Just how good is Fernando Alonso?
Currently, he is sharing the championship lead in the 2012 Formula One season and no one can adequately explain why.
Or can they?
Okay, a guy with two world championships under his belt is obviously not a complete dud, but I suspect we can all name drivers who secured a world championship more by virtue of the car they were in, rather than their ability to drive it.
Even Felipe Massa almost achieved it in 2008!
On the flip side, we can all name drivers who should have won a championship, but never did—Stirling Moss being the obvious example.
So world championships are not a perfect measure of driver ability although, to be fair, the best drivers do get the opportunity to drive the best cars.
A better measure is perhaps how they perform in a substandard car.
Ayrton Senna made his name wrestling his Toleman to points and podium finishes in his inaugural 1984 season thus securing his seat in a Lotus.
Michael Schumacher secured third place in the 1992 championship with a conventional Benetton-Ford against Williams cars with the superlative Renault engine, semi-automatic gearboxes and active suspension.
This year Alonso is doing the same with a car that arguably isn’t worthy of the prancing horse badge on its nose.
This season, he has finished every race in the points, a feat only equaled by Lewis Hamilton, and has managed to win the rain affected Malaysian Grand Prix and pulled a brilliantly driven second place in Spain.
The car that he is driving is far inferior to the McLaren and Red Bull cars and has been outperformed by Mercedes, Renault, Sauber and Williams. Ferrari made a big step forward in Spain, but still Alonso is not competing on a level playing field.
While his talent is on show for all to see, he is not without some rough edges.
He can be something of a prima donna, and it’s not uncommon to see him gesticulating wildly at anyone who gets in his way—as Charles Pic found out at the Spanish GP.
And who can forget him driving around Abu Dhabi behind Vitaly Petrov in 2010? His frustration was on public display as his championship chances simply evaporated as the then Renault driver held him at bay and he finished four points behind Sebastian Vettel.
He brake-tested a Red Bull test driver Robert Doornbos in free practice at the 2006, but recently had the gall to complain that F1 drivers don't show each other enough on-track respect.
Alonso has managed to get himself caught up in some of the sports’ biggest controversies over the past few years. From “crashgate” in Singapore, to “spygate” (why do we insist on putting “-gate” on the end of anything with a hint of conspiracy about it?) between McLaren and Ferrari, Fernando has been front and centre, but no mud has managed to stick.
Perhaps having Flavio Briattore as a manager doesn’t give him the best role model to aspire to.
He also has a reputation for not playing well with others. His 2007 season at McLaren was overshadowed by his rivalry with a glamorous rookie by the name of Lewis Hamilton. Alonso maintained that Hamilton was receiving preferential treatment from the team.
His personality seems to demand that he be the undisputed No. 1 driver in whatever team he blesses with his presence. He had that at Renault and has it now at Ferrari.
Perhaps that’s the reason that there is a huge disparity between himself and the other driver in the team. For the past two seasons, Alonso has finished over 100 points ahead of teammate Felipe Massa.
Okay, Massa’s performance doesn’t set a particularly high benchmark, but this year he is 59 points ahead after only five races!
And that, after all, is the point.
He may have almost no chance of maintaining his lead too far into this season, but he won’t stop trying and no-one on the grid will underestimate him.
Despite being lumbered with what is unquestionably an inferior car, he manages to get the very best possible performance out of it every race.
That’s what teams need, that’s what makes a champion and that’s what makes Fernando Alonso one of the most formidable drivers ever to sit in an F1 car’s cockpit.