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How a year with McLaren in 2007 changed Fernando Alonso

This column could be overflowing with tales of Fernando Alonso's virtuosity (victory at the wet 2012 Malaysian GP; carving his way through the field at Valencia in the same year -- to name just two); stories of how he came close to winning the championship in 2010 and 2012 with underperforming Ferraris; glowing references from competitors acquainted with his relentless and ruthless winning ethic.

And yet one question remains: why was this supremely gifted driver unable to win more than two world titles during the course of more than 300 grands prix? Social media is currently buzzing with theories covering a catalogue of misfortune, bad luck and bad temper.

As a crucial snapshot, it's perhaps worth comparing the Fernando Alonso of 2005 (his first of two successive championship seasons) and the very different man at the end of 2007. The substantial change during that disastrous year with McLaren arguably lays the foundation for an irritation that would increasingly invade his effort to further prove a justifiable self-assessment of brilliance in terms of hard results.

Paul Stoddart, the man who had given Alonso his F1 break with Minardi in 2001, was present at Interlagos four years later to see Fernando become the first Spaniard and the youngest driver to win the title. Stoddart, a no-nonsense Aussie, was not alone in his genuine assertion that "the championship could not have gone to a nicer guy. There's absolutely no bulls--- and he doesn't need to surround himself with an entourage."

Pat Symonds was of a similar view, the director of engineering at Renault citing the one-lap qualifying for the Turkish Grand Prix as an example of Alonso's willingness to encourage team spirit. "Fernando was first out and messed up going into Turn 12 at the end of the back straight," said Symonds. "He thought about it and came on the radio and said: 'Tell Giancarlo [Fisichella] to watch the wind going into Turn 12.' What a lovely thing to do even though he knew that Giancarlo would probably qualify in front of him. Which is exactly what happened."

Interestingly, though, Symonds also recalled a moment six races previously when Alonso was not significantly far enough ahead in the championship to be favoured within a team he had cleverly built around himself. Going against the expected run of play on the opening lap in Canada, Fisichella had snatched the lead and showed he had the pace to stay there. Alonso, running second, made it clear he should be in front. When the team failed to intervene, Alonso became agitated, so much so that, even after taking the lead following Fisichella's retirement, Fernando hit the wall while pushing unnecessarily hard. It was a rare lapse. But a telling one in the light of what was to come in 2007.

Alonso's move to McLaren was supposed to be the making of a dream team as the double world champion joined Lewis Hamilton, then a novice with as much potential as the MP4-22. Any unspoken thoughts Alonso may have had about being de facto team leader were badly shaken within seconds of the start of the season as Hamilton ran around the outside of Alonso at Melbourne's first corner.

It was to be the beginning of a contentious decline as the team turned in on itself, not helped by the 'Spygate' scandal erupting in July. By which time Alonso had convinced himself Hamilton was the favoured driver.

This feeling festered to a state of distrust that became ugly in Hungary when selfish behaviour by both drivers caused uproar during and after qualifying, Alonso then moving his dissension onto another level by threatening to blackmail Ron Dennis over information relevant to Spygate. Alonso quickly retracted his unpleasant tactic -- but too late to save a relationship that had become toxic.

Alonso's behaviour was as unusual has his subsequent decision (recorded in Marc 'Elvis' Priestley's book) to furtively give each of his mechanics and engineers €1,300 in cash at the Nürburgring, an unnecessary -- and insulting -- incentive that was rejected by his crew and earned Dennis' angry disapproval. But it was proof of what had become raging paranoia, Alonso certain the entire team was against him.

This was not true. Quite the reverse in some respects, particularly among team members simply wanting to win the title for the first time since 1999, regardless of which driver became champion. Indeed, one or two employees had, off the record, become weary of what was seen to be the mollycoddling of Hamilton (even though Dennis went out of his way to ensure parity between the two drivers) and wanted Alonso to make the most of his unquestioned skill and experience.

In his own mind, however, Fernando was now far removed from the comfort zone engendered by Flavio Briatore at Renault. His natural flow was polluted by suspicion and a damaging urgency that led to an uncharacteristic mistake in Japan.

Alonso crashed in the wet, the telemetry showing he had changed gear at the very point where a river of water crossed the track; a basic mistake he had avoided during in the previous 41 laps. The race was won by Hamilton but, had he continued, Alonso would have scored six, perhaps eight, points. He would lose the 2007 title by one point (as would Hamilton, with whom Alonso tied for second).

Tyler Alexander was among many on the team hugely frustrated by the turn of events in 2007. As a mechanic to Bruce McLaren in the 1960s, Alexander knew racing inside out. In the hard-nosed American's mind, drivers were employees; some better than others. With the exception of Ayrton Senna, Alexander had no particular favourites. But he very much approved of Alonso as a driver and would go so far as to say the Spaniard was "a very, very good race driver who knows how to win races."

Concerned about Alonso's growing disaffection with the team and the undue influence of his advisors, Alexander had tried to talk to Fernando. "He had some people with him who I thought did not help the matter at all," wrote Alexander in his memoirs. "I wanted to talk to him and try to explain some things about that, but he wouldn't let me. He had a good car with good people working on it who cared about him."

"It was sad that he was leaving," concluded Alexander. "He is pretty damn good when the wires touch."