Technically speaking, they have done: Alonso was one of the team’s junior drivers back in the early noughties. But pedantry aside, it’s not hard to see why the team’s current roster of junior drivers may feel disappointed at today’s development.
Of course Renault’s junior line-up lost one of its number in terrible circumstances last year. Anthoine Hubert, with two victories to his name in his rookie Formula 2 season, was tragically killed at Spa.
A few weeks later Abiteboul made his remark about looking to promote a young driver in the future. At the time the leading light of Renault’s young driver programme was undoubtedly Jack Aitken, who had won two titles in their Eurocup series four years earlier, and was in the thick of the F2 title fight.
Aitken, however, left the team at the end of the year. “I’m just not confident that they’re necessarily as invested in their junior driver academy as the junior drivers might hope,” he said, presciently as it turned out.
But while they may not have promoted from within, Renault can’t be accused of avoiding young talent. Last weekend 23-year-old Esteban Ocon started his first race for the team.
Here is a young talent which has too often been frustrated as he climbed the lower ladders of motorsport. Back-to-back championships in F3 and GP3 led not to F2, which they logically should have, but the backwater of the DTM. Fortunately an F1 seat became available midway through 2016, and Ocon got his break. But another setback followed at the end of 2018, when Force India showed him the door so a place could be found for their new owner’s son.
In Ocon, Renault already have a bright talent of the future. And they have more on the way: Guanyu Zhou, formerly of the Ferrari Driver Academy, who was robbed of victory in the season-opening Formula 2 race last weekend, is definitely one to watch, as is his stablemate and F2 rival Christian Lundgaard.
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But as Renault endeavour to become a title-contending force in F1 again they need an experienced hand alongside Ocon. Alonso fits the bill perfectly.
Not only does he know the team well, having spent two stints with them, he knows what the team was like at its best: The potent force of 2005-06 which won back-to-back titles across a major change in engine regulations and against the might of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.
When the 2006 season drew to a close, few probably imagined Alonso’s second title would be his last for 14 years. He remains desperate to add a third.
How desperate? During his title-winning spell with Toyota’s World Endurance Championship team, Alonso is known to have stipulated a get-out clause in his contract permitting him to take advantage of any opportunity to return to Formula 1.
Alonso holds the unshaken view that, with suitable equipment underneath him, he remains a match for any of the sport’s stars, be they Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc or Sebastian Vettel. At times he has evinced a thinly-concealed contempt for the latter, burnished by four years of toiling in vain to stop Vettel’s Red Bull winning title after title, and coming oh-so-close to doing so Ferrari’s hopeless 2012 machine (the qualities of which Leclerc and Vettel may appreciate in the team’s latest creation).
He is not everyone’s cup of tea. The ‘I just drove my best race’ chest-thumping after dragging his McLaren-Honda to another 15th place grew old quickly. In the eyes of some, he is forever tainted by the events of Singapore 2008, despite being cleared of involvement in ‘Crashgate’.
But Alonso is a force of nature. A brutally uncompromising competitor who demands the utmost from his team and seldom fails to deliver the same. He may drag Renault’s underwhelming third-generation works F1 outfit to the championship by their nose-hairs or wreck them by trying.
More to the point, Formula 1 is supposed to be a contest of the world’s best drivers, and any champion who believes they still have what it takes deserves a seat.
However all of that pales in significance besides this selfish point: He’s older than me, and there aren’t enough Formula 1 drivers I can say that about these days. Welcome back, Fernando.
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