The reigning world champion might have faced his most adrenaline-fueled challenge of 2023 in the final laps of the Dutch Grand Prix. It’s an understatement to say that Formula 1 is always predictable. Yes, Max Verstappen clinched another win. And indeed, the sporadic rain played its part. However, it was at the Zandvoort circuit where nothing could be taken for granted till the very end.
This season’s monotony was shaken off by Fernando Alonso’s return from the summer break. Just as the legendary Paco de Lucía found inspiration in Chick Corea’s musical genius during dark times, Formula 1 sees a 42-year-old Asturian pilot making the impossible seem within reach. For the first time all season, the formidable dominance of Max Verstappen and Red Bull faced a genuine threat.
Upon descending from his vehicle, the Dutch champion acknowledged that this was his toughest victory of the season. Alonso, elated after a stellar performance, confidently communicated to his team, “It’s great to be the driver of the day and to have the fastest lap, but we will celebrate a win soon.” Verstappen’s exceptional driving and Red Bull’s evident advantage over Aston Martin were evident. Yet, the possibility of an upset was palpable. Alonso’s passion and unwavering commitment to his craft remain the secret weapons in his arsenal.
Analytical Mastery on Display
What stood out was Alonso’s meticulous analysis. He detailed his audacious overtaking of both Russell and Albon at the Hunzerug curve: “During the FP2 (second free practice session), I tried the lower line in turn 3 a few times. When I saw raindrops on my visor, I thought everyone would be cautious on the upper side, so I went low to see what would happen – and it worked.”
Interestingly, while the lower part of the curve covers fewer meters, it was Alonso who discovered a couple of years ago that the upper side was faster. No one expected him to now venture below, but his proclivity for analyzing countless scenarios gave him insights unknown to his rivals. This meticulousness was evident in the distinctive lines he took compared to others. Alonso’s deep familiarity with every inch of Zandvoort’s surface speaks volumes about his dedication and countless hours of simulator training.
The Resurgence of Alonso and Aston Martin
This seventh podium finish of 2023, following achievements in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Miami, Monaco, and Canada, serves as a significant morale booster for both the Spanish driver and his team, Aston Martin. Reflecting on the race, Alonso remarked, “It wasn’t easy maintaining concentration for such a long period. I’m thrilled we’re back on the podium. My aim was to return to our position at the start of the year as the second force behind Red Bull Racing.”
While it’s still early to make a conclusive statement on Aston Martin’s new upgrades, Alonso’s feedback was positive: “The car was working really well, and I felt confident driving it. It was fast in dry conditions and on intermediate tires. Our strongest phase was at the beginning of the race, with only a few raindrops, still on slick tires.”
However, uncertainties remain about Aston Martin’s competitive edge after Red Bull. “It’s too soon to say,” Alonso argued. “The car is definitely better. We felt competitive from Friday, but next week’s Monza is a completely different design. We’ll see if we can remain competitive there.”
The Landscape of Competition
Despite the resurgence, it’s evident that teams like McLaren, Williams, and especially Mercedes showed equal or greater competitiveness than Aston Martin. Lewis Hamilton expressed regret over his team’s strategic mistakes, noting that at times his pace matched that of winner Verstappen. In such races, the ability to push to the absolute limit without errors – both on the track and from the pit wall – becomes invaluable.
Hamilton’s performance at Zandvoort was nothing short of exceptional. The reinvigorated competition from Alonso seems to be fuelling this heightened drive in the British champion. Their race for the third spot in the championship echoes the intense rivalry seen in Grand Slam semi-finals between tennis legends Nadal and Federer.
An Unexpected Challenge for Verstappen
No one, perhaps not even Max Verstappen himself, could have foreseen that he would face a challenge at his home Grand Prix. Yet, seeing Alonso in his rear-view mirror surely gave him an unease he hadn’t felt this season. “I had planned to overtake Max during the restart, though I was never close enough to attack,” Alonso shared enthusiastically. “I knew he would be more cautious since he’s battling for the championship and had more at stake. I even discussed it with the team. If I get the chance, I’ll go for Max.” The team’s reply encapsulated the sentiments of many: “Do as you wish; who are we to instruct you today?”
It’s evident: the old lion still roars.