2021 has seen a decent-sized churn of drivers through F1's off-season. We have three rookies stepping up to the pinnacle of motorsport, with Haas and Red Bull casting aside four drivers between them. But three into four, leaves a balance of one. One more space for an up-and-coming driver who can show the world what they're made of and make a name for themselves? Erm, not quite. Instead, we see the return of a driver who turns 40 this year. With unremarkable race after unremarkable race so far in 2021, we have to ask... Why is Fernando Alonso back in F1?
I'll address the elephant in the room early here. I've previously written about Kimi Raikkonen's staying in Formula One as a decision he has the lofty reputation to make. 'It's more like a hobby for me' are the immortal words from the Iceman on his job. Fernando Alonso enjoys a similar standing in the F1 world, so if he wants to race and someone will give him a seat, what's the problem? Well, my charitable view of Kimi's tenure lessens with the number of former champions sticking around F1 like toilet paper on the underside of a shoe. And, well, with Alonso's return combining with Sebastian Vettel's backwards switch to Aston Martin, my generosity has run dry.
There was a point in F1 history where Fernando Alonso was a regular challenger for wins. In the mid-00s, it was more common to watch a race with Alonso scoring a top-three finish than seeing a Sunday podium without him. His skills as a driver are top drawer, and he's proven that he still has race-winning talent when given the right machinery. Look at his World Endurance Championship title in 2019 and the second consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans win that same year.
So Fernando knows that to be in with a chance of silverware, you must be in the fastest car in the series. Newsflash, the 2021 Alpine F1 car is not F1's quickest machine. A rebrand and restructure from Renault may well create a gorgeous livery, as they've shown this year, but it can't magic up competitiveness or extra horsepower.
There was a part of me wondering if Alonso knew something we didn't. Something secret about the 2021 Renault that only he knew when he signed that contract last year. He was so unhappy trundling about in the midfield in those final four McLaren years that he wouldn't come back for more of the same, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong.
So I must now assume that Fernando Alonso coming back to F1 is a dice-rolling exercise on the 2022 regulations. There is no saying Mercedes will be the unstoppable powerhouse they have been for so long with next year's rule change. Perhaps Alpine will be the team to beat instead, with Alonso leading the charge. It's a nice dream, but it's one that Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren, Charles Leclerc at Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin, and Max Verstappen at Red Bull all have as well. Most of those drivers, and potentially all of them, will be disappointed at the end of next season. Chances are that Alonso will be one of them.