The title is a bit strange isn’t it. How can the late Canadian and the currently racing Spaniard be similar? But Gilles Villeneuve and Fernando Alonso are similar. To prove my point we’ll have to go back to the 80s.
The year was 1980. The year of the dread Ferrari 312T5. Last year’s T4 had been a success, with Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve first and second in the world championship. But time caught up with the lightly developed T5.
Pioneered by the Lotus 79, an effective ‘ground-effect’ chassis was by now essential for competitiveness. But the shape of Ferrari’s flat-12 engine militated against such a thing. In 1980, Villeneuve and Scheckter had good horsepower at their disposal, but not much else. As they arrived for the Canadian Grand Prix Gilles was 15th in the points standings, Jody 19th.
It was ferociously cold in Montreal that year. For everyone, the abiding problem was generating tyre temperature. For the Ferrari drivers, however, devoid of downforce worth the name, it was doubly so. Villeneuve’s acrobatic style was never more apparent as he hurled his car around, trying to get some heat into his Michelins. His best lap was good for only 22nd place on the grid. Scheckter, eight-tenths slower, did not so much as qualify.
Fifth was worth two championship points, but points were never something to which Gilles gave much thought. What mattered was that for nearly two hours he had been at his limit which was way beyond his car’s. He had fought for 14th place, 10th, seventh, whatever, as he would have done for first.
It was this quality that marked him out, but he himself saw it as nothing remarkable. “If you don’t do that,” he said once, “how can you call yourself a racing driver?”
In the word of Mauro Forghieri’s famous observation: “Gilles had a rage to win…”
So he did, and in that way, the only contemporary driver to remind me of him is Fernando Alonso. Alonso – like Villeneuve – has a way of putting his cars into positions they have no business occupying.
Former McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh completely agrees. In his own words, he admits: “You get drivers who don’t get the results that the car deserves, you get drivers who do get those results – and you get a very few who get better results, and more points, than the car deserves. Year in, year out, that’s what Fernando does, and – apart from anything else – that makes a big difference to the end-of-season monies paid to a team. Ideally, you always want hungry drivers. To the day he died Ayrton Senna was like that, and to me by far the hungriest driver of this generation is Alonso. You could triple his net worth, and he’d still be the same – it’s in his makeup.”
Fernando really loves racing – much more than some of them – and he likes to surround himself with comparative simplicity. Since he’s been back with McLaren, he’s had a terrible time with Honda’s engines, but he never compromises his effort. Day in day out he is just a phenomenally bright, talented, ruthless, racing driver.
Felipe Massa agrees. Team-mate to both Schumacher and Alonso as well as Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari. Massa told in an interview that he thought of Fernando as better than Michael. In Massa’s own words: “Although Michael was an amazing driver, I had an easier time with him – for one thing, I suffered more with Fernando because he never, ever, had an off day.”
Remember Alonso’s Indy 500 outing this year. Google the images of that race or watch videos and you’ll find a Fernando Alonso who is happy beyond what his face can convey. In part, this may have owed something to being in the limelight again after so long in the wilderness. Since Fernando’s last grand prix victory, at Barcelona in 2013, Lewis Hamilton has won 35 times. But more to the point was that for once he was in a competitive car. As we know, yet another Honda engine failure cost him a shot at winning the 500, but still he was glowing afterward. Remember him cheekily admitting: “Oh, it felt so good to lead a race again…”
Alonso was classified 24th at Indy, and for that, at the Victory Banquet he received a cheque for $305,000. It may sound like a lot until you consider that his stipend at McLaren-Honda pays him that every three days.
Whatever else, therefore, it was not money that prompted Alonso to pass up Monaco in favour of the Speedway.
As his Indy driver coach Gil de Ferran eloquently sums it up:
“I don’t think it was surprising he wanted to test himself somewhere else, where he could have a competitive car – and at the same time remind everyone of the ungodly amount of talent he has. It’s a crime he’s where he is in Formula 1…”