The short answer: Alonso is very good indeed.
I’ve already provided some information on this in my look at the greatest drivers across the history of F1. Not only is Alonso ranked above all others in his generation (including Hamilton, Vettel, Button, Rosberg, and Räikkönen), but he has more seasons ranked as the best driver in the sport than any other driver in the history of F1.
In this article I’ll delve into his career a bit more, looking at his ranking for each year and hopefully providing a bit more context of why he is rated so highly. As the most experienced F1 driver ever, Alonso has faced a wide array of teammates. These include 4 world champions (and a further 4 race winners) providing plenty of data for comparisons. Most match ups are in Alonso’s favour, as we can see with a quick look at points comparisons with his teammates.
A brief look at his stats reveal that Alonso is one of the most successful F1 drivers of all time. This is despite a reputation for substandard machinery and poor career choices,
|Championships||2 (2005, 2006)|
Finally, let’s look at how the model has ranked him in every year. We can also compare this to his teammate and the highest ranked (other) driver on the grid that year:
For those new to the site, the rankings come from the mathematical model. This shows how impressive each drivers results are compared to their teammate’s results for that season. Between 2003 and 2016, Alonso was regularly the best performing driver on the grid, sometimes by significant margins.
There is a general trend of top drivers (and indeed the grid as a whole) to improve over time. This can be seen by some of Schumacher’s top years (grey line 2001-2002) being slightly below Alonso’s top scores, as well as Verstappen’s top years (grey line on the right hand side of the graph) being slightly above.
We can also see that whilst his Alpine performances (2021-22) how been admired at times, the model thinks his results during this period are far less impressive than those at the peak of his career.
Finally, let’s look at each teammate comparison more closely to see how well Fernando performed year-on-year.
2001: Alonso vs Marques
Alonso impressed in his debut year, outqualifying his more experienced teammate 12-2 across the season. (Marques’ replacement Yoong was similarly beaten 3-0). However, his season was hamstrung by a dreadfully uncompetitve and unreliable car. He reached the chequered flag in fewer than half the races this year. Those in the Minardi team at the time mentioned his pace, work ethic and ability to hit the ground running among a string of praise for the driver. Unfortunately none of this translated into results. One reason his ranking is relatively low this year is that, unlike teamamte Marques, he never achieved a top 10 finish.
2003-2004: Alonso vs Trulli
Alonso won his first race in just his 2nd season in F1, lapping eventual world champion Schumacher on route to victory in Hungary. He also became (at the time) the youngest ever F1 winner, breaking a record set by Bruce McLaren over 40 years ago. Over the 2003 season, he was generally the faster Renault driver over the more experienced Trulli. In his second season he had already established himself as a future star of the sport.
During the first part of 2004 Trulli was generally the more impressive of the two, with Alonso gaining the upper hand as the season progressed. After a fallout with team boss Flavio Briatore, Trulli was fired from the 3 races remaining and replaced with 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve. The final three races were extremely one sided, as a struggling Villeneuve failed to trouble the scoreboard. Overall, the model gives Alonso a slight edge over Trulli despite being marginally outscored (46-45) during their time together.
One of the most commented on results of the model’s ranking of the best driver from each year was that Alonso was picked out as the best driver in both of these years, ahead of champion Schumacher. This was discussed in more detail in a previous post, but is due to a combination of factors. Firstly, Barrichello is rated as closer to Schumacher after 2002. Secondly, Alonso is generally considered to be a superior driver. Finally, Alonso’s competitive races at the end of 2004 compared to Villeneuve. In 2004 Alonso only overtakes Schumacher as the higher ranked driver at the final race of the year.
2005-2006: Alonso vs Fisichella
2005 is considered to be Alono’s strongest year in Formula One. The season is often remembered as a missed opportunity for Kimi Räikkönen, hampered by unreliability in the McLaren. However, it’s often overlooked how often Alonso was able to put himself in a position to capitalise. Whilst teammate Fisichella finished on the podium 3 times, whilst Alonso achieved 15 podiums, including 7 wins. His only major mistake came in Canada, where he hit the wall and caused his only DNF of the year.
Similar to 2005, Alonso and Renault built an early lead in 2006 that slowly whittled away as the season progressed. In both cases they hung on to take both titles. Alonso’s second half of the season was mixed for several reasons. The banned of the car’s mass damper also hindered performance. Meanwhile a ludicrous penalty in Monza qualifying for “blocking” Felipe Massa drew accusations of FIA bias. Alonso won just 1 race in the last 9, but still scored almost double teammate Fisichella’s points.
Whilst the gulf between the 2 Renault drivers reflects badly on Fisichella, the Italian driver was highly competitive against several other teammates. He actually has positive match ups versus Ralf Schumacher, Alex Wurz, Adrian Sutil, Felipe Massa and Jenson Button. In fact, the model has previously ranked him as the 11th best driver of the decade, with previous teammate Trulli in 7th place.
2007: Alonso vs Hamilton
So much has been written about McLaren during the 2007 season. Alonso’s rivalry with rookie teammate Hamilton was engulfed by an espionage scandal that lead to the team being thrown out of the Constructors Championship altogether.
Focusing just on driving, Alonso’s season had some notable (and often forgotten) high points. These included two races where he achieved a win, pole and fastest lap (Monaco and Italy), along with a fantastic wet weather victory at Nürburgring.
However, crashing in the wet in Japan, a scrappy race in Canada and an act of self-sabotage during Hungary qualifying lead to him missing out on the championship by a single point. Considering the model believes the McLaren to be the 2nd fastest car, this can still be considered a successful year. The perception is quite different though. Beaten by a rookie teammate and undergoing a total breakdown in the relationship with his own team, the season had a knock-on effect on his next few years in F1, if not for his entire career.
Did Hamilton beat Alonso in 2007?
At the start of the season Hamilton was generally the faster and more consistent of the 2 McLaren drivers, despite being a rookie at the time. Alonso became more competitive as the season progressed. This may be due to him becoming more familiar with the Bridgestone tyres . (Eventual champion Räikkönen had a similar season of two-halves).
The stats suggest that this was one of the closest teammate battles ever, with identical points, wins, and podiums across the 17 Grand Prix season. As the model looks at points, the two drivers are given identical ratings. However, it concludes (from this year alone) that Hamilton is a driver with more potential given that it was his rookie year.
|Results in 2007||Hamilton||Alonso|
Indirect comparisons from other seasons are more in Alonso’s favour, with 2007 being considered one of his weaker years. Alonso has regularly recorded performance scores of 100-120%, which seems to imply that he’s significantly ahead of Hamilton, whose average score is set to be 100%. However, Alonso’s average score across his whole career is actually a little over 105%. This means the difference in the model’s perception of the drivers is not as large as it appears at first.
In short: the actual results from the season suggest the 2007 matchup was an effective draw, with the caveat that Hamilton was unlikely to be at his peak due to it being his first season in the sport.
2008-2009: Alonso vs Nelson Piquet Jr.
For 2008 Alonso returned to Renault, and was partnered with rookie teammate Nelson Piquet Jr.. By the end of the season Alonso had 2 victories and more than 75% of the team’s points. However, this result includes the race in Singapore, where Piquet intentionally crashed to aid Alonso’s chances. Amazingly, Alonso was allowed to keep the victory without any penalty applied.
The 2009 car was a further step back into the midfield, but Alonso still achieved 8 points finishes, (included 1 podium), 2 fastest laps and a (fuel aided) pole. Piquet was fired part-way through the season and replaced by Romain Grosjean. Both teammates struggled and finished the season pointless.
This huge difference in result between Alonso and his teammates in 2009 was due to a range of factors. These include an uncompetitative car, the inexperience of Piquet and Grosjean and the closeness of the field in 2009. Ultimately though, it further showcased how a driver can make a difference in Formula One, even if their machine is not fully up to scratch.
2010-2013: Alonso vs Massa
Alonso partnered Felipe Massa for 4 years at Ferrari, with a car that varied from championship challenging to upper midfield. Whilst Massa was in the process of returning from an injury sustained during the 2009 season, he was highly respected at the team and roughly matched Ferrari champion Kimi Räikkönen during their near 3 years together as teammates.
Alonso was a different story though, and Massa trailed Alonso by a significant margin throughout. The championship finishing positions make this clear. Massa’s peak in this period was 6th in the championship, whilst Alonso finished 2nd on three occasions.
Many fans make a special reference to Alonso’s 2012 season. Whilst the season is rated very highly, it’s only considered to be his 3rd best season overall. It’s also only a whisker better than his typical performances at Ferrari.
Ferrari’s poor start to the year, combined with a very competitive grid helped to inflame debates on whether the car was midfield or genuinely competitive. Overall, the model places Ferrari as the 3rd best team, in the same ball park as both Lotus and McLaren.
Were Massa’s performances worse post-accident?
Whilst Alonso’s Ferrari performances in these years are regularly praised, it’s sometimes argued that he has been flattered by disappointing results from his teammate Massa. In particular, it is questioned whether Massa was as good a driver in the years after his accident. Raw statistics seem to back up this claim, with all of Massa’s 11 victories occuring pre-accident. This is despite spending several years in semi-competitive cars afterwards.
Initially I was skeptical of this perspective for a few reasons. Firstly, 2010 is considered to be Massa’s 2nd strongest year after 2008. In fact, his strongest post-accident period is the first third of the year. This would be the time when any ill effects would be at their peak. Secondly, when Massa was replaced in 2014 with Kimi Räikkönen, there was no corresponding reduction in the performance gap between Alonso and his teammate. Finally, Ferrari kept Massa on board for a full 4 seasons post-accident, suggesting that they thought there was no obviously better choice for the drive.
However, looking at Massa’s career as a whole, it does appear to show that his performances were generally worse than expected post 2009. How much of this is due to coincidence, the effects of his life threatening accident at Hungary 2009 or other factors is obviously up for debate.
The strong start to 2010 may indicate that the subsequent loss of performance may be partially due to the emotional effects losing victory to Alonso (and team orders) during the 2010 German Grand Prix, after which he typically became the number 2 driver. Clear actions due to being the secondary driver, such as his intentional grid penalty in 2012, are noteworthy too. However, these are often either hard to quantify or only represent a handful of points on a few specific incidences.
In conclusion, the data does seemingly back the claim that Massa wasn’t quite as strong as expected post comeback. However, it doesn’t give much guidance on the reasons behind this. It’s also necessary to understand the context of the results. His most disappointing year post comeback is considered to be 2012, but even then he was just 22 points below what would be considered “typical” of his career as a whole.
2014: Alonso vs Räikkönen
The 2014 season was the year Alonso lost patience with Ferrari, but there’s no evidence that his form suffered as a result. I’ve already given details of the season as a whole here, but the short version is that Alonso scored almost three times as many points as his world champion teammate. It effectively ended the discussion of Räikkönen as a top line driver, regardless of the fact that the car was not well suited to the Finn.
2014 is ranked as Alonso’s second most impressive season behind 2005. He ultimately left Ferrari due to a lack of competitiveness. Ironically, it would take him years to return to the podium despite maintaining a generally high level of performance.
2015-2016: Alonso vs Button
McLaren-Honda was one of the most spectacular failures in modern F1. It also caused considerably more variation in Alonso’s yearly ratings as unreliability and luck become more a factor. Overall Alonso had a slight edge against champion teammate Button, despite being outscored in their first year together.
The fact that these years are best remembered from memes and radio outbursts (the infamous “GP2 engine!”) says a lot. However it’s sad that we were robbed of a fantastic scrap between 2 world champion teammates due to a generally slow and unreliable car. Overall, Alonso lead Button 22-11 in qualifying, but just 11-10 in races.
2017-2018: Alonso vs Vandoorne
The disastrous pre-season testing in 2017 effectively killed off the McLaren-Honda partnership. What’s more, the continuing uncompetitive nature of the car was surely a contributing factor to Alonso’s first retirement at the end of 2018. However, Fernando still had some strong drives during this era. He famously achieving 7th place at Azerbaijan despite suffering from 2 punctures and car damage.
Overall Alonso easily outpaced teammate Vandoorne, and like Button previously the gap between them was more noticeable when the car was semi-competitive. The model is actually relatively complementary of Vandoorne’s F1 stint though, and feels that he has been hard by due to the direct comparison to Alonso. Whilst it’s clear he lacked the raw pace (and experience) of Alonso, his ratings suggest a potentially solid driver who deserved another chance in F1.
2021-2022: Alonso vs Ocon
After a 2 year hiatus, Alonso returned for a 3rd stint at the Enstone based team now called Alpine. During this time Alonso built a reputation for defensive driving, with the 2021 British Sprint Race and Hungarian Grand Prix being prime examples.
Whilst Pérez and Ricciardo both comfortably outscored Ocon as teammates, his points comparison with Alonso has been much closer. Whilst bad luck can account for some of this, a combination of Ocon’s increasing experience, Alonso’s 2 year hiatus and age related decline are also relevant. Alonso is now 41, and whilst drivers in their 40s can (and have) been competitive in Formula One, recent examples of Räikkönen and Schumacher were clearly past their peak by this point.
Alonso is currently viewed as a better than average F1 driver. However, he’s unlikely to challenge for the best performing driver again in his career. Regardless, he is likely to have no major issues outscoring teammate Stroll next year.
Finally, for those that think his lower score this year is just down to reliability issues, I have added rankings that account for DNFs during the season in my 2022 driver rankings.