Will Fernando Alonso Fly or Flop? When World Champions Return to Formula 1
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
After two years out of F1, double world champion Fernando Alonso will make his return to the sport with the newly branded Alpine outfit for 2021. Many have questioned the wisdom of Alonso's choice to return, citing his age (39) and time away from F1 as a recipe for disaster and a guaranteed way to severely damage his reputation as one of the greatest drivers of modern times - something that has remained very much intact, despite 4 disastrous years with McLaren which made him leave F1 in the first place.
Alonso is far from the first world champion to make a return after some time away - can we learn from any of these previous examples to predict how Fernando will fare?
1991-2006; 2010-2012 (3 year gap)
Age at return: 41
Schumacher retired in 2006 with 7 world titles, just missing out on a record 8th title to Alonso himself in his 'final' season. But Schumi was never far away from F1 during his 3 years off the grid, constantly on the pit wall in an advisory capacity to Ferrari, and when Jenson Button opted not to take a seat at Mercedes for 2010, Schumacher jumped at the opportunity to make a sensational return, driving alongside fellow German Nico Rosberg.
Expectations were naturally high of the sport's most successful driver (at the time), joining the outfit which had won both drivers and constructors championships as Brawn Gp in 2009, before being purchased by Mercedes. But the romantic return didn't go as Schumi had hoped ; 1 podium in 58 races was a meagre output considering his record of 155 podiums in 250 races in his first spell. The Mercedes wasn't capable of regular race wins, but Rosberg comprehensively outpaced Schumacher, managing 5 podiums in that time, including a race win at China in 2012, and scoring 324 points between during their 3 year spell as team-mates, compared to Schumacher's 197.
Schumacher called time for good on his F1 career at the end of 2012 - Aged 43 - and whilst no-one can question his raw speed and racecraft that took him to 7 World Titles and 91 races wins, the conclusion of his second spell certainly left F1 fans with the feeling that he might have been better staying on the sidelines. It's impossible to pinpoint why Schumi didn't deliver as many had expected, but age catches up with any athlete, and it is also suggested that a lack of regular competitive driving between 2006 and 2009 hampered his efforts.
1980-1991; 1993 (1 year gap)
Age at return: 38
Prost was forced into a sabbatical for 1992, having been sacked by Ferrari at the end of 1991 after publicly comparing the car to a 'Truck', and was left without any competitive option for the '92 season.
He signed for the all dominant Williams team for 1993, and strolled to a fourth world title, despite the best efforts of Ayrton Senna in an inferior McLaren-Ford. Prost qualified on the front row of the grid for all 16 races, and won 7 of them. With 3 races to go, and the title all but sealed, Prost announced that 1993 would be his last season and retired, allowing Senna to join Williams for 1994.
There's no doubting that Prost enjoyed the sweetest of all returns. His dominant 1993 season certainly wasn't unexpected, though; he'd only had 1 season away from racing, was comfortably in the quickest car, and team-mate Damon Hill was only in his first full season of F1, leaving him with very little competition. If Prost had been up against the likes of Senna or Schumacher as a team-mate, it's highly likely that his return would not have been so rosy.
1980-1992; 1994-1995 (1.5 year gap)
Age at return:41
It was Prost's return to F1 with Williams in 1993 that led to Mansell quitting the sport for the first time, having won the 1992 championship with the all conquering Williams FW14. Mansell went to the States for 1993, winning the Indycar CART championship.
Mansell stood in Williams for 4 races in 1994 following the tragic death of Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix, and proved that he still had the speed to compete at the top level, winning the final race of the season in Australia. Having missed out on the Williams drive full-time for 1995, Mansell signed for McLaren, but was forced to sit out the first two races of the season as the car was too narrow for him to fit in. Once he finally got to race, two disappointing results were enough to convince Mansell that the McLaren lacked pace and walk out mid-season, thus ending a career that had brought 31 wins and a world title.
Mansell showed that he still had the speed to perform despite his age, and had kept himself in good nick by racing CART, but like many other world champions in the twilight of their career wasn't prepared to make up the numbers in the midfield and thus his return was only 6 races long in total.
1996-2003; End of 2004-2006 (1 year gap)
Age at return: 35
The enigmatic Villeneuve , who won the world title with Williams in 1997, left the BAR Team towards the end of 2003 following unsuccessful contract negotiations and having been outpaced by team-mate Jenson Button, and was forced to take a sabbatical for 2004.
Villeneuve's year off was cut short when he was drafted in for the 3 final races of 2004 to race for Renault, who had ditched Jarno Trulli. Villeneuve failed to get up to speed, scoring 0 points in the 3rd most competitive car on the grid that season, but managed to secure a seat at Sauber for 2005. He was evenly matched with Team-Mate Felipe Massa, before disappointing in 2006 and being replaced mid-season by upcoming talent Robert Kubica.
Villeneuve failed to deliver the sort of performances in his second spell that would have evoked memories of his raw speed when he burst onto the scene with Williams in 1996. The sabbatical failed to change the constantly downward spiral of his career trajectory that began way back in 1998.
There's no doubt that, on the whole, the examples above show that a return rarely delivers the success that world champions have experienced in the past and that . The success of Alain Prost was very much an anomaly, whilst the likes of Schumacher and Villeneuve failed to deliver in comparison to their first spells, and more importantly, compared to their team-mates.
As for Alonso? He's kept racing during his two years off the grid; the World Endurance Championship, the Indy 500 and a victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours will surely have kept his racing nous active. On top of that, he's spent a lot of time with the Alpine/Renault team over the course of 2020, studying data and getting to know the team. In that sense, he's learnt the lessons of others - continuing to race like Mansell whilst staying around F1 like Schumacher - so whilst it remains to be seen whether his age will have taken the edge off his performance, it's hard to criticise his preparation, and he's given himself as good a chance as he possibly can of enhancing his legacy as one of F1's greats.