I’m surely not the first one to notice this, but as I’m struggling through the off season while watching my collection of season reviews- from the 70s to 2010- one thing struck me in particular: the uncanny similarities in the careers of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso.
They both impressed right from their debut races. Schumacher took the F1 world by storm by qualifying an impressive 7th in the fairly competitive Jordan at Spa. Alonso, though at the back of the field, still managed to impress in the uncompetitive Minardi by qualifying a whopping 2.6 seconds clear of his teammate Tarso Marques on his debut. Granted, Marques was woefully off the pace there but Alonso also beat a Prost and a Jaguar to line up 19th in his first race and straight away the F1 world started noticing the young Spaniard.
While Schumacher went straight to Bennetton after only one race for Jordan, Alonso had to sit out a full year with Minardi at the back of the grid, and then some time on the benches as reserve driver with Renault before he found a competitive car to race in. As their careers got underway in earnest with some building years for both driver and team where they both proved their immense talent, both then won back to back world championship with the same upstart team, in Schumi’s days as Benetton and in the Renault guise during Alonso’s reign, a team which despite some great periods of success has never truly managed to join the greats of the sport like Ferrari and Mclaren. A team which in both cases was managed by the most obnoxious man ever to grace F1 (tough Bernie, Ballestre and Mosley put up strong competition for this title) : Mankini Briatore.
Both won titles amidst allegations of some technical irregularities, Benetton for the traction control, and Renault for the mass dampers. At least Alonso did not have to barge anyone off the road to win his first title and the mass dampers were much less dodgy than the Bennetton’s fairly blatant cheating.
Both left the team after back to back world titles, and at both times the team’s performance tailed off in the following seasons. The following year both flirted with a third consecutive world title. The Ferrari’s bad reliability in the first half of the season hampered Schumi’s title charge in 96 in his first year with Ferrari, eventually finishing third in the WDC and unable to challenge the superior Williams consistently. Alonso was in with a serious shot for the title in 2007 with Mclaren but finished 3rd in the WDC as well after a tough year for driver and team.
Here is where the stories diverge a little. While Schumi stayed firmly put with the Scuderia in his quest to return the fledgling squad back to former glories, Alonso spent two years in the wilderness at his old team. Nonetheless, for both drivers their 2nd season after becoming double world champ was stained by scandals. 1997 saw Schumi lose the title to Villeneuve, which became a part of the dark side of Schumacher’s legacy due to another one of his unsportsmanlike on-track moves in Jerez, while Alonso was in the eye of the storm in the Spygate affair already in 2007, but that was just peanuts compared to Crashgate in 2008 where Briatore ordered Nando’s teammate to crash in Singapore in order to trigger a safety car which would greatly help Nando to win the race.
In the third post-championship year, the stories are not very similar, except that both had overall quite disappointing years. Schumi had to contend with Mika Hakkinen snatching the title away from him, while Alonso was still trudging along in an uncompetitive Renault but their fourth post championship year saw the stories converge again. As Schumacher had done before him, Alonso now tied his fate to the Scuderia on a long term project to bring the team back to the top.
Again Schumacher narrowly missed out on the title against the flying Fin, while Alonso lost the title in the final race to one of the many German offspring Schumi’s F1 success had created. This all made me think that 2011 was surely going to be the year of Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, as it had been for Schumi 5 years after his second world title, but alas yet again Baby-Schumi spoiled the party for Nando.
While the timing may be a tad off, we can still consider the Vettel 2 year interlude much like Hakkinen’s back to back championships run in ’98 and ’99 which tempered Schumacher’s hopes for 2 years running. Perhaps 2012 will indeed be Nando’s time to join the elite club of triple world champions?
After all, Schumi did only win his third title aged 31, and guess which birthday Alonso will be celebrating in July next year?