Maybe it’s because I’m entirely brand-new to the sport and never saw him, in real-time, dominate those mid-aughts. But it eludes me why anybody — save, I guess, especially patriotic Spaniards — would root for Fernando Alonso today.
In an era when many F1 drivers are up to the comedic task of appearing in increasingly lo-fi team-produced skits, Alonso more often than not looks like a prisoner to the F1 calendar, miserably staring into each new day with the same weighty, dead-eyed stare. Rooting for Alonso looks like it would be similar to rooting for a businessman testifying before Congress, or rooting for a pouting diner after they’ve sent their meal back to the kitchen. Even if there is that satisfaction of getting things exactly how they want, it’s going to be just a few minutes before things are not exactly what they want, and the temper roils again.
The thing is, I’m actually convinced by the thoughtful evidence that crowns Alonso as the best individual driver currently on the grid. Only one problem: there is not any level of motorsport that you can graduate to where it is not, in its own peculiar way, a team sport. Alonso stands alone among the truly elite drivers in how long he has been effectively locked out from championship-contending teams. This may be a coincidence. To briefly put oneself in the shoes of a team boss, though: there does feel like significant upside to investing in a driver who, unlike Alonso, is reliably not spending their time hatching an intricate political scheme.
Speaking of: Valtteri Bottas. In Spain, Bottas was not given an engine by three-time Constructors’ Champion Mercedes that could get through the circuit without exploding. This, after Bottas was assigned the thankless, early-race yeoman’s work of holding up a competitor so that his teammate could make up time. Bottas’ performance was pushed aside so that it could be asked when Mercedes would impose team orders — as if the team had already waited too long to do so.
This is the latest beat in Bottas’ year of being treated, I think, rudely. Maybe it’s that a proper level of expectations about Bottas’ arrival at Mercedes was never really reached. What, was Bottas supposed to stride right in and immediately seize the number one internal position from an all-time legend? That wasn’t ever really going to happen. What has happened instead has been probably a best-case scenario: Mercedes is one of only two teams so far, alongside Haas, to have each driver finish ahead of the other in both qualifying and in races. This was far from destined to be the case.
Probably the reason that Bottas’ year has been looked at glass-half-empty is because of his quiet, steady optimism. There is no obvious fire on the surface with Bottas, which can translate to thinking that Bottas does not have the depth of soul, or something, that a champion must have. I think this is a mistake.
Not every driver can scream into F1 as a Hamilton-ian prodigy, and there are only so many remaining points to go around for everybody else. It was probably exactly Bottas’ steadiness that made him such an attractive candidate for Mercedes and, in turn, opened up the world where he gains probably the maximum amount of points in his career. The goal is never, in the end, to sit on top of a head-to-head driver comparison — however thorough it is. The goal is to actually physically win races, win championships, and it is Bottas’ non-maneuvering that has put him in an optimum place to do so.
There are always gusts of blind luck that propel drivers to and away from points — but even-keel Bottas has helped make his own luck. There is a plausible alternate universe that sees years’ worth of transactions leading us to Bottas and Alonso sitting in exactly the opposite cars in 2017. Why has it worked out the way that it has, then? For a sport that agonizes over milliseconds, there’s a blindingly obvious reason why these two drivers are separated by a vast 63-0 canyon in the standings: one is easy to work with, and one is not. That ability to simply be a good co-worker is capable of bringing the kind of performance upgrade, to the individual driver, that a tweaked chassis or optimum tire strategy could never provide.