Last year in September, when Aston Martin shocked the paddock to announce Fernando Alonso would drive for them in 2023, Jacques Villeneuve got it spot-on when he predicted the two-time Formula 1 World Champion could win again in the top flight at the age of 41.
It was a bold prediction at the time as Aston Martin were in dire straits with their woeful AMR22 which signaled the end of Sebastian Vettel’s career in F1 and did Lance Stroll no favours.
But over the winter Aston found that elusive ‘Magic Button’ that has catapulted their car to second in the pecking order, after the first two rounds of this season, only bettered by the dominant Red Bull RB19 – another weapon of F1 mass destruction concocted by Adrian Newey and his design team.
But, despite double one-twos in Bahrain first, then Jeddah two weeks later for Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, behind them Alonso racked up two podiums and looked the most likely to challenge the Bulls in future races.
And as Villeneuve said at the time of his shock signing, don’t discount the Spaniard winning again for the first time since 2013.
“He has done well because he leaves for two or three years to build something good,” Villeneuve told Mundo Deportivo. “They have given him a long-term contract, they have money. Now we are all waiting to see if they manage to push the car forward and take steps forward with Alonso pushing.”
As for Fernando winning a Grand Prix again, 52-year-old Villeneuve, who himself is contesting this year’s WEC Hypercar Championship, said: “Why not? Who knows? It can’t be ruled out. Fernando maintains the skills, speed and desire necessary to be successful. But then he depends on how the team works, I’m sure he will push the team.”
Villeneuve’s words have a prophetic ring to them, as with a strong car Alonso has excelled, becoming the star of this year’s show, one he once ‘owned’ for two years (2005-2006) before for too long he was the nearly-man or an also-ran. But now, over two decades since his 2001 debut for Minardi, in Melbourne, he is back as a podium finisher and potential race winner.
And “push the team” he has, the veteran of 358 Grand Prix starts has energised the mega-funded and hugely ambitious outfit that promised so much but underdelivered miserably for too long. That has changed this year.
Jacques: Age matters if you no longer have the desire, like Vettel last year
This week, after Alonso’s Jeddah heroics, Villeneuve reckoned: “As much as it is a big catch for the Aston Martin team, the Alpine team will suffer from its loss. We knew that Fernando was going to be in the game at the first Formula 1 Grand Prix of the 2023 season two weeks ago in Bahrain.
“However, he was really impressive in his overtaking [Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz]. At 41, age certainly matters. If you come to a point where you no longer have that desire and that will take risks, you might as well quit, like Vettel did last year.
“Alonso demonstrated that he is as hungry as he was 20 years ago, his experience served him well to finish third,” added Villeneuve.
The Canadian, a harsh critic of Lance Stroll, had praise for his fellow countryman: “It’s a very satisfying start to his season. In Bahrain, he conceded 1.1 seconds to his teammate Alonso, without taking part in winter testing due to injuries. He’s doing a good job against all odds.”
On the evidence of Bahrain and Jeddah, with a fully fit Stroll and Alonso in fine form, Aston Martin are Best of the Rest (including Ferrari and Mercedes) and could be the thorn in the side for the rampaging Red Bulls, who have their on internal shenanigans to contend with.
Expecting a Green car to win a race or more this season may be wishful thinking, but should Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez clash (Nico Rosberg versus Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes style) Jacques may be spot on: Alonso to win in Melbourne? Why not?
On a stats note, history shows that 1997 World Champion, Villeneuve (BAR) and Alonso (Minardi) were on the F1 grid during the Spaniard’s rookie season in 2001; then, after his gap year in 2002, Fernando was back with Renault this time.
The two remained rivals until the end of 2006 when JV retired from F1, after a final season with BMW-Sauber. By then, Alonso had bagged his two F1 titles.
Alonso will make his 359th F1 start at the forthcoming Australian Grand Prix. He scored his 100th podium in Jeddah last Sunday, with 32 of those as a winner. He last won in the top flight when he triumphed on home soil, winning the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, driving for Ferrari.