Fernando Alonso, in a grey McLaren top, cleans his sunglasses and leaves them on the table. He throws a direct gaze, one of few, because he tends to look down as he thinks about the answer to each question.
The F1 driver from the north of Spain is happy with the sport's new regulations and still in love with driving. But less so with his current McLaren, which lacks power compared to others on the grid. He's a long way behind for Sunday's opening Gran Prix in Melbourne.
Let's start with the question everyone is asking me to ask you. How do you cope? How do you have so much patience?
I'm not sure I know what 'everyone' would do [in my situation]. People ask me the question too, and... I don't have an answer. I'm a racing driver, who knows sometimes things go well, other times badly. You try to take advantage of the good times and you aim to work as hard as you can in the bad times. But equally I don't see any alternative. I don't know. What should I do? For example, whether your newspaper sells more copies or sells fewer, don't you try to write the best articles you can? And try to make everything go as well as possible... About having patience, I don't know... what are you meant to do? Do you leave? Where are you going to go? And why?
Well I don't know, maybe...
I don't believe anyone thinks I think that. I've read "I don't know how you stand it. Just leave".
Truly you haven't thought about it?
No, no. Go where? I'm going to go home, into the kitchen, make breakfast, sit on the sofa and watch the race? I don't think that's the solution to the problem.
Ok, leaving isn't the solution. What is? If there is one...
The solution is to get better as quickly as possible. Demand a reaction from the team. Isn't it? Because you train hard, you do everything you're meant to do to be at the best of your abilities as a driver and an athlete and when the car doesn't respond it's of course frustrating. But the only solution is to work harder and demand more from your bosses.
Demand more from your bosses. You need to be brave to say that. Given the way things are, are you worried about losing personal prestige if things continue like this?
No. I think these last two or three years... because Ferrari in 2014 was a tough year, where we only managed to get on the podium two or three times, well no doubt some fans are less enthusiastic. In Spain, or people who put their faith in you and you don't give them much to cheer about. Of course if you give them nothing for two years, three years or more well... if they have to get up at 5am to watch the race then they'll say "I'll watch a recording", because they don't expect you to win or be on the podium. So it's understandable the enthusiasm drops, but I don't think it hurts my standing. In fact, I've never had so many individual [sponsorship ]contracts in my life as this year, I've never done so many adverts as this year, offers, the karting school has never been as successful as the last few months. So I don't see a direct impact from the F1 results.
In general almost everyone in F1, in the paddock, thinks that Fernando Alonso is the best driver. But if the years go by and the results don't improve is it not going to be harder and harder to make that claim?
Well, here, in the paddock, I've always been lucky to be considered a very good driver and of ocurse, as the years go by it's harder, but then there are the results aren't there?
Exactly, the results...
Every year people doubt you a little more, and so you head out to race the best you can to make sure they still believe in you.
The thing is, you haven't won the title for 11 years and you haven't won a Gran Prix for four. Is it bad luck?
"Bad luck", quote-unquote. There are incredibly talented drivers who have never been on the podium. Talking about bad luck with all the opportunities I've had in my life wouldn't be fair. But it's true that not winning for four years is nasty...
Bad decisions? Did you choose the wrong teams?
Well... if I had a crystal ball I could have told you what was going to happen. But...well, I stand by the decisions I took in my career.
You had chances at Brawn, Red Bull, Mercedes... winning teams.
If I had to take the decisions again, it's 99.9% certain I'd do the same again. I left Renault and I don't think they've won another Championship. I left McLaren and it's true they won in 2008, with Hamilton, but he had to fight right to the end with Massa. Then in 2009 Brawn won, which nobody could have predicted and then came the Red Bull domination.
While Alonso was fighting with Ferrari...
I was at Ferrari, which was one of my dreams, and I lost the title on three occasions right at the end. Afterwards, in 2015 and 2016 I don't think we would have won with Ferrari and I embraced the McLaren and Honda project. It's easy to say now that it's not competitive, but who would have thought back then that it was going to be like this with the proposal they set out for me. I'll give you the answer: nobody. But it's true, with the crystal ball I'd have understood it all a lot sooner.
Let's leave the past and talk about the future. You said you'd take a decision after the summer.
I still don't know. I don't have an answer.
Some time ago I asked you which was closer, the third title or retiral. Do you still dream about winning that Championship?
Of course. I'm more than ready. I've trained harder than ever. I was here the Sunday before the Gran Prix, which I've never done before. I feel good with the new cars and the new rules.
You still feel good...
Right now, on the track, there's nobody faster than me on the corners, and I feel that every time I'm in the car.
Let's ask the question another way, do you dream of retiring as champion?
I dream of racing and being champion.
But the clock is ticking, you've talked about retiring before...
Last year in almost every interview me retiring was mentioned. Maybe I did say once, in May, in one of the interviews, that I'd take a look at what I was going to do in the future and once I'd said that it was 'cut and paste', 'cut and paste' ad infinitum that this was the last year for Alonso. Last year it's true the cars were so slow. Everyone is so excited by the 2017 cars, because they are fast, they don't slow down, they go through the corners rapidly, and the fans get to see incredible cars with big fat tyres...The problem isn't these cars, it was those terrible, nasty, slow cars we had for the past four years. I didn't have any fun in those, I didn't like driving them. Whether coming fourth, seventh, first or eleventh... So when you do an interview and your contract with McLaren is up in 2017 and they ask you "What are you going to do?"... Well I don't know, I'll see what the regulations are like, how the cars are in 2017 and I'll think about.
And now you're having fun, despite everything?
This year the cars are F1 cars again. We're going through the corners fast again, and so I'm enjoying it more. So the dream isn't being champion and retiring. The dream is being champion. Retiring will come when the moment arrives.
Back to the present, how much of your salary would you give for a decent engine?
I'd give nothing. That question isn't for me or Stoffel, or the people who are here working day and night, it's a question of design and how things are done, it's a question for Honda, not for me. I haven't let anyone down. Basically, things haven't been done right in Japan, from what we've seen so far, they [the engines] aren't competitive. So we need to work out what's wrong and change it.
You've always been a fan of Japanese culture. Are you still a fan? Or do Honda not have the samurai spirit?
I've still got that passion. It's always a pleasure to measure myself against Japanese traditions and values. I've read lots of books about it, and I'm delighted to work with them. The truth is, this is a highly competitive sport and there's no time to learn or possibility of doing poor work. You either do it well or you start again. But that's not a problem with Japanese culture.
Sometimes it's said that is exactly the problem.
I'll explain it with an example. Renault haven't won for 11 years as a manufacturer, beyond the engines they supplied to Red Bull. Now and in the turbo era they haven't won and nobody thinks to say that the problem is with French culture, or Renault produce terrible engines and that's the problem. It's all so much more complex. Mercedes have a huge advantage and we need to do things better than they do.
At least Australia isn't being the disaster that was expected.
There's been a lot of talk about that, in truth we're still in the development phase, because we did very little in winter testing.
People have said the problem is Honda. Do you need a non-Japanese engine?
I don't know. I don't build engines and I don't know about the problems. I'm going to turn up at the races and my aim is just to be 100% ready to win.
You could have won with this team, in 2007, but the relationship with the team wasn't good. Now it's great, but the results aren't there. With the time that's passed, would you have done things differently?
No. I'd have done the same, because at the end of the day I need a certain level of respect when I do my job. In 2007 I got no respect and a lot of things inside the team weren't done right. You could see it in the last three or four races of the season, they even said publicly they were fighting against me. I told them, be careful, because Ferrari and Kimi are coming up, focus on him, not on me... but they didn't listen. So, you see these things and you think you can't change them and so you decide that at this team I won't ever win anything.
10 years later the team is very different.
Yes. Almost none of the directors from then are still here.
You've always said going back to McLaren was dealing with unfinished business. Is that the same for Hamilton? Would you like to be his teammate again?
No, there's no unfinished business. We were teammates once, if we were back together in the future it would be exciting, because he's one of the greatest drivers, but, I had that experience and I don't have any feelings left over from then, no bitterness or anything.
How do you get along with the other Fernando Alonso? The homebird Fernando Alonso, the Fernando Alonso only his family and friends know?
Very well. The truth is I've had a great winter, I had the chance, as I said before, to keep growing the karting school in Asturias, and to see the progress there and in lots of others projects I'm involved with. So outside F1 I think this is definitely the best time of my life.
So you just need the car...
So I just need the car, which no doubt is the thing that worries me the most and where we need to improve to get the complete El Fernando.
Are you still happy, even now?
Yes. I'm still happy, I'm still happy.
When you get here, of course you want to win... above all because you feel the change of rules is a great chance to cut the distance to Mercedes. I feel the car handles well and it's great through the corners. I can attack the corners no problem, I can break late, I enjoy driving the car, and the only thing that's lacking are the seconds I'm losing on the straights. It's tremendously frustrating.
I can see that winning is still very important in your life, in spite of everything. A question: if you had the DeLorean from Back to the Future, where would you go, and when...
I don't know. I'd like to go to the future to see what happens to me. If I went back to the past though I'd go to those years when we had V8 engines, or even better, V10s. That was real fun.
Do you still have your hands insured?
Yes, I think so. I had them insured for 25 years, so I've still time left, there's still time left.
Good luck Fernando. And thanks.
Thanks to you.