Fernando Alonso was back inside the cockpit of a Formula One car this week, but the Spaniard has a point to prove before contemplating a full return to the series.
Although he and McLaren are open to a return in future, Alonso was quick to downplay the chances of that even before he had completed a tyre test with the team in Bahrain this week. The fact he arrived at that shortly after two days testing a Toyota rally car in the Kalahari Desert explains where his mindset is right now.
For most of 2018's F1 calendar, the two-time world champion did not really look like he wanted to be there, having grown frustrated at a fourth consecutive season with a McLaren unable to get close to the top six, let alone podium contention. While in 2017 and 2018 he mixed-and-matched F1 with the Indy 500 and World Endurance Championship commitments, his priorities this year are clear.
Alonso looks set to become 2018-19 WEC champion with the Toyota team he won last year's Le Mans 24 Hours with, but the biggest day of his calendar year comes in May -- his second entry to the Indy 500, with the added bonus of now knowing that a victory at the Brickyard will put him in special company.
Should he win there, he will emulate what Graham Hill achieved in the 1960s and 1970s as the only man to win at Indianapolis, Le Mans and the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix -- known unofficially as motor racing's Triple Crown. That achievement would give Alonso a legitimate claim at what many have already labelled him as, the most complete driver of his generation, something he felt he was never able to showcase in F1 after leaving Ferrari in 2014.
When asked what he hopes to prove away from F1 during testing in Bahrain, Alonso's response was simple.
"To be the best driver in the world," he said. "Which I think I am.
"I think everyone thinks we are the best, but it's difficult to prove because, especially in Formula One, unless you are with the right package that season, you cannot prove it. I've been very competitive for many, many years in Formula One, luckily enough to win championships.
"Even my last season was probably the strongest with 21-0 [qualifying head-to-head] to my teammate [Stoffel Vandoorne], things that I have never done in my career. And then now winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning Daytona, winning Sebring, hopefully being competitive in the Indy 500, and some other things that I can do outside maybe the asphalt is something that probably has no precedence in the sport."
In F1, regardless of how competitive a car he had each season, Alonso forged a reputation for being quicker than whoever his teammate was at any given time. Discounting the infamous 2007 season alongside a young Lewis Hamilton, where the two finished level on points but both somehow failed to win the title, the Spaniard convincingly won head-to-heads against Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli, to name a few.
Alonso will keep using the teammate comparison to decide how long to keep racing.
"As long as I have the power to do it and I feel competitive [I will continue]," he said when asked how long he will keep racing. "Maybe one day I jump in a Formula One car and there is one guy with the same car that is quicker than me. Or I jump into another car and one guy is quicker than me with the same car. As far as I know, it never happened so far, so I will keep driving."
Some have painted Alonso's desire to pursue other ventures as a bored racer looking to have fun in a race car again -- his two world titles came in 2005 and 2006, and his last F1 race victory was midway through 2013. Although that probably explains some of it, he insists each new venture has been its own unique test of his skill set.
"I'm looking for that, for the challenges. It's not to have fun. Sometimes I read when I am testing something that 'we are happy you are having fun, but please come back to Formula One -- like please come back to the real job, this is fun'. I'm not having fun when I try one of those cars; I have no idea, they need to tell me how they do, they do full throttle and brakes at the same time in rally style.
"We press the throttle or we press the brake, we never press at the same time. You need to learn from zero. You need to read the bumps, read things. Definitely there is a lot of effort that I put behind every challenge that I take, and a lot of study behind. I'm not doing it for fun. I'm doing it for the difficulty, for the challenge, and just to hopefully be better as a driver."