When the news that Fernando Alonso would return to Formula 1 in 2021 was announced, it was greeted with anticipation by many fans of the sport. The prospect of seeing the two-times World Champion back on the grid again was an exciting one; Alonso has often been regarded as one of the strongest drivers of recent years, who could maximise the performance of whatever machinery he was given.
The final period of his pre-hiatus F1 career is an example of this. Alonso raced for McLaren between 2015 and 2018, during what was one of the most difficult periods in the team's history. The car was often uncompetitive and unreliable, yet Alonso still seemed able to get results beyond its ability and regularly outperformed teammates Jenson Button and Stoffel Vandoorne.
At the end of 2018, Alonso left the sport and pursued other categories of motorsport to varying degrees of success; there were victories in the World Endurance Championship, but struggles in his 2020 attempt at the Indy 500. Hopes were high, though, that his return to Formula 1 with Alpine in 2021 would be a strong one.
Unfortunately, this has not quite been the case so far. Alonso has often appeared uncomfortable with the car, and at several weekends has been overshadowed by teammate Esteban Ocon.
The Spaniard has been honest about the difficulties he has faced, but has continued to remain positive about his comeback. Whilst only the man himself knows the exact reasons behind why things haven't quite clicked yet, there have been suggestions of certain factors in his underwhelming start to 2021.
With Alpine struggling for pace during the earlier races of the season, Alonso suggested at the time that the car was not at the performance level they had hoped for. In more recent Grand Prix, though, the team appear to have been more competitive, with Ocon taking points finishes in every race barring the season-opener in Bahrain, whilst Alonso was classed in the top 10 in Imola and Portugal.
Despite this, Alonso has admitted that he is still not completely confident with the car, and needs further time to adjust.
"On the driving and the results... Maybe I found it a little bit more difficult than I probably anticipated," the Spaniard told Racer.com about his comeback. "It’s not that I took it for granted that the results were coming automatically.
"I knew that the preparation was needed and the hours in the simulator and the 2018 tests in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi were needed, so I anticipated this, but I’m still struggling to maximise the potential of the car."
In line with this, Alonso has suggested that his difficulties in adapting to the Alpine are not unusual, given the history of this happening at the team. The double World Champion highlighted the fact that other drivers have needed time to get used to things at the French squad in the past.
This is a fair point; Daniel Ricciardo faced a similar situation when he joined the then-Renault outfit in 2018, whilst Ocon also took time to get up to scratch during his return to the Formula 1 grid with the team last year.
"I think it has something to do with the Renault/Alpine philosophy as well. Most of the drivers that came here, in their first year they were struggling," Alonso said.
"So there is something that, we think we have some idea what the cause of it is, but it needs maybe more time than when I signed last year to come back. I thought that within three or four races I would be at 100 percent, and I think it’s going to take eight or nine."
Whilst 39-year-old Alonso has rejected any suggestions that age could affect his comeback performance - which seems completely logical, given that Kimi Raikkonen is still putting in solid performances at 41, whilst seven-times World Champion Lewis Hamilton is also technically one of the sport's elder statesmen at 36 - others have questioned whether it is a factor.
Nico Rosberg is one of those to suggest so, having mentioned Michael Schumacher's 2010 return at the age of 41 as a comparison.
"The Alpine is a difficult car to drive and Alonso is not enjoying it," Rosberg told Sky Sports. "It is a long road for Fernando. Sometimes he leaves flashes, like Michael Schumacher when I was his teammate at Mercedes. It was very difficult for him because of his age.
"The same thing is happening to Alonso. He has spent two years away and it will take a little time to be in full swing again."
The driver switch struggle?
The idea of age being the main issue seems unlikely when considering that Alonso is not the only driver to be having a tough time at a new team. In fact, it has been quite a theme of the 2021 F1 season. The opening races saw those who had made big switches falter in comparison to their teammates - namely Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren, Carlos Sainz at Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin.
Whilst Sainz and Vettel have appeared to be on an upward trajectory more recently, Ricciardo is still being overshadowed by fellow McLaren driver Lando Norris, much like Alonso's situation with Ocon. It may just be the case that some are taking longer to adapt to their new settings than others; perhaps even more so for Alonso, who has not raced a Formula 1 car in over two years.
Is it actually that bad?
All of this really raises the question - is Alonso's tough beginning to 2021 actually as worrisome as it may seem? Well, Alonso himself does not appear overly concerned in some ways, given that he has often made it clear that this year is one of transition ahead of the rule changes in 2022. The promise of increased competitiveness ahead is what he is waiting for.
"That’s the reason, exactly, why I came back this year," the Spaniard has said. "My biggest motivation was the new regulations, but they were postponed, and to come back immediately into 2022 was a bigger challenge, I thought, to adapt quickly to everything.
"So, 2021 is a season where we want to achieve big things, but at the same time, we have to prepare the team for the big thing that can happen in the future."
Additionally, it should not be forgotten that Alonso has at times showed some recognisable moments of brilliance in 2021. The Alpine did not perform particularly well in Bahrain, yet he managed to drag it to Q3, and only retired from the race due to a sandwich wrapper bizarrely becoming lodged into one of his brake ducts.
And in Portugal, Alonso spoke of how he had used the anger he'd felt following a difficult qualifying to battle his way from 13th up to eighth in the race.
Yes, the Alonso comeback has perhaps not been as immediately impactful as some may have expected. As the man himself has said, things are taking a little longer to fall into place than he had anticipated - but the recent examples of Sainz's and Vettel's improved performances at their new teams show that, just as quickly as prospects can falter, they can be built back up again.
Alonso appears confident about the future, and also seems to have found a new appreciation for aspects of the sport that he previously did not like.
"I think honestly the amount of joy and the amount of excitement is probably higher than what I anticipated," the veteran driver said. "I’m really enjoying every lap out there.
"And I’m enjoying the preparation, I’m enjoying the meetings about the setup of the car - I’m enjoying things that before, were the worst part of the weekend.
"Now I’m really enjoying even that about the weekend. Not only the track time, the off-track I’m also enjoying a little bit more than the past. So I’m surprised about that, because you cannot plan what you will feel when you come back."
This upbeat demeanour will arguably serve him well in remaining patient about when his on-track activity will improve. And with 17 seasons' worth of experience under his belt, if anybody can turn things around then it is surely Alonso.