For three years, McLaren's Fernando Alonso could only dream of having a car reliable enough to compete with the top teams in Formula One. Or at least finish races. In the first race of the new F1 season, Alonso showed that his team now has new fight since switching from its Honda-made engines to ones made by Renault as he took fifth place with a strong performance at the Australian Grand Prix, while his teammate, Stoffel Vandoorne, finished ninth.
"The last couple of years have been difficult, and I think the winter has been difficult, as well," Alonso said, referring to technical mishaps in off-season testing that limited McLaren to the fewest laps of the 10 teams running at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
"And now we've come here and both cars have scored points — one in the top five. We should be proud of that, but I think there's a lot more to come from McLaren."
After several years marked by technical issues and race retirements — Alonso failed to finish 17 races over three seasons — the team's fortunes are starting to look up.
After starting 10th on the grid, Alonso fought hard against Red Bull and Renault for much of Sunday's race, managing to hold off numerous pass attempts by talented 20-year-old Max Verstappen of Red Bull towards the end to secure fifth place. This matched his best finish of the past three seasons.
McLaren also benefitted from the dual retirement of the Haas cars, which had been running well in the top five before mishaps during their pit stops forced them to drop out. Still, Alonso sent notice to his competitors — and his own team — that more should be expected of the once-proud McLaren team this season.
After qualifying on Saturday, he promised that McLaren would score "big points" this weekend, and at one point during Sunday's race, he even barked at his own race engineer, "Speak up a little bit, it is a long race and you are losing the energy already."
After Sunday's strong race, Alonso set his sights on challenging Red Bull this season — a team that had been in a different league from McLaren in recent years.
"This is only our first race together with Renault, and some updates will come in the next few races," he said. "We can start to look ahead a little bit and Red Bull will be the next target."
This is a big turnaround from just a couple weeks ago when McLaren racing director Eric Boullier couldn't even guarantee McLaren would put a race-ready car on the track for the Australian GP after dismal testing results.
On Sunday, Boullier said his team now believes it can be competitive again. "We're encouraged by the potential our car has shown in the first race of the season, but also reliability-wise we had a trouble-free weekend, which is a relief after the issues we had in winter testing," he said.
McLaren has eight constructor championships and 12 driver titles to its name. But its last driver title was in 2008 and its last Grand Prix victory in 2012. It has been four years since one of its drivers finished on a podium.
If he keeps driving this way, Alonso could be close to getting back there very soon.