How the Alonso signing diminishes Renault junior academy

Image: @RenaultF1Team

The number of champions on the Formula 1 grid for the 2021 was in threat of diminishing to just Lewis Hamilton, with the futures of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen in Formula 1 currently unknown ahead of the 2021 season. However their futures are resolved, F1 will have more than one champion on the grid next season as Renault announced the return of two-time champion Fernando Alonso on Wednesday for the 2021 and 2022 seasons, replacing the outgoing Daniel Ricciardo, who is headed to Alonso’s former team at McLaren.

The return of Fernando Alonso is, overall, a win for Formula 1, who certainly let him down as he exited from the sport at the end of 2018, with no path to a top team on the grid.

A return to Renault, certainly in 2021, would appear to be a similar situation that Alonso left in 2018: a top-class driver toiling around in the midfield.

The new regulations that were originally due for 2021 were pushed back to 2022 amid the Coronavirus outbreak. That certainly didn’t help Alonso and his F1 comeback. Who knows what Renault’s potential pace is amongst F1’s rules reset but you can be fairly sure — barring a miracle — that Renault won’t be competing for victories in 2021 (happy to be proven wrong though).

Myself, I love Fernando Alonso. He’s not only my favourite driver of all time but I think he is the 2nd best driver of this century (after Michael Schumacher). He’s tenacious, relentless, just an incredible driver and knows how to drag the most out of an F1 car. There are few drivers who have the winning calibre of Alonso that could go through what he did from 2015-2018 in those awful McLarens and not just give up and go home.

I have mixed feelings about Alonso returning to F1.

I think for Renault, yes, he is definitely what they need in terms of driver who can deliver on the track and a driver who help drive and help direct development. The 2019 McLaren is one of the results of the season-long feedback Alonso would have given on the 2018 car. Renault need a similar driver direction to help them in the development of their car: they need to be where Racing Point and McLaren are right now. They’re close enough but they need to be there. Alonso can help them with that.

Like I said, Alonso is my favourite driver of all time. It’s great for F1 he’s back and I’ll sure be happy to see him on track again. But in another sense, I don’t want to see him back unless he has a chance to win races and championships.

Alonso has had a fantastic career where he, somehow, only achieved two world championships. Everyone will look back and wonder how on earth did a driver the calibre of Fernando Alonso only win two world titles, and none after 2006? It’s a shame it worked out that way, it’s a shame the first McLaren stint didn’t work out, it’s a shame Ferrari could never give Alonso the best car on the grid, or one quicker than Red Bull when it mattered the most. It’s a shame Honda grossly underestimated what it meant to develop a V6 hybrid power unit. It’s a shame Alonso didn’t win another F1 race after 2013. It’s a shame Ferrari gave him the worst Ferrari of this century in 2014 (2009 at least won a race).

It’s a shame, but that’s the story of Fernando Alonso’s career: he was a driver who didn’t get all of the breaks, didn’t end up in the right place at the right time after 2006. We don’t get what we deserve sometimes, and that, sadly, is the story of Alonso’s F1 career after 2006.

Now, it’s 2020 and next year when Alonso returns it’ll be 2021: 20 years down the road from when Alonso made his debut with Minardi in 2001. I love Alonso, but he’s had his time in F1. If he’s not winning races, maybe it’s better if he’s not there.

Many things have changed in F1 since 2001, and something that is a lot more prevalent in F1 now are driver academies/junior programs. A lot fo F1 teams have academy drivers, especially the top teams — this includes Renault.

Renault’s driver academy is quite extensive and they have two drivers in Formula 2 who are part of their academy: Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard. Add to that promising talent Oscar Piastri, who took victory in F3’s feature race over the weekend.

Renault’s usage of their driver academy has been very frustrating to watch. Almost every other team who has had academy drivers have given at least one driver a shot in Formula 1, even if it isn’t with their own team.

Mercedes didn’t have an opening for their academy drivers (who weren’t ready anyways) were able to get George Russell into a Williams and, before that, Esteban Ocon into a Force India for a full-time seat.

Before Charles Leclerc drove for Ferrari, he drove for Alfa Romeo for a year, and Antonio Giovinazzi currently drives for Alfa Romeo.

Lando Norris was a McLaren academy driver before replacing Stoffel Vandoorne — who himself was a McLaren junior driver waiting in the wings in 2016 — for 2019.

Nicholas Latifi was a Williams junior driver.

Red Bull’s history of academy drivers is obviously well documented (heck, they have an entire F1 team basically dedicated to that).

For as many academy drivers Renault have had, none of them have made the step to Formula 1 over the recent years like other teams have. And none have been as promising as Guanyu Zhou, who is set for a potential title challenge in this season’s F2 season — after standing out as the top rookie from last year — if last weekend’s showing at Austria is to be believed.

Christian Lundgaard is also a strong driver within the program, who has top-10 potential in F2 this season.

F2 is the final stepping stone for Formula 1, but obviously requires an opening to make that step. What step is there for these drivers to make that step with Renault?

Esteban Ocon is contracted to Renault for this current season and next season, 2021. Even after 2021, there’s no guarantee Ocon will land himself in a Mercedes. With Alonso on a two-year deal — unless Mercedes call-up Ocon after 2021 — there’s going to no space for a Renault junior driver to make the jump to the works team for at least two years.

Signing Alonso is a slap in the face to everyone who partakes in the Renault Junior Academy. It shows absolutely zero faith in any of the junior drivers.

Where’s the path for them? What confidence is there that they’ll make the jump to an F1 seat with Renault? Why do you think Jack Aitken left the Renault Academy for the Williams reserve role?

“I’m just not confident that they’re necessarily as invested in their junior driver academy as the junior drivers might hope,” said Aitken.

Aitken’s decision to leave Renault speaks volumes, and he’s so right. He has a much larger chance to be considered for an F1 drive at Williams, whenever George Russell leaves, than he ever would at Renault.

Aitken has been proved right by this decision taken by Renault. If you’re Christian Lundgaard or Guanyu Zhou, what are you to make of it all? How are they going to get to F1? Like Aitken, it’s going to have to be with another team.

I genuinely think, with a strong season, that Guanyu Zhou will be ready to make the leap to Formula 1 with Renault — he is the best academy driver they have had. And Renault have decided to pass him over.

I love Fernando Alonso, but he’s had his time. I understand Renault wanting to jump at the chance to sign Daniel Ricciardo: that’s absolutely fine. But with that opening for 2021 after Ricciardo’s exit, now was the time Renault showed some faith in their own academy, and the fact that they haven’t is a slap in the face to everyone involved and a slamming indictment of their own academy and all the time, money and effort invested into it…

For tomorrow, Alonso blocks the path for Renault’s younger drivers. For today? It’s exactly what Renault need to bring them forward…

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