Fernando Alonso is no stranger to the grand stage and after three torrid years with McLaren, the Spaniard looks to have finally rediscovered his old magic with the new Renault-powered car.
Desperate to make a solid impression with the new engine, Alonso took advantage of the Virtual Safety Car period to finish in a formidable fifth-place at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday.
His finish represents a significant boost for a McLaren team who had a disappointing eight days of testing in Barcelona earlier this month, but are now starting to show signs of improvement after moving on from their unreliable Honda engine during the off-season.
It’s also a positive for Alonso as it looked certain the 36-year-old would leave the British marque following a disappointing 2017 season, which included seven retirements.
However, the two-time world champion decided to extend his current deal on the basis that the team had a competitive car – and with the new Renault engine, he looks to have potential to challenge for podiums this term.
Alonso’s glory days are all but behind him, however, this should give him renewed optimism that he can compete in his 17th Formula One season and serve as a welcome fillet alongside other projects such as his participation in the World Endurance Championships (WEC) for the first time.
In 2018, he is set dovetail his F1 commitments and race for Toyota in the WEC – meaning seven extra races between May and June – on top of his contracted McLaren work.
Alonso is also to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans between June 16-17 – which will mean he will race on five consecutive weekends from Canada on June 10 to the British GP on July 8.
The Oviedo native will turn 37 in July – and if this is his swansong season in F1 – then it’s difficult to argue what he throws his hand to in his free time.
He skipped Monaco last year to compete in the coveted Indy 500 event and after leading for 27 laps, he had to retire on lap 179 out of 200 due to engine failure.
Some may question McLaren’s decision to allow him to skip the all-important race in the south of France, but in some respects, it was a genius idea by Zac Brown and Co. giving their prized asset the chance to compete in his dream race. Likewise, the Spaniard certainly owed them one off the back of it.
We may only be one race into the new season, but there are genuine signs of steady improvements on last year – with Alonso’s team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne also achieving a top-10 finish in Melbourne at the weekend.
Amid all the friction with Honda last campaign, Alonso managed to produce drives the engine didn’t deserve – with two seventh place finishes in Italy and Brazil as well as a sixth-place effort in Hungary.
The unreliability of the car would certainly demotivate any other diver, but if anything, it boosted Alonso’s mental approach and he constantly gave it 100% on track.
From back of the grid to 11th in Japan was equally impressive – and with a purring McLaren – this is set up to be a thrilling season for the fans’ favourite.
After nearly two decades in F1 and 97 podiums, he looks to have lost none of his appetite and will be bidding to continue his sterling form from Australia when he steps out in Bahrain in two weeks’ time.
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel may go down as the most successful drivers of our era, but put Alonso in an identical car and he’d be the same potent force.
From a Mercedes data error, to two pit-stop mistakes and a highly impressive start from a Formula One great, there were plenty of talking points to take away from the Australian Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel came out on top against Lewis Hamilton, as Ferrari made the most of a Virtual Safety Car to jump the Mercedes driver, while Haas were left devastated after two unsafe releases cost them what could have potentially been a stunning opening weekend.
Fernando Alonso also benefitted from the virtual safety car, and then defended superbly, as he picked up a fifth-placed finish to kick off his Formula One season.
Here, Sport360’s Niall McCague and Tom Biggs take a look back at the opening weekend of the Formula One season.
The four-time world champion got the jump on the Mercedes ace off a miscalculation on the pit stop under Virtual Safety Car conditions and held off Hamilton for his second straight win in Melbourne and third overall.
“Nice one, nice one altogether,” Vettel said jubilantly over team radio.
“We’re getting there. We still have some work to do, but we’re getting there.”
It was Vettel’s 48th win in his 200th GP and follows his earlier wins in Melbourne in 2011 for Red Bull and last year for Ferrari.
Hamilton, starting off the pole, got out his car and looked a bit bewildered as he removed his helmet, wondering how exactly that race got away from him.
Vettel pitted for a new set of softs and emerged from the pits ahead of Hamilton, gaining around 10 seconds thanks to the deployment of the Virtual Safety Car (VSC).
“What just happened guys? Was that my mistake?” Hamilton said on team radio as a full-on safety car was sent out as the marshals struggled to remove the stranded Haas car of Romain Grosjean.
“We thought we were safe, but there’s obviously something wrong,” the team told Hamilton.
Mercedes potentially miscalculated the VSC minimum speed during the phase Vettel claimed the lead.
Vettel retained his lead as the race was restarted and built a lead of seven-tenths of a second over Hamilton mid-race.
Hamilton made an error as he locked up at turn nine and fell 2.8 seconds behind Vettel with 11 laps remaining.
Vettel proved too resilient and held on as Hamilton backed off over the final laps realising he could not catch the flying German.
“Well done guys, very proud of you. Long winter, long seasons in the past but now we can fight, we can fight,” Alonso said over the team radio.