Fernando Alonso and Ferrari: The grounds for divorce

With the Spanish driver now due to return to McLaren, EL PAÍS asks what went wrong

Luis Gómez
Spanish Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso.
Spanish Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso.Clive Rose (Getty Images)

It’s interesting to see how the exit of Fernando Alonso from Ferrari has been interpreted as a divorce by the specialized press. Given that Formula 1 is a sport where the difference between a good and a bad driver is measured in tenths of a second, where there are very few examples (that’s to say, practically none) of gentlemanly behavior on the track, and where you need to speak to engineers to understand what has happened in each race, describing a broken contract as a sentimental issue may appear excessive. But all of the experts who write about Formula 1 agree that Alonso was madly in love with Ferrari before he joined the team. It was a life ambition to race there. “I get up every morning with a smile on my face,” he said during his first year at the Maranello outfit.

But Alonso has left the Italian team sad. On the one hand he has been keen to justify his disappointment, and on the other, he has, with tears in his eyes, expressed his appreciation for the members of the team who worked with him over these years. He is conscious of the fact that he has given the best of himself – and the best of his years – to Ferrari. It’s a bit like a lover who tried everything, but just wasn’t loved back.

It’s a bit like a lover who tried everything, but just wasn’t loved back

Fernando Alonso’s World Championship titles are a thing of the past. Five years at Ferrari saw him finish runner-up on three occasions, but this year he failed to secure a single race win. And that’s where the problem lies. It has been eight years since he won his last championship, and in that time younger drivers have come on the scene and beaten or at least equaled his records. Sebastian Vettel has won four World Championships at the age of just 27. Lewis Hamilton has just won his second title at the age of 29, and next season the Briton will get back in a car that seems to be invincible. Fernando is 33. How many years does he have left as a genuine contender? The general consensus appears to be two more seasons. Those who are blindly confident in him say he is so exceptional that he will be able to prolong a little more the state of grace that allows him to take decisions at 300km/h while strapped into a seat that is little short of a torture chamber, given that he has to bear temperatures as high as 50ºC and his head has to support the weight of a nine-year-old child as he negotiates each corner. That’s what being a Formula 1 driver is all about.

This year has been all about a presaged divorce. Four years had passed since the days when Alonso would wake up with a smile. Back then he was living in Europe. Now he has moved to Abu Dhabi, not a common destination for Formula 1 drivers, where he lives in a luxury skyscraper in the company of his girlfriend, Russian model Dasha Kapustina, a relationship no one would have seen coming a few years ago. In a promotional video for Ferrari sponsors Santander, Alonso explains how living in Abu Dhabi saves him hours of plane travel, something of an advantage for a man now in his thirties. “I no longer have the body of a 19-year-old, who is not bothered by having to catch four planes to get to a race,” he explained. That decision is in keeping with his obsession for every little detail, and with his dedication to working toward becoming an exceptional driver.

Fernando Alonso with Santander President Emilio Botín in 2010.
Fernando Alonso with Santander President Emilio Botín in 2010.Jose María Rubio (EFE)

Alonso has also explained that his body is starting to show the effects of so many years of competition, and living in Abu Dhabi means he can swim and cycle outside every day. And, let’s face it, it also allows him to steer clear of the paparazzi, which is one of his major obsessions. A never-before-seen Alonso is happy to share private photos of himself and Kapustina via Twitter, which has become his official means of communication. Being the practical man he is, he ended up getting rid of his Instagram and Facebook accounts.

Alonso has created the image of being a difficult personality. Sources close to him recount how the fact he still maintains a close relationship with his childhood friends shows him to be a man of loyalty. Little is known of his real friends, though, given that he moves in a closed circle, far from the celebrities who visit him at races, who include King Juan Carlos.

I no longer have the body of a 19-year-old, who is not bothered by having to catch four planes to get to a race”

Alonso is not someone you want to have as your enemy, as was clear when in 2007 he decided he wanted out of McLaren, the team he is believed to be about to return to, despite having leveled some very serious accusations against the British outfit at the time. Journalists are divided into those who are on his blacklist, and those who aren’t. There is no middle ground. He went to huge lengths in 2006 to keep his wedding to Spanish singer Raquel del Rosario secret, and has been caught on camera before threatening photographers who have spotted him on vacation. These days, however, he appears more accessible and communicative, in spite of the pain of his divorce from Ferrari.

Fernando Alonso and girlfriend Dasha Kapustina.
Fernando Alonso and girlfriend Dasha Kapustina.Cordon press

What went wrong between Alonso and Ferrari? It’s not a case of being caught cheating: Ferrari did not approach another driver before it was sure Alonso was packing his bags. The problem is that while Alonso is an extraordinary driver, he is also known to make some bad decisions off the track. Ferrari had lost all of the structure that seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher had put together, and the rules of the sport were not favorable for him. Alonso didn’t see that coming. Ferrari had got stuck in the past, in spite of the fact that under the leadership of president Luca di Montezemolo, the company was beating records in terms of sales. But one thing is the marketing of road cars and another thing is the Formula 1 team. Montezemolo boosted profits by selling fewer cars, turning the brand’s models into something in the reach of fewer multi-millionaires, but those who were prepared to pay more for them. But that successful commercial strategy did little to help the team’s fortunes on the track. “Ferrari is a dream,” the president used to say at every event.

Alonso is not someone you want to have as your enemy, as was clear when he decided that he wanted out of McLaren

It was a dream for Alonso, too. He could have won the championship in 2010 and in 2012. But the overriding feeling was that Alonso was better than the machine he was driving. Every season, Alonso beat out his teammate. It happened with Felipe Massa and this year it was the same story with Kimi Raikkonen: Alonso outperformed him 16 times on the track.

Former world champion Niki Lauda said recently what a lot of other people were thinking: “Without Alonso, Ferrari would be nothing.” His efforts to improve the car were not compensated by the results of the engineers. The reality was that Ferrari had begun its period of decadence. It was an aristocrat with a great reputation in a period of turmoil. And Alonso, who was so desperate to be part of its legendary story, just couldn’t see that.

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