When asked a few years ago to name his greatest rivals were, then Renault pilot Fernando Alonso mentioned McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. He qualified that remark, however, by saying that Hamilton and the Kimster were his greatest rivals among currently active drivers. Remember, this was during Schumi’s first retirement. He also allowed that his greatest rival, past or present, was Michael Schumacher.
Alonso had previously said that winning his two F1 titles in 2005 and 2006 had been doubly satisfying as he’d been able to take top honors while Schumacher was still active. Some of the younger drivers on the grid, who have only had a chance to compete against Schumi in the comeback phase of his F1 career, might wonder what all the fuss is about, considering that Schumacher hasn’t exactly dominated the field since he’s returned. This would include Lewis Hamilton, of course.
But the memory of competing against Schumi is still fresh for Alonso, to the extent that the Spaniard recently declared that he continues to see the German ace as his most serious competition for the coming season.
“There will be five world champions on the track and the most dangerous champion for me is always Michael,” Alonso commented at Ferrari’s winter retreat at Madonna di Campiglio last week. Presumably, he wasn’t simply talking about the German’s controversial driving style, which on occasion has been about as subtle as a Panzer tank division. Alonso elaborated: “Now in January if I have to choose one name I have to say Michael. He is seven-time champion, he has nothing to prove. He had a difficult season but he is still a champion. He is still super class and if the car is right he will be a contender.”
He also somewhat ambiguously amended this remark by saying, “Hopefully our car is better than the others and my toughest rival next year is Felipe.” Of course, in one sense, a driver’s most difficult rival is always his team mate, as team mates are on equal footing, more or less, with respect to equipment, which makes direct comparisons fairly straightforward. I suspect, however, that Alonso doesn’t really regard Massa as his stiffest competition. Perhaps he was being diplomatic, considering that Massa is probably still smarting from his demotion to de facto number two status at Ferrari in 2010.
Alonso also paid his respects to Red Bull and McLaren, saying, “No doubt Sebastian [Vettel] will be a contender. He will have experience and will be calm in certain moments. He will drive better than last year and that makes him dangerous to us. McLaren will also be one of the favorites.”
While he didn’t mention the McLaren drivers by name, I’d be willing to bet he was only seriously considering Lewis Hamilton, and not Jenson Button. And noticeably absent from his list was Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber.
The primary surprise on the list, of course, was Schumacher, if only because his overall performance in 2010 failed to impress. But Alonso remembers the Schumi of old, in the years when the Spaniard experienced his greatest triumphs. I suspect that Schumacher might have a slightly different take on the matter.