Fernando Alonso's F1 return is exciting, intriguing and controversial – just like the superstar driver himself

Spanish two-time world champion will be back on the Formula One grid next season after renewing his partnership with Renault

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - DECEMBER 04: Fernando Alonso of Spain and Renault Sport F1 talks to the media in the Paddock before practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Sakhir at Bahrain International Circuit on December 04, 2020 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
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It is a testament to the force he continues to be that rivals are out to stop Fernando Alonso before he’s even returned to F1.

At least two teams have complained he should not be allowed to take part in next week’s end of season test here in Abu Dhabi created originally to blood young drivers.

They have a point. Charismatic Alonso is many things but at 39 young is certainly not one of them. And he’s hardly wet behind the ears as the grizzled and battle-hardened veteran of 311 grands prix and 32 victories prepares for his return in 2021 looking for title No 3.

But the governing body, pushed no doubt by the sport’s owners Liberty, have created an exception for one of the biggest names in F1. Twenty years after his debut, Alonso continues to be box office. And big box office at that.

Racing Point are fuming; Daniel Ricciardo joked the Spaniard looked young for his age. McLaren’s Lando Norris (21) rubbished the decision and Ferrari are now bidding to squeeze new signing Carlos Sainz through the same loophole.

Alonso renews the partnership with Renault that made him a champion in 2005 and 2006 but some critics believe the veteran is now past his best and only returning for another monumental pay day.

But Renault’s Executive Director Marcin Budkowski is confident that is not the case. He said Alonso demanded wind tunnel development of the 2022 car begin on New Year’s Day and would fly from Spain to the UK to attend in person. “So this is the level of motivation of Fernando at the moment,” Budkowski said.

As a racer Alonso is the personification of relentless, ruthless competitiveness and famed as much for his race craft as his race craftiness. But it has not been matched by career moves in a sport in which being in the right team at the right time counts double.

Instead, misfortune has usually dogged his choices of team while his passion to become a winner again has made him a lightning rod for controversy almost his entire career.

The Asurian has been at the heart of the two biggest controversies of the last 50 years. Spygate saw McLaren fined a record $100 million and the Crashgate race-fixing saga ended in his advisor Flavio Briatore banned from the sport. Alonso was exonerated of involvement in that unsavoury episode.

TOPSHOT - Toyota TS050 Hybrid LMP1 of Japanese's driver Kazuki Nakajima (R) Spain's driver Fernando Alonso (2L) and Switzerland's driver Sebastien Buemi (2R) celebrates on podium after winning in the 87th edition of the 24 Hours Le Mans endurance race on June 16, 2019, at Le Mans northwestern France.   / AFP / Fred TANNEAU
Fernando Alonso with teammates after winning in the 87th edition of the 24 Hours Le Mans endurance race in June, 2019. AFP

And his internecine rivalry with Lewis Hamilton at McLaren is the stuff of legend, ultimately costing both of them the world championship in 2007.

Furious at not being given priority over his rookie teammate, Alonso walked out on a car that would make Hamilton champion a year later.

He reportedly also turned down the Red Bull seat that Sebastian Vettel drove to four successive championships from 2010.

Then reputedly on a mouth-watering $45m salary, he won just 11 times in five fractious years at Ferrari

Despite his acrimonious departure in 2007 he was lured back when McLaren reunited with the legendary Honda engine so dominant for Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. But you know what they say about going back?

The McLaren years were entertaining but largely disastrous, and disillusioned at being unable to get a competitive drive in a formula which has lost its way, he quit. It was a savage condemnation of the sport that one of its most talented and passionate sons had to look elsewhere for satisfaction.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 11:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren F1 and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walk to the grid before the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 11, 2018 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton walk to the grid before the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix. The pair proved combustible teammates during their time together at McLaren.  Getty Images

But he still became champion again, though not in F1. He won Le Mans twice, the world endurance championship, and the Daytona 24hrs race in America but missed out at Indianapolis and the Paris-Dakar.

So what to expect of Alonso’s F1 return? Most would agree two titles are scant reward for his extravagant talent and the signs are the time away has only sharpened his appetite to go again.

The French car giant are rebranding the new F1 push after their exclusive road car sporting line Alpine, which smacks of a commercial commitment they cannot afford to see fail. Three private tests already suggest neither side is around to make up the numbers.

The big question mark is not Renault’s commitment but their expertise. The car giant is one of the few with the resources to take on champions Mercedes but in such a complex, high tech formula, money isn’t always the entire answer

Renault have been a growing force in 2020 without tearing up trees, culminating in their best team result of the season last Sunday in Bahrain with Esteban Ocon’s second and Daniel Ricciardo fifth.

And those who believe 2021 is only a casual preparation for a full-blooded assault on the sport’s new era which starts a year later don’t know Fernando Alonso very well.