Fernando Alonso is leaving Formula One as a two-time world champion -- but those titles seem like a lifetime ago.
One of the most talented drivers of his generation is walking away at the end of a campaign which saw Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton fight it out for a fifth world championship, having been the two men to dominate the years since Alonso won his second title in 2006 -- both will have the chance to win more before retiring.
But F1's recent history all could have been so different. Here we chart three alternate timelines Alonso's career could have followed to this point...
1: No McLaren implosion in 2007
When Alonso joined McLaren in 2007, it seemed like the F1 world was his. He'd just won two championships with Renault and had joined a team with the resources to end its years without a title. Famously, he was partnered with the young and talented rookie Lewis Hamilton -- a man who proved he was competitive from the first corner of the first race, swooping around the outside of Alonso at the start of the Australian Grand Prix.
It was no flash in the pan: Hamilton was the real deal and Alonso crumbled under that pressure. He had gone to Woking as the man who had ended Michael Schumacher's run of five titles, expecting to be the defacto number one but Ron Dennis' refusal to play the team orders game irritated Alonso. Months of simmering tensions all came to a head at the Hungarian Grand Prix when Alonso followed up a silly decision with an incredibly rash one: after holding Hamilton up during qualifying at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Alonso threatened Dennis that he would show incriminating emails to the FIA which implicated McLaren in what became the Spygate scandal. Dennis called his bluff and went to the FIA himself, determined to save his team. To cap off a tumultuous year, Alonso and Hamilton were pipped to a title McLaren should have won by Kimi Raikkonen at the final race of the season. Alonso would leave the team at the end of the year for two years in F1 purgatory with a now uncompetitive Renault team.
However, here we will assume Alonso doesn't make those mistakes and that he overcomes Hamilton's strong form in 2007 by keeping his head off track and churning out the results he needed to beat Hamilton and McLaren needed to see off Ferrari.
Four straight and a different perception
In this scenario, it's hard to see Alonso failing to win a fourth title in 2008. He would have been emboldened by his 2007 triumph and, given that he did not so badly damage the harmony at the team, would feel stronger than ever going into his second season with the team. As talented as Hamilton was from the start of his career, he was error-prone in the early days and was definitely beatable by a fully-focused Alonso in the same car. Talk to anyone from McLaren at the time and they will tell you most believed Alonso to be the better driver at that stage of their respective careers -- the tragedy was that he didn't listen and instead got caught up in his own paranoia about the team.
It's not only the boyhood dream of being a McLaren champion that Alonso would have achieved here. Although he made mistakes after the original McLaren stint, the events of 2007 left a stain on Alonso's character for the rest of his career. His falling out with Ron Dennis -- and the fact he tried to blackmail his boss with incriminating emails from Spygate -- sowed the seeds of the reputation that Alonso was a political animal, a man capable of pulling a team apart from within. It's the perception which stopped Mercedes boss Toto Wolff from picking up the phone and calling Alonso after Nico Rosberg's sudden retirement in 2016.
Here, that legacy is non-existent. Sure, he could be competitive and fiery at times, but his four straight championships would echo louder than any negative voices in the paddock.
What about Lewis?
Hamilton was the man who emerged from the train-wreck of 2007 as McLaren's next world champion. But here we are suggesting Alonso, at the height of his powers, is his teammate -- a tough proposition for any rookie driver, no matter how talented. What followed 2008 for Hamilton was a period of erratic form which lasted several years. He squandered the championship with several high profile errors in 2010 before enduring a crash-riddled 2011 campaign.
Here, he would have gone through that hardship without a championship to his name. He would have been a phenomenal talent who was just unable to get it done. Hamilton has since told ESPN he's not sure how he would have recovered mentally without winning the title in 2008 -- how would he have coped going in to 2009 having seen two championships go to the man driving the other car?
Without that 2008 championship under his belt, can we be sure it would have been Hamilton having the poolside chat with Niki Lauda in the middle of the 2012 season, talking about Mercedes' ambitious V6 turbo project? Lauda may not have believed Hamilton was the person to lead it if he was simply a man who had failed to convert his talent into championships. It's fascinating to wonder how different his reputation would have been in the sport without that 2008 title and, by extension, how different Mercedes' recent past would look. We explore a few more of these in Scenario 2 below.
Of course, we must consider how different the rest of F1 would be had things gone better for Alonso and McLaren in this period...
Does 'Crashgate' still happen?
In real life, Alonso was indirectly involved in a controversial incident in 2008. Having gone back to Renault he was in an uncompetitive car, a shadow of the team he had left just a year earlier. One of his two wins from that season would be controversial -- in Singapore, he pitted from low down the order shortly before teammate Nelson Piquet Jr spun and crashed at Turn 17. His stranded car prompted a Safety Car and promoted Alonso to the lead of the pack.
What originally looked like a lucky coincidence turned out to have been much more than that. The following year, Piquet confessed he had been ordered to crash by team boss Flavio Briatore and technical director Pat Symonds in order to influence the result and help Alonso win. The following year Renault was punished and left the sport under a cloud at the end of 2009, while Briatore and Symonds received bans. Alonso's involvement has always been a controversial topic. He clearly benefited from the conspiracy but has never been implicated in it. Whether or not the Spaniard knew -- many have said he should have been suspicious about the amount of fuel put in his car before the race, which required a Safety Car at exactly the moment Piquet crashed to succeed -- his stature in the team at this point cannot be underplayed.
Renault's board of directors were desperate for a win in 2008 -- the glory days of Alonso's original stint were long gone. But it's hard to imagine the team would have lured a star driver to drive its car had Alonso stayed at McLaren. Jenson Button might have been an option after a torrid year at Honda, but this was before his reputation was enhanced by winning the title in 2009. It's likely Nelson Piquet would have been partnered by Button or Giancarlo Fisichella. Both quick in their own right, but neither carrying the star power of Alonso in 2008. This begs the question, would Briatore -- Alonso's long-time manager -- have carried out such a ploy without someone like Alonso at the team?
If he had, and the desire to win had still prompted Briatore and Symonds' moment of madness, the nature of the championship fight could have been drastically different in this version of events and its not beyond the realms of possibility that Renault's conspiracy actually hurt Alonso's championship chances instead of Felipe Massa's. In real life, Massa pitted from the lead of the race and left the box with his fuel hose still attached -- the Brazilian still cites it as the moment that cost him that year's title -- but the perpetrators would have had a fear of the unknown beforehand. Perhaps Briatore would have been dissuaded from going through with the plan if he felt it had the potential to hurt Alonso's title bid.
No title for the Iceman
Hamilton is not the only superstar in this timeline lacking championship pedigree. Alonso's title win in 2007 would have robbed Kimi Raikkonen of his only career triumph -- how his career would have developed from there is a fascinating prospect. Even if he has admitted lacking motivation, would he have still taken a sabbatical without a championship to his name? Would he have cultivated the same cult status he enjoys today? Unlike Hamilton, it's hard to see Raikkonen gaining many opportunities afterwards to win the title his talent deserved.
Back to normality?
After winning two titles, it's unlikely Alonso would have tolerated McLaren's disappointing 2009 campaign. The team massively underestimated the regulation change of that year, which famously saw Brawn GP rise from the ashes to win. In the final year of his deal, Alonso's competitive fire would have soon had him looking elsewhere for the next car to win his fifth title.
This leaves a few options on the table. The most obvious is that he follows this reality and goes to Ferrari for 2010, albeit as a four-time world champion instead of a man who had spent two years in the wilderness at Renault. But would Ross Brawn have convinced him to join the Mercedes team which took over the 2009 world champions? Alonso would have just won two world titles with a Mercedes-powered car and may have felt a growing attatchment to the brand. The Spaniard always seemed destined for Ferrari at one point in his career but he may have viewed the next chapter of his career very differently were he not making up for lost time...
This is one of the more interesting scenarios on this list, not least because it very nearly happened. After it became clear Alonso and McLaren could no longer continue beyond the end of 2007, the Spaniard had two options on the table for 2008. One was to return to Renault (which is exactly what he did) but the second was to take a punt on the emerging force in Formula One at the time: Red Bull.
In late 2007 Red Bull hadn't won a grand prix, but it had been slowly amassing a team to take on the F1 establishment. Adrian Newey had joined in 2006 and by this time he had started to get the pieces of the puzzle in place to turn Red Bull into the world beaters we saw between 2010 and 2013. Alonso was at the top of Red Bull's driver wish-list but, under the management of Briatore, passed up the offer and instead returned to Renault.
Getting in on the ground floor
Had he joined Red Bull, he may not have scored the two wins he achieved for Renault in 2008 but surely would have seen the promising signs from the 2009 wind tunnel models.
Paired with his good mate Mark Webber in his first year, there would have been an extended honeymoon period and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that he would have secured a one-off win -- after all, Vettel took an almost identical car painted in Toro Rosso colours to victory in Monza that year. But it's more likely he would have ended up alongside David Coulthard for a single season in 2008. As Webber was also under the management of Briatore at the time, the Australian would probably have been used as a pawn to fill the gap at Renault, giving Alonso the opportunity to stamp his authority on his new team by going up against Coulthard, who was well past his best and in the final year of his career.
But 2009 is when this scenario gets really interesting. Red Bull missed the double-diffuser trick at the start of the season, allowing Brawn GP to get a march on them in the first half of the year, but Alonso has always been quick in less-than-competitive cars. Imagine if he'd grinded out better results than Vettel managed in those early races and then had the platform to truly challenge Jenson Button for the title towards the end of the year.
The Red Bull was the fastest car on the grid by the end of the 2009 season and he could have slammed home that advantage to put the brakes on the Brawn GP fairy tale in the final few races of the year. Potentially that would have added the elusive third championship right there and then.
Fernando verses Sebastian
The big question with the Red Bull scenario is how the power dynamic would have played out when Vettel joined in 2009. No doubt, Helmut Marko, the head of Red Bull's driver programme, would have lobbied hard to get the young German the best of everything, but Alonso would have already been at the team for a full season before they became teammates. If he'd managed to get Red Bull's overall boss Dietrich Mateschitz on side, which is likely considering Red Bull went after him at the end of 2007, he could have been in a strong position within the team. It would have created another fascinating power dynamic behind closed doors, giving Alonso another shot at the scenario he had faced with Hamilton at McLaren.
Surely the Spaniard would have learned from the experience at McLaren, and given Vettel's propensity for errors early in his Red Bull career, it's likely Alonso would have got the better of him in 2010. Vettel's confidence may have taken a knock at that stage, but with Marko behind him and the blown-diffuser cars he loved so much coming on stream in 2011, it's possible he would have taken a title off Alonso in their third year together.
That would have created a tense situation at the team ahead of 2012 -- a season in which blown diffusers were banned and Red Bull initially lost ground to its opposition. In that scenario you'd have to say Alonso would have come out on top again, but if you thought there were politics at play in 2010 between Webber and Vettel at Red Bull, just imagine the scenario that would have unfolded with Alonso involved! There's no telling whether such a partnership would have survived through to 2013, but you can guarantee Alonso would have come away from Red Bull with at least two more championships than he had from the same period with Ferrari -- and Vettel would have two less.
Even if Alonso did stay until the end of 2013 and even if he came away with four world championships between 2010 and 2013, it's unlikely he would have had the appetite to remain at Red Bull when he learned of Renault's power deficit in 2014. That creates the question of whether he, rather than Vettel, move to Ferrari in 2015 and whether he, rather than Vettel, would have been in a position to challenge Hamilton for the title over these past two years.
Alonso clearly had a strong desire to go to Ferrari and it's hard to imagine him going anywhere else after a long stint at Red Bull. Mercedes would have still taken Hamilton on from McLaren in 2013, but perhaps Alonso would have been the right man to challenge the Silver Arrows in 2017 and 2018.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's first look at how Alonso moving to Red Bull in 2008 would have impacted on the rest of the driver market from that point until 2014...
An altered landscape
Sticking with the assumption that Webber would have gone to Renault in 2008, again there is the question of whether the Singapore 'Crashgate' scandal would have happened. Webber has always been keen to win races fair and square and it's hard to believe he would have gone along with what was essentially race-fixing. Would the absence of 'Crashgate' have kept Renault in the sport beyond 2009? That's almost impossible to say given the impact of the worldwide financial crash during the same period, but it certainly would have allowed the French manufacturer to leave with more dignity at the end of 2009.
This Red Bull scenario also rules out Alonso going to Ferrari in 2010, which means Kimi Raikkonen would likely have stayed on alongside Felipe Massa for the final year of his contract. If you want to get really outlandish, it also raises the possibility of Michael Schumacher rejoining his old team rather than Mercedes in 2010 if Ferrari was intent on getting rid of Raikkonen. Schumacher initially wanted to make his F1 return in 2009 in place of the injured Massa but was prevented from doing so because of a neck injury sustained in a motorbike accident earlier that year. Without Alonso on the horizon, perhaps Ferrari would have welcomed Schumacher back in 2010 in a race-winning car!
Of course, it still would have required paying off Raikkonen or ditching Massa. With Raikkonen there is a question of whether Ferrari would have wanted to do that to bring back the man Raikkonen replaced in in the first place in 2007. With Massa it would have meant sacking a guy who nearly died in the team's car several months earlier. Both are possibilities, but with the Ross Brawn connection at Mercedes, it is more likely Schumacher would have gone there and Raikkonen would have stayed at Ferrari.
A lifeline for Bobby K?
Alonso's absence at Ferrari would have created an opening for Robert Kubica a bit further down the line. If Raikkonen had struggled in 2010 then it's entirely believable that he would have left the team for his sabbatical at the end of that year and Kubica would have been next in line to make his pre-arranged switch a year early and, significantly, before his rally crash in 2011. A tighter Ferrari contract may have prevented him from taking part in the 2011 Ronde Di Andora, and perhaps he would have been one of Alonso's main threats in the period between 2011 and 2013. Thereafter, a Kubica/Alonso partnership at Ferrari could have offered a genuine threat to Mercedes over 2017 and 2018, resulting in Hamilton still being stuck on three titles while Alonso, assuming he won four at Red Bull, possibly celebrating his record-breaking eighth.
Pure fantasy? Probably. But it makes you think ...
Scenario 3: He still implodes at McLaren in 2007, but the near-misses which followed Ferrari are championships
In this timeline, everything up until the end of 2009 happened as it did in real life. Alonso's politicking at McLaren forces him to spend two years in the wilderness at Renault before he secures a dream move to Ferrari for the 2010 campaign.
Then, reality changes. After seeing Alonso wrestle back a 47-point deficit late in the season and snatch the championship lead in Korea, Ferrari keeps its head at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and opts against the calamitous pit-stop call which cost him that year's title and handed it to Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel. Two years later he follows it up with the crowning achievement of his career, a remarkable victory over Vettel in the 2012 championship despite spending much of the year without the quickest car at his disposal -- in reality, he narrowly lost the title at that year's season finale.
Patience is a virtue
By 2014 in real life, Alonso's patience with Ferrari had worn thin. He had failed to win two championships and, having seen how far off the pace it was with the new V6 turbo regulations, had lost faith that he would ever win one with the Italian team. Here, his 2010 and 2012 titles have given him positive memories and belief in Ferrari's ability to win and, most importantly, have made him a Maranello legend. The nature of his 2012 win, especially, where he stayed in contention throughout the year with a car nowhere near fastest on the grid, would have elevated his reputation into the stratosphere.
Would the team have sought out the services of Vettel in 2014 in this scenario? We don't think so, because of the impact those wins had on the career of another man.
Popular team boss Stefano Domenicali became collateral damage in 2014 when Ferrari's failure to master the V6 turbo era became apparent. His replacement, short-lived team principal Matteo Mattiaci, instantly clashed with Alonso and began the courtship of Vettel. Without this split, Domenicali could have pointed to the two world championship shiny trophies in Alonso's cabinet to convince him that better times were just around the corner. In reality, signs of a revival started to emerge in 2015 so it would not have taken long for Alonso to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Vettel vs Ricciardo, again
Were the path to Ferrari blocked by Alonso, Vettel's career choices from here are fascinating to consider. In this timeline he would have won two dominant titles in 2011 and 2013, leading to accusations he can only win with the right car. Don't believe me? Consider the fact Vettel already got those criticisms with the four he won at the start of the decade. This perception would have been emboldened by Daniel Ricciardo's breakthrough year in 2014, which made a struggling Vettel look pretty ordinary in the new breed of F1 car. Its easy to imagine Vettel would have still been looking for a way out in 2014.
He may still have gone to Ferrari, although its hard to imagine Alonso allowing this move to happen while he was there, but two obvious career paths open up here. One is that his good friend Toto Wolff secures his services at Mercedes in 2015 when there was uncertainty about Nico Rosberg's future -- Vettel's German heritage and championship pedigree would have been manna from heaven for Mercedes' Stuggart board.
The other is that Vettel took Alonso's actual path to McLaren and joined its doomed project with Honda. But, how doomed would it have been without Alonso there?
McLaren believes in Honda
Had Alonso kept his overalls red instead of switching to McLaren in 2015, there is an interesting alternative reality to consider for the Woking team. Honda still would have made a mess of its first V6 turbo engine that year but if it hadn't gone after Vettel it's likely the team would have stuck with young Kevin Magnussen -- who was unceremoniously dropped for Alonso after his rookie season -- alongside Button.
While frustration in those early days was high, it's unlikely any other driver would have made as much negative noise as Alonso did in the same era. Button held a genuine affinity for Honda which did not seem to wane in the same way Alonso's did, while Magnussen would have been in the early days of his career and not in a position to rock the boat too much. It's hard to imagine either of those men opening up their radio channel at Honda's home race, the Japanese Grand Prix, to publicly rebuke its engine by comparing it to GP2 -- F1's main feeder series -- as Alonso infamously did in the first year of the partnership.
New boss Zak Brown has moved mountains to keep Alonso happy -- ditching Honda was part of that. Whether or not Brown took over here, its not crazy to suggest McLaren and Honda could have tiptoed through their differences more easily. Honda would eventually make the progress we've seen this year with Toro Rosso and now, instead of talking up the potential of Red Bull-Honda, we'd be talking about 2019 as the year the McLaren-Honda project finally lived up to its potential.
Side note: What happens to Stoffel Vandoorne here if Magnussen stayed with McLaren? Released from the McLaren project, maybe he found himself some competitive machinery after his record-breaking Formula 2 championship and maintained the hype that accompanied his early career. Or does McLaren jettison Button early and stick with its two young drivers, entering its big 2019 season with Magnussen and Vandoorne at the helm?
Lewis verses Fernando: Part 2
This last one is the most tantalising of the "what might have been" scenarios. Alonso patience with Ferrari would have paid dividends in 2017 and 2018, with a car suddenly capable of competing for championships -- remember, the Spaniard already has four in this timeline, two of which came in red. Mercedes' dominance of the V6 turbo era has allowed Hamilton to become a three-time champion going in to 2017 -- adding at least two to the one he won in Alonso's absence in 2008, presuming he still loses out to Nico Rosberg in 2016.
Here, we have the prospect of at least two years of fighting between arguably the grid's two most talented drivers. Reliability might have cost Alonso dearly in 2017 as it did with Vettel, but there are a significant amount of people in the paddock who think Alonso would have done a better job with Ferrari's superb 2018 challenger than Vettel did in real life. Spurred on by the challenge of his old teammate, the improved, mature Hamilton, Alonso would have surely relished this contest.
What all this means is simple: in this universe, on this weekend, instead of bidding Alonso farewell, we would be watching him and Hamilton do battle for another world championship. Neither has any plans of retiring any time soon and the fight looks set to continue on as a trilogy in 2019. It's the championship fight many have dreamed of, but we've never had the chance to see again.
What might have been, indeed...