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Assuming he features in every Formula One grand prix this year, Fernando Alonso will become the first driver to surpass 400 race starts at December’s Qatar Grand Prix.
The two-time world champion’s career has been extraordinary on so many levels, in no small part down to his longevity. Twenty-three years after his first F1 preseason, he’s back for more.
Speaking ahead of his first runout in the new Aston Martin AMR24 car on Monday at Silverstone, Alonso reported feeling the fittest he has been, saying the numbers in all his physical tests “were the best ever this year.”
It means even at 42, Alonso is giving thought to his future. After the rush of podiums in his first season at Aston Martin, immediately justifying his decision to leave Alpine, Alonso is going into the second and final year of his contract. And in the wake of Lewis Hamilton’s shock decision to join Ferrari, a Mercedes seat is up for grabs amid a fluid driver market.
It makes Alonso a key player and, as he knows all too well, an attractive option.
“There are only three world champions on the grid,” Alonso said. “And there is only one available.”
No sign of slowing down
Signing Alonso was a huge coup for Aston Martin and its billionaire owner, Lawrence Stroll, who has set about creating the next great F1 team. His performances last year, ranging from his challenge to Max Verstappen in Monaco to the last-lap overtake on Sergio Pérez in Brazil, served as reminders of his enduring quality.
Even so, Alonso has always known time is not on his side. Few drivers race beyond their late 30s, let alone at the front of the grid. A driver in their 40s hasn’t won a grand prix since Nigel Mansell in 1994. It’s for that reason Alonso has spoken about helping build Aston Martin up for the future while not necessarily being the person to fully achieve that success. He’s unwilling to race if he’s not able to give total dedication and commitment. Even with those still in place, he must give extra thought and effort to his training and conditioning.
Alonso hired a nutritionist to work as part of his team this winter, helping him make “better changes” with his food intake. He suggested he could lean towards a plant-based diet, a switch Hamilton made six years ago. He’s also planning to reduce extra time away from home at races this year, particularly around the flyaways, given the demands of the 24-race calendar.
The fact he is still racing at such a high level surprises even Alonso, who thought a few years ago that 41 or 42 would be the limit. “After I saw myself last year, motivated and performing well, I was thinking maybe that I can keep racing a few more years,” Alonso said. “Now this winter, I’ve been exceeding a little bit the expectations in terms of all the physical tests and everything that I did.”
It means Alonso is not treating 2024 as his final season in F1. Although he emphasized the sacrifices that come with the sport — “you have to give up everything in life” — and his desire to have more time for life away from racing, he’s still thinking about his on-track future.
“Everything that I did in the last few months was just to prepare myself better than ever for a very long season, and to prepare myself in case I want to keep driving, being better than ever,” Alonso said.
“I’m preparing for that in the eventuality I want to keep racing, and if I want to keep racing, let’s see what the options are.”
The open Mercedes seat
At the start of 2024, there was little reason to think Alonso would consider leaving Aston Martin. He’s clearly happy and in fine form, and is confident the team has remedied the dip in car performance through the second half of last year as rivals caught up.
But now there is a seat with Mercedes on offer, and Alonso is undoubtedly going to be a name in contention.
As he noted, he’s the only world champion on the grid (the others being Hamilton and Verstappen) who is a free agent for 2025. “I know that I have a privileged position,” Alonso said. “I’m probably attractive to other teams, (with) the performance that they saw last year, the commitment.” Signing him would not come without its risk, given his age and reputation for turbulent relationships, as seen at Ferrari and McLaren in the past. But he’s not wrong about his appeal.
Alonso sees any decision about his future coming in three stages. First, he needs to work out whether he wants to keep racing, the answer to which will surely be yes. Then he’d sit down with Aston Martin, with whom he would “love to continue with this project” considering its progress. “We did a good step forward in the last year, we built a lot of things together,” he said. “We have this new facility here, we have everything to succeed for the future, and I trust this project. So that will be my first priority.”
Alonso is also Aston Martin’s first priority. “We love Fernando, we have a very good relationship with Fernando, we have a relationship whereby he is an integral member of the team,” said team principal Mike Krack.
“We have a relationship that is based on trust and openness. And we will be delighted, honestly, to continue with Fernando into ‘25 and the years after.”
If no agreement could be found? That would lead to stage three, only at which point would Alonso start to explore alternative options. He denied there had been any contact with Mercedes, although neither party needs to be in any rush, putting them on similar timelines were the German team to consider a shock swoop. It wouldn’t be a move without risk for Alonso were Mercedes to make a move, given it hasn’t been a regular contender for wins in two years now, but it is fiercely committed in its rebuild toward a championship bid.
Curiously, Flavio Briatore, a key player throughout Alonso’s career, posted a picture on Instagram this morning with Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, at breakfast in Monaco.
Alonso and Hamilton have experienced a fierce rivalry at points in their career, most famously in their ill-fated season as teammates at McLaren in 2007, Hamilton’s rookie year. Alonso admitted he was surprised by the move to Ferrari. “It seemed like he was very linked with Mercedes and very loyal to them and things like that,” he said. “It was a little bit unexpected.” He did think the seven-time world champion might be able to lift Ferrari into a place where it could fight for a championship.
But he doubted Hamilton’s claim that the move was fuelled by a “childhood dream” to race for Ferrari.
“It was not his childhood dream 12 months ago or two months ago, I guess, because it was a different dream,” Alonso said. “Nothing (more) really to comment. I hope he enjoys the experience.
“I think it’s a very special team, but yeah. It is more special when you win.”
Can Alonso win with Aston Martin?
Breaking through to score his 33rd win, and a first since Spain 2013, would be a huge moment for Alonso and his legion of fans. While the answer to ¿Como 33? grew closer in the early part of last year, Aston Martin’s midseason downturn and eventual slump to fifth in the championship dimmed those hopes.
The team is optimistic the AMR24 car will resolve the weaknesses of its predecessor, particularly in a straight line where it proved far too draggy on some high-speed layouts.
Dan Fallows, Aston Martin’s technical director, was “very pleased” with the step made in the car performance over the winter. The team focused on creating a solid platform for the upgrades to follow, setting a development path it hopes will avoid the backward slide of last year.
“We’re really into finding lap time now from things that are smaller details, the more kind of detailed elements of the floor and other parts of the car, but there’s still a lot of lap time to come,” Fallows said.
“And we take the approach that Red Bull are absolutely beatable. That’s what we’re chasing after, we’re focusing on them, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Aston Martin will also hope for a step forward from Lance Stroll, whom Alonso outscored 206 points to 74 last year. Stroll acknowledged there was room for improvement, but felt there was “a lot of misfortune last year”, starting with sustaining wrist fractures and a broken toe in a preseason cycling accident. He’s running a lot this year to prepare for the new season, conscious of avoiding any injuries. “My apartment is stacked with pillows, and I’m not allowed to leave!” Stroll joked.
Yet it is Alonso who will likely lead Aston Martin’s efforts once again in 2024. Although he was pleased to hear Fallows had put Red Bull in the team’s crosshairs, the Spaniard said progression had to be gradual.
“We have to be a regular in the points first, fighting for podiums, so be a contender for podiums as we did last year,” Alonso said.
“Then if we are in that position, yeah, it will be lovely to achieve the first victory in green for Aston Martin. Hopefully I can be behind the wheel at that moment.”
(Lead photo of Fernando Alonso: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto)