Some have dreaded this; others called for it to come sooner. Fernando Alonso is finally throwing in the towel at the age of 37, with two Formula 1 titles and 32 wins under his belt. Undeniably one of the greatest drivers to have ever graced an F1 grid, he has just nine races remaining on motorsport’s top rung. We’ll likely still see him racing over in the World Endurance Championship, of course, where he is already competing in the full 2018 calendar alongside his F1 duties. But his departure from the circus is a curious tale of what-ifs and close runs. Two championship wins ought to be sufficient for anyone - and yet, in many ways, Alonso bows out with his potential unfulfilled.
Lest we forget this is a man who came within a handful of points of the title on three occasions. He could have so easily been a four or five-time champion with a CV to rival Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and maybe even Michael Schumacher. But the second half of his 18-season-long career hasn't provided him with a car consistently strong enough to chase another title. The last quarter has has been plagued by poor fortune resulting from an unsuccessful switch into an under-performing McLaren. Remember when he was nicknamed ‘the saddest man in F1’?
Consequently, Alonso will go down in history as one of the greatest as much for his perseverance as for the few years he spent at the sharp end of the field. He would likely agree that it was the years spent piloting a blue and yellow Renault that most clearly illustrated his ability to compete with the most talented racing drivers on the planet. Alonso dominated in 2005 when driving the V10-engined R25 to his first title just four years into his F1 career. But 2006 featured possibly his most audacious performance when he came out on top after an intense two-way fight for the title with seven-time-champ Michael Schumacher, then at Ferrari.
Arguably 2007 was a low point in Alonso’s career as a result, despite the fact that the then McLaren driver finished joint runner up and just a point from champion Kimi Räikkönen. Alonso appeared visually frustrated by his rookie teammate Lewis Hamilton, and while we’ll probably never fully understand how the friction between the pair played out in the pit lane, occasionally he let his emotions slip. Alonso openly complained of an internal favouritism towards Hamilton - although some critics suggested he was just angry at not being able to beat a newcomer.
Either way, his dissatisfaction at the Woking-based team spurred a return to Renault, but his former employer's cars were not competitive enough and it wasn’t until Alonso shifted to Ferrari in 2010 that he was again able to mount a championship charge. Alonso came within four points of champion Sebastien Vettel of Red Bull that year; he came closer still in 2012 when Vettel pipped him to the title by three points. 2013 was another runner up year, showing how often he came close to securing the ultimate glory for a season, even when not provided with the fastest car on the grid.
Alonso’s career turned towards its current path when he made a switch to McLaren as it reunited with engine supplier Honda in the latest V6 turbo era. The switch was understandable. McLaren and Honda were synonymous with Aryton Senna’s most dominating years in F1, which occurred during the last turbo period. History - if not of the recent sort - had shown that the Japanese manufacturer knew how to make forced induction engines of the race winning sort, and was in no way short of cash to repeat the feat. Alonso likelyshared the common belie; that McLaren-Honda had the potential to produce an almost unbeatable package.
Who could have guessed instead that Alonso would be left trundling around in unreliable, off-the-pace cars. Jenson Button, his teammate in 2015 and 2016, accepted his fate and retired apparently content with just the one title next to his name (from that memorable 2009 season at Brawn). But Alonso never stopped believing that his was every bit as fast as his younger self, and his frustration at not being able to prove it at the front of the grid showed. To add insult to injury, his former colleagues at Ferrari were the ones to produce a car capable of challenging Mercedes. What a shame we never got to see the Spanish driver turn into the biggest headache for the Silver Arrows, instead of languishing mid table.
Class, of course, is permanent though, and, as with all great drivers, Alonso still occasionally managed things in an uncompetitive car that no mere mortal could replicate. His reputation in the pit lane was undiminished, and if his career seems unfulfilled, then it is a reminder that foresight, prescient negotiation and a healthy quota of good fortune remain almost as valuable in F1 as raw ability. Even as it's turned out, it's not all doom and gloom. He won at Le Mans earlier this year with Toyota Gazoo Racing, a squad that recently reaffirmed its commitment to the WEC, and is leading the championship with his teammates Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi. And Alonso still has his sights set on that triple crown, too - which might just mean an extended stint in Indy car for the former champion.
Either way, we have not seen the last of Alonso - and while one lengthy chapter comes to a close, he will rightly think the pages of history still open.