LONDON (Reuters) - Fernando Alonso has fought for the Formula One championship three times in three years, winning the title twice before losing out by a single point in last season’s final race.
This year could be far more of a struggle for the 26-year-old Spaniard now that he is back at Renault after just one controversial and uncomfortable season alongside Lewis Hamilton at McLaren.
Alonso’s new challenge is to help restore Renault’s fortunes after the French manufacturer slumped from domination in 2005 and 2006 to a season with no victories and only one podium finish in 2007.
Apart from Ferrari, Renault are the only team to have won the championship since 2000. Yet last year they were struggling to qualify in the top 10 with a car more than a second off the pace of Ferrari and McLaren.
If anyone can haul them back, it is the Oviedo driver.
He has the talent to make an average car look good but, despite a sense of jubilation in Spain at his return ‘home’ to the team with which he won his titles, Alonso cannot perform miracles.
He is certainly not expecting a quick fix.
“We are very, very far,” he told Spanish reporters during a recent test in Barcelona when asked to assess the pre-season pecking order.
“I think it’s a bit like how last year ended: Two Ferraris, two McLarens and two BMWs and if it goes like that, you start almost chasing seventh place.”
Alonso said he was still a thousand times happier at Renault, even if a podium finish looked little more than a dream at present, than he was at the end of his troubled time at McLaren in a winning car.
That is unlikely to be the case for long.
A headline on the front page of Britain’s Autosport magazine last week suggested that the Spaniard’s new 22-year-old team mate Nelson Piquet junior could prove ‘Alonso’s worst nightmare’.
There is, however, no doubt that Alonso is number one at Renault and team boss Flavio Briatore will make sure everyone knows that.
The real nightmare will be if Renault fail to provide a competitive car.
Alonso wants to win and he will be looking for clear signs that his team are catching up with champions Ferrari and McLaren.
If that does not happen, it will be only a matter of time before speculation about an Alonso move to the Italian team or BMW begins to pick up speed again.
For the moment, after the turbulence of 2007, he is staying calm and looking at the bigger picture.
He has referred in passing to Michael Schumacher’s move from Benetton, where the German won two titles, to Ferrari — where he had to wait for five years before embarking on an astonishing sequence of five more titles in a row.
But Ferrari were a sleeping giant then, without a drivers’ title for 21 years before Schumacher restored them to the pinnacle, whereas Renault are scrabbling to regain what they have only just lost.
“First you have to gain a second and then two tenths at a time,” Alonso said recently. “I think that this year, unlike 2005 or 2006, we will go from less to more.
“No team, and not Renault, have a magic wand to take away two seconds at a time, that much is obvious.
“We all want a winning car but I think that at Renault we can do it, if not this year then next. At the moment it doesn’t look like we can fight for the title, but everything can change,” added the Spaniard.
His rivals are certainly not counting him out in a season that offers the dream outcome, for commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, of having the top three drivers from 2007 in different teams.
“Fernando is a champion so obviously we all can expect him to be fighting in the front,” said former Renault team mate Jarno Trulli, now with Toyota.
“But Renault has also to deliver him a good car.”
Renault bosses believe they can do that, at least over the course of the season.
“Fernando would not have made up for the deficiencies of last year’s car,” said engineering head Pat Symonds at the launch of the R28 car.
“We are now confident we have overcome those problems, and we are desperate to give him the car his talent deserves. I am certain that the combination of Fernando in a revitalized Renault will see him challenging for race wins.
“He knows what he wants from the car, and we have shown in the past that we can deliver it.”
Editing by Clare Fallon