Formula One: Push comes to shove, as Alonso emulates Mansell and Brabham

Spanish Formula One driver Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda pushed his car by hand into the pits after it broke down during the Hungarian Grand Prix second qualifying round, under the mistaken assumption he could rejoin the session if he got the car
Spanish Formula One driver Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda pushed his car by hand into the pits after it broke down during the Hungarian Grand Prix second qualifying round, under the mistaken assumption he could rejoin the session if he got the car back in. PHOTO: EPA

Fittingly, it was McLaren's Fernando Alonso - the dual world champion who said last week that he might consider abandoning Formula One for a different class of racing - who has now dramatically redefined the notion of F1 drivers pushing their cars to the limit.

No, seriously. As in physically pushing his car when it stopped last weekend on the Hungaroring race circuit. Well, not just pushing it. Propelling it uphill, inch by inch.

When his McLaren "switched off" because of "something electrical" during the second qualifying session of the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday, Alonso did not abandon his car on the track. He got out, put his right hand on the wheel, his left hand on the tyre and - despite the heat - gamely pushed his car towards the pits.

He could have chosen to push from the left-hand side of the cockpit, but opted to do so from the right, meaning that even though the red flag was out and the other drivers had been warned of the unusual hazard, he still had cars flying past him as he took commitment to a new but not unprecedented level.

Few workplace hazards can hold so much danger or encompass a display of so much courage. True, a group of five track marshals eventually came to his aid and provided some extra traction, but the Spanish driver, undeterred, was able to shepherd his car across the white line in the pit area from where his mechanics were able to take over.

Later, he told the Formula One website that there was a reason he resorted to pushing his car "like a madman" in the heat. He had assumed - wrongly, as it transpired - that if he pushed his car back to the pits, he would then be able to return to the qualifying session.

"I really thought that me pushing the car back to the garage could make a difference, only to learn in the garage that the car has to arrive by itself in the pits to take further part in qualifying. Then I asked myself: 'Why the hell was I pushing so hard in that heat?' But, of course, you always try to remain in the game."

In those last eight words is the crux of Formula One. Competition trumps everything, even when a car is not as swift as others on the track, even when teams go broke and pull out of the sport; even when there is a clear undercurrent of two-tier racing that allegedly favours elite teams; even when new rules and technical restrictions are said by some to be stifling the essence of racing.

That's precisely why Alonso's determination means so much for the apparent revival promised by the Hungarian Grand Prix, with a victory for Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel and the absence of Mercedes drivers on the podium for the first time since the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2013.

There is an echo of history, too, in Alonso's display of grit in propelling his car using just his hands for guidance and his feet for minimal velocity. The dual world champion (2005 and 2006, with Renault on both occasions) immediately drew comparisons with 1992 world champion Nigel Mansell of Britain (also with Renault at the time) and the late Sir Jack Brabham of Australia (cahmpion in 1959, 1960 and 1966, driving a Cooper on the first two occasions and then his own Brabham car).

When Brabham's Cooper Climax agonisingly ran out of fuel about half a kilometre from the finish line of the 1959 US Grand Prix, he got out and pushed his car across the line (from the right-hand side) to seal his first world title. In 1984, Mansell's Lotus also ran out of fuel during the Detroit Grand Prix and he eventually collapsed beside his car after he had pushed it (from the left) across the finish line.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Alonso's feat on Saturday earned him a resounding roar of applause from the crowd, but there is also an extra undercurrent or two that explains why the cheering was so vociferous.

Back in February this year, he crashed during the final day of pre-season testing in Barcelona and had to be airlifted straight from the track to hospital. McLaren chairman Ron Dennis at first said the Spaniard had not suffered concussion, before amending his own version of events a few days later, after widespread criticism in the media.

Later, after it was confirmed that Alonso would not even be fit enough to drive in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, a contrite Dennis admitted: "It was not the best performance by me. I understand why the press beat me up for being inaccurate. I wanted to be open and honest. I failed."

Then, earlier this month, Alonso indicated that he was disillusioned with the way F1 is being governed, almost echoing the famous comment last year by then-Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo, who said that the 2014 engine restrictions had reduced the sport to a taxi-cab style procession of diminished thrills.

After the British Grand Prix this month, the Spaniard said: "Unfortunately with the current rules everything requires a lot of time because you have tied hands for many things."

Then last week he made no secret of his feelings over the way the sport is currently administered. "I love motorsport, all categories, and F1 is not as exciting as it was in the past - at least to me," Alonso said. "With these limitations, with the calendar for example of next year, there is the temptation for other categories, that is true."

Unhappy in the workplace? You couldn't tell, by the way he pushed his car back to the pits a day before finishing fifth in the Grand Prix.

F1 drivers like to be hands-on - but that episode took commitment to new heights.

dmcmahon@sph.com.sg