Not surprisingly, Fernando Alonso was the star in Thursday’s FIA press conference in Malaysia, where he discussed at length his Barcelona accident and the aftermath. A press release from McLaren earlier this week said that the Spaniard had reported that the steering felt heavy, and he repeated that on Thursday and – in effect – insisted that there was an issue with the car. At the same, time he was a little vague about his state of consciousness over the course of the incident. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: What can you tell us about what you’ve been through in the past few weeks?
“Happy to be here in another Formula One season. I start one race later than I should be but, yeah, unfortunately I had the accident in Barcelona and following the recommendations by the doctors I missed the first race. But, yeah, happy to be here, as I said. Malaysia has always been a very nice circuit for me in my Formula One career. My first pole position was here in 2003, my first podium and then as you said three wins with three different teams give me the possibility always to enjoy this circuit and I know it’s going to be very tough this year to repeat such a result but, yeah, happy to be back in the cockpit and ready to enjoy the weekend.”
Q: You’ve only done around 500km of testing with this car so far. How do you see the journey ahead and the challenge now to hit the targets the team has set?
“Well, I think we need to be with the feet on the ground knowing that we are not in a position that we wanted and not in a position that we will be hopefully very soon. It will be like a test session for me, the first races. As you said I did in this car more or less the same number of laps that another guy do in one day, so obviously I’m not probably confident with the car in this moment and I will need to learn many things, not only on the driving style but also on the approach McLaren has to the weekends. So, many things to learn for me; very challenging moment of my career and ready to take it.”
Q: How long after the accident did you start to get memories of the accident back, what did you learn about it when you went to the factory last week and do you now believe that there was no problem with the car?
“Everything was more or less as a normal concussion. So, I had this concussion, went to the hospital. I went to the hospital in good conditions. There is a time that I don’t remember from two o’clock to six o’clock or something like that, but everything again was normal due to the medication that they give you to go into the helicopter and to do some tests in the hospital. Everything was normal. I didn’t wake up in ’95, I didn’t wake up speaking in Italian or all these things that probably they were out there. I remember the accident and I remember everything that following day. Obviously with the team we have been very close working on that and with the FIA, they were very helpful all the times, and we were in close contact, all three parts constantly and yeah, there is not in the data anything clear that we can spot and we can say it was that, the reason. But definitely we had a steering problem in the middle of turn three. It locked into the right and I approached the wall I braked in the last moment, I downshift from fifth to third, and yeah, unfortunately on the data we are still missing some parts. Also the acquisition of data on that particular part of the car is not at the top so there are some new sensors here at this race and there are some changes we do on the steering rack and other parts and yeah that was the main thing. The last week at the factory was more a work on the simulator and trying to explain to me these new sensors and these new parts that will go on this race.”
Fernando Alonso will race for the McLaren-Honda team, which saw just one car finish at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix … in last place.
Q: After this episode, have you got more respect or more fear to your job?
“No, not really. You know, at the end of the day we know motorsport is dangerous. We know that sometimes you have a big accident, spectacular and the car is completely destroyed and nothing happens, and sometimes you crash in a low speed corner or something, and it depends on the angle, depends on how you hit, or which part of the body you hit, you have more or less injuries. It is the same in the normal day life: sometimes you live an extreme life and nothing happens and sometimes you walk on the street and have a big issue. So, no more respect than before, it’s just, y’know, a very normal thing. I felt ready to go to Australia as well but I understand also the recommendation from the doctor that it was maybe too early and, yeah, we wait for one more race. That, obviously, creates even more feeling, no? But happy to be here, happy to help the team. Obviously we’re struggling a little bit at the moment and the winter has been quite difficult and the same at the first race. It was hard for me to watch on TV with the team not performing so well. So yeah, we are here to help and to give McLaren and Honda the experience that we can have, Jenson and me, and trying to recover from this form as soon as possible.”
Q: You said “the steering just locked.” The steering is for a racing driver, let’s say, a very delicate thing in the car, like the brakes if it fails. If you still don’t know why there was a problem with the steering is that a thing that is worrying you despite the new sensors you have on the car?
“Not really. I think, as I said before, together with FIA and with the team, we were constantly doing some checks, investigations, some possibilities, and as I said, there are some areas in the car that, instrumentation-wise are probably not at the level to see this problem. It’s like a problem that may occur, in this phrase, 20 years ago, Formula One did not have the technology to spot that problem. I’m sure that we are missing something on the data acquisition that we will spot in ten years’ time or whatever when the technology is available. So, that’s one reason and, yeah, I have zero doubt or zero concern.”
Q: Given that you remember the accident, as far as you are concerned, it wasn’t a driver error or, as the team put it, a gust of wind blew you off course in any way?
“No, no, definitely not. I don’t know if you see the video but even a hurricane will not move the car at that speed. Also, if you have any problem or any medical issue, normally you will lose the power and you will go straight to the outside, never to the inside. In a Formula One car you still need to apply some effort on the steering wheel. So, that’s one thing. Honestly, y’know, obviously with an accident, with the repercussion of the accident, the news, being in Spain, a lot of attention on that day and probably the first answers or the first press conference that the team have, my manager, whatever, all the stuff around in these early days, it was just some guess. The wind, maybe other possibilities. That creates a little bit of confusion obviously – but you cannot say nothing for three or four days until I remember everything because these three or four days then will become even worse. So I think they say the theory of the wind, etc., but obviously it was not a help.”
Fernando Alonso seen in the Drivers Press Conference ahead of the 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix.
Q: With everything that’s happened over the winter and to yourself personally and to the team as well, one of the big things that’s been debated by the fans and I’m sure many journalists in this room is whether you’ve made the right decision, returning to McLaren. What would your reaction to that debate be?
“I’m one of the happiest persons in the world. Yes, I am. I have a challenge in front of me. A tough challenge clearly. I think it’s difficult but it’s going to taste better when we do it. I grew up watching TV with McLaren-Honda domination and Ayrton Senna in the cockpit. I understand that we are now too far back and we will be heavily criticized and it will be fair to receive that criticism because we are not at the level we will be – but it’s nothing we can do now, just work, it’s a long-term project and all my career I experience some beautiful moments – even the last five years – with Ferrari we didn’t win the championship but it was a fantastic experience. But five was enough – I didn’t want to be seven years second or third so I prefer to risk and challenge for victory. Even if you need to take some risk for the first year.”
Q: Coming back to the accident, can you remember one thing, if you lost consciousness before the first impact or not, and when, why?
“No, I remember everything obviously. I don’t want to go through every detail because it’s going to be long but I remembered everything. It was Sunday morning, all the setup changes, the lap times, I think Vettel was in front of me before Turn Three but cut the chicane to let me go, exiting the pitlane. After the hit I was kissing the wall for a while and then I switch off the radio first, because it was on, and then I switch off the master switch for the batteries to switch off the ERS system just because I saw the marshals coming and, if not, they cannot touch the car. So, yeah, I was perfectly conscious at the time. I lost consciousness in the ambulance or in the clinic at the circuit but the doctors said this is normal because of the medication that they put you, just for the helicopter transportation and the checks that they do in the hospital: the MRI and the evaluation needs this protocol, needs this medication so this is normal that maybe you don’t remember.”
Q: What have you learned from the accident? About people, about you, about life?
“What I learned is that I have so much support from so many people. It’s been amazing how many messages from people I’ve received. So many warm wishes from all the sport and government and everyone. Everyone was so interested. And in the Formula One paddock as well because even from the flight on Tuesday that I arrived here until today has been a very nice experience to see really, truly, wishes of health for me. That was something that I learned, probably, after the accident. You don’t realize until you have a problem, or you miss one or two races that, y’know, so many people are behind you and are supporting you.”
Q: The team was saying even up to a couple of days ago that there was nothing wrong with the car, and yet you’re saying the steering locked. How do those two statements work together?
“Yeah, as I said before, I think it’s clear that there was a problem in the car but it hasn’t been found on the data at the moment. It’s one of the things that I did also in the factory last week, not only the simulator but going – with all the engineers and all the data available – going through the moments and there are some spots here and there but there is not a clear answer. So I understand completely and support the team until they find a clear answer that it was this or that, it’s impossible to say or to lie that it was this or that. They need to go much further. If they will find something any time, I don’t know because if after one month we didn’t find anything on the data, it is maybe because whatever part was the problem, it was not available on the data, so maybe it will never be.”
Q: But they have gone further and say there is no problem.
“Well, I don’t think that they say this any more.”
Q: If there’s no data and the team haven’t found anything, could the problem happen again?
“Well, as I said, I think some of the confusion comes from the very early quotes and very early explanations because the attention was very high at that moment. The stress was very high, I was in intensive care, there was some urgency to say something because there was a lot of attention so that was probably part of the confusion. On the data, as I said before, I think there was some lack of instrumentation maybe on the car, to miss the exact problem and there are some actions taken for this race which are probably not necessary but there is extra care with some parts on the car that were unique to me, that I requested because of my driving style when I joined McLaren and here we will go back to the normal steering rack and things that they’ve been using with Jenson and Kevin for the last couple of years. Of course, there are some actions for this race and as I said, there is zero problem, zero worries on my side. Everything is OK.”
Q: Could you tell us exactly what happened this morning during the test?
“Today, we’ve been through the normal processes as we have during the last month. As I said before, everything that I did or that happened in the last month were completely normal, the concussion, the rehabilitation, the checks, the extra checks, the recommendation to wait two or three weeks before any dangerous activity again, so everything went normal and this morning, again, it was a normal procedure after a head injury to do an impact test with the FIA and some reaction tests and some examinations with the Malaysian Grand Prix doctors. Everything went as smoothly as possible and I have the green light, so that was a very positive moment.”
Q: Seeing Ferrari is so strong, do you think that maybe you might have waited a little bit longer before leaving and achieved some results?
“Obviously, as I said, with the performance that we have right now, it’s easy to criticize our team and my decision, whatever, but as I said, I’m first of all so, so happy that this is the most important thing. When you’re happy with yourself or you’re a healthy man inside, that is the first victory and that is what I am now, because I’m following my dream now. And secondly, I could wait and achieve some nice results as you’ve said probably yes, but after 14 years of Formula One and two championships, a podium or fourth place or fifth place is no longer a nice result.”
Q: I would like to know your feelings after 14 years, watching a race on TV?
“I don’t think I pick the best race to watch, probably. One, it was very early in the morning, so that didn’t help the enthusiasm for the race, and secondly, the number of cars on the grid and after the first couple of laps was obviously not ideal. Yeah, it was a strange feeling, no doubt that I missed being there, I missed driving. It was strange but luckily I’m here.”
Q: You’re fighting with the steering wheel so that’s a car problem, and you’re getting back in the car this weekend and you don’t know what caused that problem. How can you not be worried?
“I fully trust the team. They’ve been looking at every single component of the car for a month, they’ve been simulating the efforts, they’ve been doing so many tests, they’ve been changing every single part that they had some doubts about so I think we have the safest car right now, because of all the studies that they’ve done. And after one month, I’m probably the most medically checked driver in history so we should be fine, both of us.”