Why Alonso's return to Renault makes sense

Fernando Alonso eyeing 2022 as championship-winning season (1:30)

Fernando Alonso believes that 2020 and 2021 will be won by Mercedes but that Renault can have future success. (1:30)

Once you boil it down, Renault's decision to sign Fernando Alonso for the next two years was simple: He was the best driver and the biggest name available to the team.

From Alonso's side, it was just as straightforward: Renault was the highest-placed team willing to take him back and, with his 39th birthday looming later this month, he was running out of time for an F1 return.

The icing on the cake is the romantic notion of Alonso reuniting with the team that secured his two titles back in 2005 and 2006, but in reality the events of 14 years ago had little to do with the decision.

What mattered was that driver and team needed each other, and even though the odds are stacked against them, each represents the best chance of success for the other.

How did the deal come about?

This wasn't the original plan. Had Daniel Ricciardo extended his contract at Renault beyond 2020, there would have been no space for Alonso. But after just one season at the team, and despite being on a contract rumoured to be worth $25 million a year, Ricciardo signed a deal in May to move to McLaren in 2021.

For the Renault F1 team, it was a huge kick in the teeth. It had been fighting for its survival over the winter and, with its parent company in Paris looking to cut costs across the board, Ricciardo's decision before a wheel had turned in the 2020 season was hardly a ringing endorsement.

For team boss Cyril Abiteboul, it was particularly embarrassing. In 2018 he'd been so proud of his ability to tempt Ricciardo away from Red Bull, thereby securing a driver on par with Renault's race-winning ambitions. Less than two years later, that embodiment of hope had decided to leave Enstone for a rival team.

But in signing Alonso, Renault has upped the stakes again. Sebastian Vettel, a four-time champion, was the only other name available with similar clout, but his performances in recent years have left a lot to be desired. Although Renault considered other drivers, the team quickly homed in on Alonso and secured his signature.

"We have had a number of conversations [with other drivers]," Abiteboul said in a news conference after the announcement. "I don't want to put any specific names out there, but one thing is extremely clear, it was a very clear decision.

"It was not because of a lack of alternatives, but a very clear decision that led to today's announcement."

So now that they have their man, what can Renault expect from Alonso?

He hasn't raced in F1 since 2018, but that shouldn't be a problem as he has been keeping his skills sharp in the World Endurance Championship, at the Indy 500 and on the Dakar Rally.

During his most recent spell in F1 at McLaren, he consistently got the maximum from an uncompetitive car, and in his final year outquailfied teammate Stoffel Vandoorne at every round. Regardless of how good Renault's car is over the coming years, the team can be sure of maximising its performance with Alonso at the wheel.

But having Alonso in a Formula One team has proved to be a double-edged sword. His career is littered with controversy and burned bridges, to the point that none of the top three teams seriously considered signing him when his McLaren contract came to an end in 2018. It's that side of the Alonso story that makes the deal something of a gamble for Renault, but to fully understand why we need to look backwards, not forwards.

The history

Roll the clock back to 2007 and, having won back-to-back titles with Renault, Alonso moved to McLaren for the first time. Having dethroned Michael Schumacher at the top of the sport, Alonso appeared to have the world at his feet, but in the following decade he failed to win another title.

Arguably his best opportunity came straight away in 2007, but he was paired with a rookie named Lewis Hamilton and the resulting on-track battle created an off-track rift between Alonso and McLaren team boss Ron Dennis. The fallout sent Alonso into two years in the wilderness at an uncompetitive Renault team, while the 2007 and 2008 titles that could so easily have been his went to Kimi Raikkonen and Hamilton.

A move to Ferrari followed in 2010, but a calamitous strategy error at that season's finale in Abu Dhabi handed the title to Vettel. In 2012, he once again lost out to the German driver at the final race of the season, albeit in a year that saw him cement his reputation as the grid's most complete competitor by staying in the championship race in an inferior car.

He spent much of 2013 openly (and unsuccessfully) courting Red Bull -- Helmut Marko would comment that season that Alonso was "too busy with politics and funny comments" -- which earned him a public rebuke from Ferrari. Another uncompetitive season in 2014 saw Alonso try to play the driver market once more, only for then-Ferrari boss Marco Mattiacci to call his bluff and sign Vettel as his replacement.

From there he moved back to McLaren, which had just signed Honda as an engine supplier in the hope of rekindling their former glories as a works team. The failure of that partnership is well documented and was peppered by comments highlighting Alonso's frustration. The most public incident came at Honda's home race at Suzuka in 2015 when Alonso referred to the Japanese manufacturer's V6 turbo hybrid as a "GP2 engine" over pit-to-car radio, although far worse is said to have been uttered behind closed doors.

The McLaren-Honda relationship was rotten to the core by the time Honda left in 2017, with McLaren and Alonso consistently pointing the finger at Honda despite failings on the chassis side. That much was proven in 2018 when a switch to Renault engines failed to provide the leap up the grid the team had predicted, and with nothing to show for his efforts bar four years of consistent disappointment, Alonso left McLaren and left F1.

At the time he claimed he had achieved everything he wanted to within the series and was now focused on other goals. His pursuit of the Indy 500, and with it motorsport's triple crown of victories at the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans 24 Hours and Indy, remains unfulfilled -- although he is due to return to the Brickyard for another go later this month. But it's now clear that the F1 flame never really extinguished within Alonso, and two years on from his big farewell in Abu Dhabi, he is set to return.

So what can we learn from the brief synopsis of the latter half of Alonso's career?

While there was never any doubt about his talent, he appeared to be leaving a path of destruction in his wake as he jumped from sinking ship to sinking ship. He has been branded "toxic" and "selfish" in the past, but each of the teams he drove for was not without its problems from the outset. At all of them, he outdrove the car and took it to higher finishing positions than it deserved, so was it really too much to expect the teams to up their games and put their focus on a two-time champion?

Will it be any different at Renault?

If Alonso's career since the end of 2006 has taught us anything, it's that talent and determination are no guarantees of title success in Formula One. A driver's race-winning potential is entirely defined by his car, and as things stand, the Renault factory is not building race winners.

There are signs of progress -- last weekend, the Renault was 0.5s faster at the Red Bull Ring than it had been a year ago -- but with Mercedes dominating F1 since 2014, marginal gains won't be enough to return Alonso to the winner's circle by 2022. Instead, he is hoping a major regulation change will shake up the order, allowing Renault to take a big step forward as everybody starts with a clean sheet of paper.

"I have not been living underground for two years; I watch television, and I know that only one team will win the championship in 2020 and 2021, probably," Alonso said. "But for the remaining 19 drivers that are on the grid, we try to work with our own team and for our own future.

"I think the 2022 rules will hopefully bring some fairness to the sport and bring some close action with the teams, more level and with less scope to invent anything with a large performance advantage.

"Having that in mind, there is enough time to work on those projects and to build the momentum that we need. Hopefully from today we will see some more motivations, a boost for everyone, so I'm happy, relaxed and aware of what 2021 will be.

"I'm hopeful of 2022, and, as I said, this is a matter of building something together, and building something together that you trust, that has the capabilities, facilities, investment, and all those ingredients I found in Renault. So I'm relaxed."

Renault has invested heavily in its Enstone factory and, combined with progress on its power unit, which will remain the same in 2022, there is a hope that it will finally see a return in on-track results. The introduction of a $145 million budget cap is also ideally timed to bring the spending of the top three teams down to Renault's level. In theory, at the very least, there's a chance.

But the reality is that the Renault team has been struggling to reach far more modest goals in recent years. Last season it was outperformed by its engine customer McLaren and, on the limited evidence of the opening race, the same will likely happen again this year. As a result, the chance of Alonso mounting a championship campaign by 2022 seems far-fetched.

What the two-year contract will provide is a view to whether another two years at the team could more realistically result in a title. Another contract would take Alonso into his mid-40s, but if the pace is still there, then the ambition shouldn't be a problem.

It also raises the possibility of a move to another team once the lie of the land under the new regulations is clear. If Alonso simply sat back and watched from the sideline, he would quickly be overlooked as a viable option and a torturous what-if would be left hanging over him.

As the old saying goes, "You have to be in it to win it" -- and Alonso's return shows just how determined he is to win it once more.