Just days before his fatal crash at Daytona in February 2001,Dale Earnhardt,one of NASCARs greatest ever drivers,said something that he would be remembered for as much as his achievements (seven Wiston Cu Championships,no less) behind the stock car wheel. When asked what it felt like to finish a race second,Earnhardt,50,shrugged and said: Second place is just a spot for the first loser.
Less than a fortnight after Earnhardts death,Fernando Alonso made his debut in a more global form of motor-racing,Formula 1. At the Australian Grand Prix,rookie Alonso,all of 19 at that time,drove the wheels off his car to finish second-to-last at Melbournes Albert Park. He was a happy man,for just finishing the race was an incredible feat in a Minardi (easily the least successful team of that era),let alone crossing the chequered flag with one other car (Giancarlo Fisichellas Benetton) in his mirrors.
Little would Alonso have known that day that finishing just behind first place would be far less fun than finishing just ahead of last. In fact,having finished the last two seasons in second place behind the same man,Sebastian Vettel,in the drivers championship,Alonso,now 32,is rather sick of it. Sick enough to feel each of Earnhardts famous words weighing down upon his career,fearing for his legacy.
Even when I race in go-karting in the weekends with my friends,100 per cent I want to win. If I come second,I dont like. So imagine how I feel to come second in a Formula 1 Grand Prix, the Ferrari driver said on Thursday,three days before his great rival Vettel is expected the seal his fourth straight World Championship title with Red Bull,this time in India. Three times I have come second overall,which is sad in a way.
Sad,then,is only about to get sadder.
If Alonso,with 207 points this season,90 behind the leader,ends the year on the same position he currently finds himself in on the championship table,then he will have the dubious distinction of becoming only the third driver in F1 history to finish four seasons as the second best driver in the world. The others on the list include Stirling Moss in the 50s and Alain Prost in the 80s.
Moss,incidentally,is the only one among them who hasnt gone on to win the crown. Its a very exclusive club,you know. There are very few drivers worthy of being a world champion who fail to make the mark,but plenty more world champions who really shouldnt have become so, Moss once said. Ive got to the stage where I am really quite proud of having failed so many times. Alonso,however,isnt.
The man from Oviedo hasnt spent a day in his thirties not chasing Vettels shadow. The fact must be hard to digest,considering it was him,the crown prince,who had ended the Michael Schumacher reign with back-to-back titles with Renault in 2005 and 06 (after the former had won five in a row). Now,despite driving from the very seat he forced Schumacher to vacate,the throne has eluded Alonso. Rather,it has chosen,of all people,a boy nicknamed Baby Schumi.
Just outside the Ferrari motorhome at the Buddh International Circuit,Alonso was asked by a German reporter to compare the eras of Schumacher and Vettel,and to choose which of the two he found harder to defeat on a given day. Swatting mosquitos against his feet,he replied: Ive never raced close enough to Sebastian to win.
As laughter rippled through the conglomeration,the driver blushed and even forced a smile. Then an Englishman followed this up with another query on similar lines. So Fernando, he said. Considering Sebastian is the greatest driver of this age and generation,is this well and truly the Vettel era? Alonso wasnt smiling now.
I dont know. These things are decided by you guys,no?, he asked back,before taking an uncomfortable pause. Some people become great in history quickly,others take more time. This is not the last year of my career. I have time on my side.
In that time,he may find a way to get past Vettel. But Alonso too realises that it wont happen in the red of a Ferrari. Unlike the clearly faster Red Bull,we never qualify on pole position, he said,wearing a broken smile. But just being in this team is a dream come true. When I joined Ferrari after 2009,I knew I will be fighting for World Championships. In four years,four times I fought for it. But each time,there was always one driver better than me.
That is all it takes to go from first to first loser.