Diamonds aren't for ever; The Champion

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Date: Mar. 4, 2006
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Article
Length: 763 words

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Byline: Kevin Eason

KEVIN EASON says Fernando Alonso is right to sell himself to the highest bidder

FERNANDO ALONSO DOES NOT LOOK much like a mugger. Too short for a start, too polite and not really the sort of chap who places much importance on a millionaire lifestyle. The new Formula One world champion does not even have a private plane, for heaven's sake, and lives in a regular house in Oxford.

So where will he spend the $100 million (about Pounds 60 million) that McLaren Mercedes are reportedly going to pay him when he ditches Renault and moves into their garage at the end of this season? Alonso says he doesn't think about it but, presumably, he was craven enough to be skulking around the McLaren motor home looking for a deal before he even had one hand on the championship trophy last season.

The deal - announced a full year before Alonso will drive a McLaren - has all the hallmarks of betrayal and greed that seem to set sportsmen apart from the rest of us. After all, Renault gave Alonso his chance in Formula One and then gave him a car to become the youngest Formula One champion in history. But that assessment could not be farther from the truth: Alonso would surely have stayed at Renault if he believed that the team was committed to Formula One for the long haul.

He, like almost everybody else in Formula One, is starting to think that Renault is looking around for the exit and the Spaniard needed a team he knew would still be in the championship as he reached the peak of his powers.

And why should he be loyal? Drivers are little more than commodities, traded over the shop counter, sometimes not even knowing to whom and for how much, in spite of all the oily words of praise that surround them when they are winning. They are a component in the big machine and, as soon as that component stops working to full capacity, the team simply throws it out and gets a new one.

Formula One is full of tales of drivers who were transformed from flavour of the month to bottom of the bin within weeks. Such as poor Damon Hill, who had climbed a psychological mountain to become world champion in 1996. He had been late coming to Formula One, as a 31-year-old complete with wife and children, and then, after just one season, he found himself leading the Williams team in the most unpleasant circumstances after the death of Ayrton Senna. As if that wasn't enough, he was pitched up against an arrogant Michael Schumacher in a Benetton that was a constant focus for speculation as being an illegal machine.

When the title came, it was as though a boulder had been lifted from Hill's shoulders but even as he crossed the line for his final victory in a Williams in Japan, he knew he was out of a job; Sir Frank Williams had decided to dump him for Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Out went Hill - winner of 21 grands prix for the team - and in came the little-known German, who went on to amass a total of one win in two unhappy years. Then it was the likeable Frentzen's turn to be shown the door.

Their experience demonstrates that drivers can have only one loyalty and that is to themselves and their careers.

No matter how good a driver, he is only as good as his car - ask Michael Schumacher. His salary might be about Pounds 21 million a year but he would have driven for nothing over the past six seasons if it meant he could take victory after victory in an overwhelmingly superior Ferrari.

And the same is true of Alonso. Like Schumacher, Alonso has no expensive habits, no expensive toys and no line of expensive girlfriends. He watches television, drives cars and plays football with some of the lads at Oxford University. The money is merely a by-product of being an extraordinary commodity. If you want a rare diamond, you have to pay the asking price. Alonso is bright enough to know he is Formula One's diamond for now and he chose to be behind the counter when it came to his own personal January sale.

Copyright (C) The Times, 2006

CAPTION(S):

Show me the money: Alonso has ditched the team that gave him a title winning car for a reported payday of Pounds 60 million at McLaren in 2007. Photograph by ANTONIO SCORZA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A142860706