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How McLaren manages Alonso’s genius

There's work cut out for the manager of this racer.

The helmet went crashing against a wall.

Just what triggered that? He was fighting for the race lead when his engine suddenly failed. Outbursts, triggered by frustrations when things don’t go his way, have coloured Fernando Alonso’s Formula 1 career.

Everything came together in the infamous public spat with McLaren in 2007, which involved team boss Ron Dennis and teammate Lewis Hamilton. Alonso’s gripe? Both drivers were neck and neck for the world title, and he felt the British team favoured Hamilton, an Englishman, leaving him the short- nd of the stick. In the end the Spaniard walked out on his three-year contract after only a year, and McLaren was happy to show him out.

Fernando Alonso on track.

Sparks flew not only on the track yesterday, but in 2007 as well, when a friction resulted in Alonso walking out on his three-year contract. Photo credit: McLaren

In Formula 1, Alonso is acclaimed as the best driver in the sport. If he throws his weight around, it is because he is dead set on one thing: winning titles. And he netted two, with Renault in 2005 and 2006.

When things are pitch-perfect he allows himself to smile and be witty. But when it is not he shuts out until the frustration erupts.

But when he shifts gears and is away from the racetrack, Alonso is none of the above. Those who know him say he is extremely generous and goes the extra mile to help people he cares about, especially the poor. The two personalities he throws about have led some to believe he is a genius. Maybe he is, because it is an art to do so and not be schizophrenic.

In a recent media interview he shed some light on this mystery: “In F1 it is necessary to play a role sometimes— a character— like in a movie. Sometimes it is pushing the team towards one direction. Sometimes it is just helping a team in another political issue. Some of the time it’s just giving some motivation to the fans. Some of the time you try to put some stress into your opponents. This is the normal thing I do every weekend. I don’t know who I am here, or how the people see me outside, but really I don’t care.”

What is already a template in Alonso’s head is applied on the racing track. And he plays it out like a chess master who knows all the moves the rest of the 19 drivers will make during a race. But his genius is displayed in full when he is driving a car that is not up to the mark. It’s under those trying conditions that he has constantly outperformed teammates driving the same cars. He thinks out solutions, at 300kmh, while they live with what they’ve got. That makes him the most sought-after driver in Formula 1.

But jaws dropped last November when McLaren signed a three-year contract with Alonso for his return to the team. How and why they decided to work together again is puzzling, especially when the split was acrimonious to a fault eight years earlier. More intriguingly, the McLaren that Alonso is returning to has lost a lot of sting and is no longer fighting for titles.

But they have one goal in common, and that is to win, again.

So how do you handle a man like Alonso who is determined to pull the strings on everything connected to him like a puppet master? The man who pulled off the coup to bring Alonso and McLaren together is racing director Eric Boullier. He runs the McLaren F1 team and sat down to a chat with The Peak about how everything now works with Alonso and them.

Eric Boullier.

Eric Boullier, McLaren’s racing director, tasked with bridging the operation and pushing the McLaren team to victory.

Honesty is the key to the relationship and the Frenchman said: “The first thing I did was to listen to Alonso’s concerns and understand his profile. I have been lucky enough in the past to work with sportsmen with similar profiles, and they are very demanding. They need the adrenaline of the results, but the main issue is to be completely honest with them. You have to build a level of trust for them to believe in you. This is the key.”

And in being honest with Alonso, Boullier said he was given a complete breakdown on the problems McLaren were facing and what was being done to get them back into championship winning form. In short, what Alonso heard is that McLaren has launched a mid-term project to get the team back into shape, and he liked it.

Boullier was brutally honest with Alonso. “He knows why we are slow and the other teams are faster. But he also knows all the hard work we are doing behind the scenes. He knows all the people we have gathered in the team and where we are going, and this is the most important thing. Most important, he must have trust in us, and he does and this is why he believes our project can be successful. So this is basically how we keep him motivated and happy.”

What about raw emotions coming to a boil, like the time when Alonso sent his helmet crashing against a wall, when things sometimes go wrong?

“He is a human being and obviously we cannot control all his emotions,” said Boullier. “But as long he believes in us and the project he will be committed.”

So what makes Alonso a genius on the racing track?

“He is the most complete driver, in terms of talent. He is also unique because he has absolutely no distractions in life. His only aim for racing is winning and winning for him is everything. Everybody wants to but there are different levels of commitment and dedication in life and I have to say Alonso is the most dedicated driver out there.”