Fernando Alonso said that overtaking Lewis Hamilton on the first lap after the Sao Paulo Grand Prix restarted was the key to him eventually finishing third
They really broke the mould when they made Fernando Alonso.
At 42, the Spaniard continues to set standards few other drivers can achieve, and to which so many have to aspire. And in the Sao Paulo Grand Prix he produced another extraordinary performance to burnish the legend of one of the greatest drivers in history.
There have been a few of those this year, particularly in the first part of the season, when Alonso’s return to the front with the newly competitive Aston Martin team was in many ways the story of 2023.
But this race to third place behind Max Verstappen and McLaren’s Lando Norris was as good as any. It was nothing less than a masterclass, and up there with some of the best of his career. And there have been plenty of those already.
This one contained 16 laps of exceptionally intelligent defensive driving, fending off the Red Bull of Sergio Perez for most of the final stint of the race even though the Mexican had use of the DRS overtaking aid the whole time.
Then, when Perez finally found a way past at the start of the penultimate lap, Alonso fought back. This time his guile was applied in attack, enhanced with a dash of bravery, and he reclaimed the position at Turn Four on the last lap.
“The last lap, overtaking him was quite a lot of commitment,” Alonso said. “We were both all or nothing in a few corners.”
Even then, there was work to do. Perez tried again, drafting Alonso up the pit straight to the line, which they crossed 0.053 seconds apart.
Perez, lest we forget, is driving the car in which Max Verstappen is smashing all records this year, and in which on Sunday he took his 17th win, ensuring that he will end 2023 with the most dominant season in F1 history by every possible measure. Alberto Ascari’s 75% win percentage for Ferrari in 1952 is the latest standard to fall.
Alonso celebrated with his Aston Martin team like a madman – as well he might, for this result came at the end of a difficult run for the team, who had slumped alarmingly after their lead driver scored six podiums in the first eight races of the season.
But talking about his race, he was modest and matter of fact.
Alonso stopped for that final stint just a lap after Perez, who rejoined just over three seconds adrift. Six laps later, the Red Bull was on the Aston Martin’s tail, and there were still 17 laps to go. Surely Alonso was done for?
More often than not in Brazil, once a car gets the DRS, it will get by, especially if it is fundamentally faster, as the Red Bull is compared with the Aston Martin.
But no. Alonso started experimenting with his lines, and deploying his battery strategically, and somehow he kept the Red Bull behind.
“When you run just in front of another car,” Alonso said, “you have better downforce and clean air and that was maybe good for me in terms of tyre management, and he was struggling to be close to me in Turns 10, 11 and 12. That was the game we were playing. Those three corners were crucial for the overtaking opportunity, and being the car in front you have better grip always.
“So I was just making sure I did not make a mistake in those three corners because otherwise Checo would be too close.
“And I was using (battery) energy on the straights to make sure he had no opportunity.
“And changing lines sometimes – I didn’t want to be always on the same line. From time to time on the inside, from time to time on the outside, so it was not a clear direction for him to change the line and take the opportunity for some clean air. I was trying to get some turbulence on his front nose.”
For 10 laps or so, it worked. Then with five laps to go, Alonso figured it was time to try to open a bit of a gap, use up some of the tyre life he believed he had been saving compared with his rival.
“It was more difficult than I thought,” Alonso said. “Five laps from the end, I thought I had things under control, so I started pushing. But I looked in the mirrors and Checo was there and I thought ‘Oh, oh. He will be a strong contender for the podium.’ He was also driving a clever race looking after his tyres.”
With three laps to go, Perez made his move, and he finally got close enough to Alonso out of Turn 12 to pass him into Turn One at the start of the penultimate lap.
That looked to be that. But that idea was counting without the lion inside Alonso.
He backed out of a move into Turn Four that lap, aware he was not quite close enough. Then tried again around the outside of Turn Six – where 12 years ago he had passed Jenson Button’s McLaren when driving for Ferrari. Now there was just one lap to go.
“I thought that maybe my chances were gone in Turn Six,” Alonso said. “I went to the outside to change line and I went on to the marbles (bits of used up rubber and dirt off line) and the tyres were dirty and vibrating.
“But then I wanted to have one more chance into (Turn) One or Four with DRS, maybe braking very aggressive and very late.
“I think he understood that, so he braked late at One, missed the apex by one metre and that gave me the run into Four. Unexpected, to be honest. When I lost the place, I thought it was gone.”
Was there a move he was particularly proud of, either in defence or attack, he was asked? The answer gave an insight into his holistic view of a grand prix, one of the many strengths of his formidable armoury.
“The most important overtaking of the race was to (Lewis) Hamilton into Turn Four on lap one,” he said, referring to the pass that got him into third place at the restart after the race was stopped for a first-corner pile-up.
“That changed my race. If I start P4 and I have to fight with Hamilton in the first stint, even if I can eventually get him from lap 10 or whatever, my tyres will never be in a condition to extend the first stint and then have a tyre advantage to Checo in the second stint and third stint.
“So for me there is one crucial moment of my race and it’s lap one, into Turn Four with Hamilton.”
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Was this Alonso’s best ever drive? Everyone will have their favourites.
Alonso’s own is his victory from 11th on the grid in Valencia in 2012 for Ferrari.
There’s also Malaysia that year in the wet. And Singapore in 2010, holding off Sebastian Vettel’s faster Red Bull all race.
Or Japan 2008 for Renault, when he took control of strategy from the cockpit to beat Robert Kubica’s BMW.
Or Nurburgring 2007 in a McLaren, passing Felipe Massa’s Ferrari around the outside in the wet in the closing laps to win.
Baku in 2017 can’t be ignored, when he took a McLaren missing great chunks of its floor to seventh place from the back of the field after a first-lap crash.
To many, Brazil 2023 reminded them of Imola 2005, when early in his first championship year with Renault he held off Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari despite his engine running without a cylinder.
But Alonso said: “It was easier in 2005 because there was no DRS.”
In this case, one can’t ignore the fact that he’s still capable at 42 of the sorts of things he was doing when he was 25 or 30. He’s been saying for a while that age is irrelevant for him, and he keeps on proving himself right.
A welcome return to form
Fernando Alonso celebrates with the Aston Martin team after his first podium since the Dutch Grand Prix in August
Alonso and Perez were followed across the line just under seven seconds back by the second Aston Martin of Lance Stroll.
The Canadian, who started one place ahead of Alonso in third but dropped behind him at the start, emerged from his final pit stop – made five laps after Alonso’s – 14 seconds back from his team-mate but his fresher tyres combined with the battle for third allowed him to make up some ground.
The result confirmed a revival for the team who have slumped so badly in the past couple of months that they appeared lost – McLaren’s Lando Norris joked a couple of races ago that “every upgrade they have introduced has made them worse”.
The previous two races in the US and Mexico were especially bad, the car among the slowest in the field in qualifying, quite the turnaround for a team who started the year with the second fastest car on balance.
But on Thursday in Brazil, Alonso was talking about taking the best bits of all the new parts and having a weekend focused on performance rather than experimentation. And the turnaround was dramatic.
Aston Martin’s result in locking out the second row was partly influenced by going out early as the blackest of storm clouds and high winds closed on the track at the start of final qualifying on Friday. But the car was clearly much more competitive in Brazil than it has been at any point in the past two months, other than in Qatar four races ago, where Alonso qualified fourth, but Stroll was knocked out in the first part of qualifying.
“We have been struggling for a few months,” Alonso said, “but the last two races were quite painful. We had to experiment on a few things to understand what direction we were going, and for next year as well.
“In Mexico we were very slow. But it was nice to see everyone in the team very focused. The determination was so nice to see, and to go deep in the analysis and get back stronger here.
“I was a little bit concerned for this final part of the championship and now I cannot wait to go to Vegas (for the penultimate race on 17-19 November).
“It is a very different energy when you have a performing car. There are a couple of things that have been understood inside the team in the direction to go.
“We had some hopes for this race and they proved to be right. Why not to be competitive in the last two?”
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