishing in the points in the first five races of this season. McLaren’s Honda-powered cars between 2015 and 2017 fared worse. Fernando’s controversial nature almost automatically rules him out of a drive in Formula 1 ‘big three’ teams also. But if he doesn’t win Le Mans this weekend, he may stay in F1. By the end of this year, he would pass Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button and trail only Rubens Barrichello’s 326 total Grand Prix entries.
His Indianapolis 500 appearance last year saw heavy interest in the competition from F1 fans worldwide. Alonsomania was a very real thing for the two weeks of build-up with the hype fully deserved. Rivals marveled at how quickly he’d got up to speed, with several observers in the Indianapolis paddock commenting that he looked more comfortable after seven days than some of his rivals did on their third or fourth visits to the track. There were lots of videos circulating the internet on the similarities and differences between an Indy car and Formula 1 car and we began to hear words like Dallara chassis, Firestone Firehawk tyres, push-to-pass system etc. for the first time. And during the race, the Spaniard’s aggression was on display as he seemed like a dark horse to win, making series of overtakes, before his engine gave up on him after 180 laps, with 20 laps remaining. Though he finished 24th, he led 27 laps, the third most of any driver on Sunday afternoon and was named as Rookie of the Year for that edition of the Indy 500. He obviously “didn’t miss Monaco” that weekend.
As Fernando Alonso pursues his Triple Crown dream in the Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend, everyone associated with F1 wishes him and his #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing teammates ex-F1 drivers Sebasiten Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima good luck and Godspeed. But one thing is certain: anywhere Fernando goes, F1 fans will be behind him.
By Ekwonye Osy Ernesto