Watching Fernando Alonso, at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, slide around the final corner in the closing moments of wet qualifying gave a wonderful visceral sense of what the timing screens would confirm a few seconds later when he qualified the Alpine on the front row. at 40 years old. ancient. He had beaten time once again.
It was a pretty brilliant performance, at least as good as the mega lap he never got to complete due to red flags in Melbourne. The track was wet but dry, a line going down in some places but standing water in others, the grip was unknowable as you approached the corners on every lap. In these conditions that required improvisation, nerve and the confidence of knowing that you could always rescue any crisis that could trigger your effort, Alonso took a step forward.
Yes, he was 0.65s slower than polesitter Max Verstappen, but in a car that is usually more than 1s behind Red Bull in the dry. He overtook the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and outpaced his own super-capable teammate, Esteban Ocon, by 1.5 seconds.
Around Montreal, the Alpine was probably doing better than its usual level. The team has been making good progress of late, both in its better understanding and productive improvements, which have given Alonso a balance that he can work with. He had also been fast in the dry practices on Friday, green or rubberized track, single lap or long runs, totally wet track like in FP3 or dry like in qualifying.
But it is Alonso who has really been maximizing the car and who jumped on the extra opportunity the weather provides to ambush everyone. Much of the paddock figuratively shook their heads in amazement. He had taken something special out of the bag once again.
Alpine also retains in its DNA the smart race operations of a world title-winning team. Before his final two-lap Q3 race, Alonso was held back long after he was ready, making sure they crossed the line to start their final lap as late as possible on the dry track and in a good gap.
A mist of spray from the cars on the pit lane floats in the air as you drive down the pitlane. His race engineer, Karel Loos, walks him through the gaps to other cars as Fernando works his way through the final grip levels. Harnessing 1,000 horsepower in conditions like these will always be a game of skidding, oversteering, and trying to somehow find traction.
Even when Alonso is talking to Loos, the engine revs can be heard racing as the rear wheels encounter standing water, especially out of Turn 2 and the hairpin turn of Turn 10. Watch your tyres, warm up the brakes. This will be a two lap race. He brakes to temperature as he approaches the final chicane, but backs off, not starting the lap yet; there are yellow flags at turn 1. Ok, they have cleared, reload, ready.
There is a large puddle at the apex of curve 1. The edge is the new apex. But there’s a little too much speed in T2, a big oversteer hit, out of gas for an age. Even then another flurry of wheels skidding further up the road where the surface is still treacherous. Delicate and precise through the dangerously tight dry line in Turns 4-5, high speed, the walls up close.
At this point Alonso feels that it is not turning into a great lap and asks if there is time to turn it into a preparation lap for the final attack lap. Yes, there is a margin of 30 shillings, they told him. So they get back into the grind, recharging again, but keeping the brakes and tires warm while letting the fast lap cars zip by. Approaching the last chicane, reload, go for the last lap. There is wheelspin on the pit lane.
Compared to Verstappen and Sainz, Alonso brakes a bit earlier in T1 than either of them and loses a bit of time on entry. But he is briefly ahead of both of them by the apex.
Through Turn 1, he’s using a lot of throttle to help with the rotation of the car to line it up at T2, to balance understeer with power. He is briefly using around 50% throttle there, about twice as much as Verstappen. Having achieved this, he takes a more leisurely approach to Turn 2 this time, not hitting the throttle for very long, but that gets him in a straight line as soon as possible for maximum traction.
However, both the Ferrari and Red Bull have better traction and are some three-tenths ahead, even before braking begins for Turn 3, the tight right-hander where the track turns away from St Lawrence and down by an understeer-inducing drop to the left of Turn 4, where hard walls lie in threatening wait on the exit.
It’s bold around here, a furious drift with the rear tire walls practically touching the wall, but short gearing and not lifting as much as Verstappen, who has his own little moment here where overhanging trees and dirt pile up on the to the left they keep the track wet.
Despite a brief and sudden climb for a moment of madness at Turn 5, Alonso regains two of those three tenths from Verstappen between Turns 3 and 6 to be just 0.1s down by the end of Sector 1, although Sainz has had a great race there and has the fastest sector time of all, 0.315s ahead of Alonso.
The chatter of the floor skimming the track can be heard in the Alpine cockpit as speed picks up before Alonso brakes hard for tight left corner 6. He carries a lot of momentum, the bank of the corner makes him quicker than it looks and again makes short turns, but there is still some angry power oversteer to catch and this costs both Red Bull and Ferrari time.
Despite a beautiful clean exit from Turn 7, leaving the wooded depression behind and heading for the T8-9 chicane, the loss of momentum from that T6 wheelspin continues to cost him all the way to the chicane. At the end of sector 2 in the braking zone of the hairpin, it is about 0.5 s behind them. Which seems like the right thing to do for an Alpine mid lap.
Take a gentle arc at the hairpin, a wide line to straighten the car out as soon as possible and take time from both Verstappen and Sainz here. But despite being absolutely lined up as the tires meet the standing water just beyond the start, there’s a wild wheelspin in fourth gear and again it looks like Red Bull and Ferrari just have naturally better traction. So it’s not as fast as either through the speed trap at the end of the straight.
Verstappen, running perhaps 15 seconds ahead of Alonso on the road, completes a super neat, impressive and fast lap. Alonso is risking it all with his approach to the chicane, braking outrageously early and carrying a huge amount of momentum there. He almost gets him to the first apex, but he’s already busy with steering and throttle as he spectacularly slides out of there, the champ’s wall looming, and then races down the line. A few seconds behind, Sainz also ventured into the chicane but the slide caused him to lose much more momentum than Alonso. At that moment Sainz lost the 0.5s advantage he had over the Alpino and was left in the shadow of a tenth in the lap.
Thus, Alonso gets his first front row in a decade.
“I think [Red Bull] they’re in a different league, for sure,” he said afterwards. “It was not in our wildest dreams to be on pole position. So we took the front row and that is perhaps better than any expectation.”
In the age versus experience equation, Alonso will tell you that the latter is very valuable and the former has no effect yet. Not for him.
“The car felt good from the first few laps in FP1, so it helped build confidence. It’s also a track where I think you need some pace. You use a lot of curbs here and there are a lot of potholes.
“There are some things that, you know, are there for many, many years. And I guess for the middle of the grid it’s the first time they come here or the second time… I’ve been racing here for 16 or 17 years, so as I always say, age and experience always help, it’s never a problem . ”
Alonso’s excitement and attack in mid-flight looks no different today than it did in his glory years of winning titles. He would seem to feel that way from the inside as well. “It was very difficult to run qualifying because we were a bit blind as to what the times were and what position we were in.
“We weren’t informed because every lap you were improving by a second or two, so I think it was too constant a change in times. So yeah, he went all-in for sure, on the last lap. It was completely unexpected, the grip that you will get in the next corner, so you have to guess and you have to go for it.
“And yes, I wanted to do a good lap and everything was fine.”