Thirty-five years ago this month, Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux produced one of the greatest moments in Formula One history. During the French Grand Prix at Dijon, they fought an epic, all-out, wheel-to-wheel battle over the final laps of the race—for second place.
In the words of Ricky Bobby's father, "If you ain't first, you're last," and rarely has a second-place finish been as celebrated as Villeneuve's.
Last Sunday at the Hungaroring, though, Fernando Alonso put in an equally improbable second-place drive in a car that had previously finished as high as third only once. The importance of Alonso's race comes not from its drama—although the Hungarian Grand Prix had plenty of that—but from what it tells us about the Spaniard.
Unlike that venerable French Grand Prix, the Budapest race did not confirm Alonso's credentials as a fighter and a racer (we were reminded of those earlier this month at Silverstone), but it did demonstrate that Alonso is the best driver on the grid. Even at 33 years old, in his 13th F1 season, Alonso is a world-champion-calibre driver—if only he were not repeatedly let down by Ferrari.
Despite a massive budget, the Italian team has failed to give their star driver a car worthy of his talents since his arrival in Maranello in 2010.
That year, and in 2012, Alonso nearly managed to steal the Drivers' Championship from Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, but even those performances were in spite of his car, not because of it. In those two seasons, Alonso had 23 podium finishes while his teammate, Felipe Massa, had seven.
In Hungary, Alonso's epic drive was not rewarded as it should have been, with a race victory. Instead, despite driving nearly half the race on one set of soft tyres (32 of 70 laps) and putting in competitive lap times throughout, he was relegated to second place.
He could have finished lower, too. Were it not for Alonso's ability to protect his tyres while still flying around the track, the two Mercedes might also have found their way past.
So, why despite Ferrari's struggles, has Alonso repeatedly voiced his commitment to the Italian manufacturer? Surely the reported interest from McLaren must tempt him (or maybe not, coming from a team three spots behind Ferrari in the Constructors' standings).
The reason might have something to do with Villeneuve. Specifically, Alonso has not yet achieved the quasi-mythical status among Ferrari's rabid fans, the tifosi, that drivers like Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher have.
Yes, the tifosi love Alonso now, while he is driving their car, but he will not join the pantheon of all-time Ferrari greats without bringing a title back to Maranello.
Alonso's F1 legacy is already secure. He is a two-time world champion and fifth on the all-time win list. But the tifosi, the most passionate fanbase in the sport, don't care about Alonso's two titles with Renault. They want him to win one for them.
In the documentary 1, Schumacher admitted that he did not really understand the importance of Ferrari before he drove for the team. His five championships for the Scuderia cemented his legacy with the team's fans—a bond that was demonstrated by the outpouring of grief following Schumacher's skiing accident last year.
Alonso is aware of his legacy and, like many professional athletes, he has an ego that needs stroking. (If he didn't, he would not have authorised a museum exhibition celebrating his career while still an active driver.) Ferrari is the oldest and most successful team in the sport and Alonso told the BBC's Andrew Benson, "I know that winning with Ferrari will mean more than winning with another team."
That is why he is still in Maranello, despite so few signs that the team will be able to give him a championship-calibre car before the end of his career. Even if new team principal Marco Mattiacci's revamp of the team is successful, there is still a lot of ground for Ferrari to make up to catch Mercedes and Red Bull. And in that case, there could be many more races like the Hungarian Grand Prix in Alonso's future.
Alonso's performance in Hungary was amazing, but in the end, all it did was remind us that his talent is being wasted with Ferrari.
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