When Alonso’s Brawn GP links trumped Kubica’s F1 triumph

Canada 2008 was a triumphant moment for Robert Kubica and an embarrassment for Lewis Hamilton. But an off-track rumour suggesting Fernando Alonso could join Honda for the 2009 Formula 1 season stands out in our latest journalist memory

When Alonso’s Brawn GP links trumped Kubica’s F1 triumph

'Bang!' Then, 'thud!' The 2008 Canadian Grand Prix was a non-stop rollercoaster of an event to cover from inside the Formula 1 paddock, and after plenty had already happened off-track that weekend, an audible crunch of carbonfibre (shortly followed by another) was its latest zany corkscrew moment.

I heard the noise from my seat in the press office, which was situated 100 yards or so from the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve's pitlane exit. The TV broadcast delay of the action meant there was a gap of a couple of seconds, enough time to exchange glances with my Autosport colleague Jonathan Noble and mouth "what the hell was that?", then look back to the monitors in time to see Lewis Hamilton plough into the back of a stationary Kimi Raikkonen (our real-time view of the incident was obscured by a grandstand), with Hamilton followed into the pileup shortly afterwards by Nico Rosberg.

The next bizarre moment was seeing Steve Cooper, who'd just switched careers from scoop-driven journalist to the 'dark side' as a McLaren PR man - and whose job I was now doing - run down the pit lane to collect Lewis and slap him on the back. Steve later admitted over a pint that he hadn't been watching the monitors when it occurred, and hadn't a clue what had actually happened!

Professionally, what truly stands out about this weekend is the best news story I've ever written - reporting something that never actually happened! Allow me to explain...

Inside the F1 paddock you quickly realise that everyone is talking to everybody else. Driver managers, team bosses, sponsors - you name it, when the cars aren't running (and sometimes when they are) paddock folk spend a lot (if not most) of their time gossiping with each other, ensuring that they're 'in the know' about what's going on and all the options that are and aren't available - especially who's talking to who ahead of the 'silly season' (the most wonderful time of the year!).

Alonso is someone that clearly relishes the off-track games - he wants to get his message out there

The main topic of the day in 2008 was 'what would Fernando Alonso do next?' Following his McLaren meltdown in 2007, everyone knew that his Renault return was a stopgap measure to last until the next huge opportunity arose.

But where, and when would that be? Ferrari was clearly top of his list, but this was pre-financial crash, so there were plenty of other mighty manufacturer-backed options in the mix.

The trick for a journalist is becoming an intrinsic party to these paddock conversations. The key to getting 'a good steer' is to speak to as many people as possible, knowing you'll get as much duff info as well as golden nuggets. In fact, Cooper's sage advice to me was: "Don't believe anything until you've heard it from at least two different sources".

I was down to cover Alonso's Thursday media session, and so was keen to get as much of the latest insight as possible to get a story. My fallback plan for this was to produce an analysis on the impact of the upcoming introduction of KERS for 2009, but I really wanted to nail a story about Alonso's future - ideally featuring a unique line.

Alonso is someone that clearly relishes the off-track games - he wants to get his message out there as much as journalists want to write stories. The key is to trigger him into saying something you can then use within existing plans. And I was about to get a great steer on this from an unlikely source.

It was only my second grand prix in Steve's role, so Jonathan was still introducing me to people I'd not yet happened across. We were hanging around at Honda just after lunch when Jon spotted a 'senior Honda Racing person', so we rocked over and he kindly invited us to have a chat over a drink. As I recall, it was a pretty sociable encounter, shooting the breeze with no notepads or audio recorders on show, and the gossip was flowing from both sides. Out of the blue, Jon pulled out a brilliant question from what I like to call 'the Columbo School of Journalism'. "So, how are the talks going with Fernando?"

After a look of surprise, and a pregnant pause, the senior Honda person opened up: "Yeeeah, fine actually, we've been talking and just finding out about each other. You hear he's difficult to deal with, but he's been great so far."

Woah! Play it cool, smile and nod, and follow up with: "So... you'd say he's at the top of your list right now, for next year? He replied: "Oh, yeah, he's absolutely our number one target."

At the time, nobody was linking Alonso to Honda at all. And although we'd now had a senior team figure confirm the contact (obviously we wouldn't be quoting him, but the steer had given the all-important angle) so now it was over to me to add meat to the bones. Armed with that nugget of knowledge, it was time to see what Fernando had to say. I remember getting there so early that I was able to plonk myself in pole position - directly in front of where Alonso would sit.

My quandary was: blurt out my nugget, and I'd alert the world.

I decided on my angle of attack, asking an open-ended question about whether the upcoming 2009 rules might significantly change the game, bringing less-fancied teams (such as Honda) into a stronger position, so that he might consider driving for one.

Looking me straight in the eye across the table, he replied: "Next year everybody will start from zero. Aerodynamically etc, every team improves five or 10% every year. You miss one year, you are down for the rest of the years. Next year, that's not the question. So, there are always surprises when these things happen. Any team can be strong next year."

When you consider what transpired in 2009, that was a prescient answer. Jumping straight back in before anyone else could ask another one, the follow up was: "Given that you think there could be major changes in F1's pecking order, what would you actually base your decision upon?

At any other time, Robert Kubica winning his and BMW-Sauber's first and only grand prix victory would have been the main takeaway

He replied: "Being calm and listening to everybody. At the end, trust one of them. Everybody is very optimistic now about next year, but it's the same every time. You need the inside feeling that someone is cleverer than the other ones."

And who else in F1 is cleverer than then Honda team boss Ross Brawn?

Armed with those decent Alonso quotes, I could back the story up. I headlined it 'Honda to make bid for Alonso' - and, in time, an official, big-money approach from Honda did transpire that summer.

But Alonso rebuffed it - most likely because his manager, Flavio Briatore, saw the Honda factory withdrawal coming. The financial crisis truly kicked in that September, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the 2009 Brawn miracle rising from Honda's ashes was unforeseeable.

Although the events didn't come off, I'm still proud of the story I wrote for Autosport. As our publishing director of the time would insist, while furiously jiggling his spectacles: "Tell me something I don't know!" It was factually spot-on (at the time) and a genuine exclusive, it just didn't come to pass. As David Coulthard is fond of saying: "I don't have crystal balls!"

But it's worth imagining what Alonso could have done in the Brawn BGP 001. Amusingly, I have since seen that senior Honda source quoted as saying: "Fernando Alonso should have been driving for Nick Fry and Ross Brawn in 2009. If he did, he would be a four-time world champion today." And I'm inclined to agree - well, certainly to him being a three-time champion, although Jenson Button might have something to say about it!

At any other time, Robert Kubica winning his and BMW-Sauber's first (and only) grand prix victory - a year after his horrifying crash in Montreal - would have been the main takeaway.

It certainly was a great race to witness first hand, becoming Bernie Ecclestone's blueprint for high-degradation tyres mimicking the changing grip levels of the track breaking apart. I also recall witnessing an angry Bernie slap a journalist's Dictaphone across the room and shove him over a table, after he'd tried to record a private chat!

But that's F1 in a nutshell. What actually happens on track is only part of the real story.

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