Woking, England (CNN)It’s been more than a decade since Fernando Alonso won a world title, but the Formula One veteran insists his passion for racing is still strong.
“For me I cannot stop — it is like a drug,” the Spaniard told reporters Friday as his McLaren team launched its new 2017 car.
“I will be 80 years old and I will be in a go-kart at my circuit, racing there and pushing the kids out on the track.”
With McLaren struggling to restore past glories, Alonso has been competing for points rather than podiums over the past two seasons.
Time is running out for him to add to his 2005 and 2006 championships — turning 36 in July, he is the third-oldest driver on the 20-man 2017 grid.
Last year he threatened to quit F1 if the new rule changes do not produce faster cars, but admits he was shocked when Nico Rosberg decided to retire just days after winning his first title at the 2016 season finale in Abu Dhabi.
“Obviously it was a surprise. But his decision is understandable — I respect that,” Alonso said.
“He was fighting so much for his world championship. He tried for so many years. In 2014 he was close … for him he was very brave to (retire) … I wish him the best.”
Mercedes dominated F1 last season — Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton claimed victory in 19 of the 21 races.
Alonso hasn’t felt that winning feeling in a long time — the last of his 32 race victories came at the Spanish Grand Prix in 2013, his penultimate year at Ferrari.
Since returning to McLaren in 2015, Alonso has endured barren times in the Honda-powered MP4-30 and MP4-31 cars.
The Japanese manufacturer powered McLaren’s glory years with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, but has struggled with reliability since the reunion as the team finished ninth in 2015 and sixth last year.
This season there is hope that the once mighty team, founded by New Zealand racer Bruce McLaren in 1963, can finally turn a corner and start competing higher up the grid again and claim a first podium in three seasons.
A new team principal, Zak Brown — who replaces Ron Dennis at the helm — and new regulations are another cause for optimism.
Imposed by motorsport’s world governing body, the FIA, the changes have transformed the look of the cars, which now wear wider tires, wings and bodywork.
The new aggressive look will improve aerodynamics, enabling greater downforce, with lap times predicted to improve by three to four seconds.
A new orange livery is another visible sign of renewal for McLaren, but Alonso is realistic about the team’s chances.
“It’s possible things will change. It’s true also that the regulations are 50% of the car, let’s say, because the engines stay the same. So Mercedes unfortunately still have a very big advantage over anyone else,” he said.
“We need to do much much better job on the chassis side to compensate that advantage which Mercedes deserves, because they did a fantastic job with the turbo engines,” Alonso added, referring to the engine regulations implemented for the start of the 2014 F1 season.
“I expect they will be very competitive. We saw the new car Thursday which seems well calibrated and will be a contender for sure. I’m sure Red Bull will also be very competitive.”
Alonso will get a proper feel for the new McLaren’s potential when winter testing starts in Barcelona next week ahead of the opening race of the season in Australia on March 26.
Hamilton said at Mercedes’ launch that the new car will “beat the crap out of you” but Alonso was less worried by the increased physical requirements the faster cars will bring.
“I’ve been doing more or less the same as I’ve been doing every single winter but maybe a little more emphasis on the neck, the shoulders, the arms to prepare for this year’s car — nothing too different to the past,” he said.
Alonso’s partner for the past two seasons was fellow veteran Jenson Button, himself a former world champion.
This time he will drive alongside Belgian rookie Stoffel Vandoorne, whose only race start so far was in Bahrain last April after Alonso was ruled out following a spectacular crash at the season-opener in Australia.
“I arrive now with new motivation, a new challenge in front of me with this year’s car — I think I can give something extra compared to the rookies,” Alonso said.
“I’m really, really hungry to jump in the car and get racing.”
‘We believe we can win’
Ever the fighter, you can bet Alonso will be doing all he can to get McLaren back on track this season.
“This year, we have high hopes that McLaren can come back to where it belongs,” he said.
“F1 is a very complex sport (and we cannot make) promises to the fans — just work hard.
“If we are here today it is because we believe we can win.”