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Fernando Alonso is Formula One’s youngest ever race winner and claimer of pole position on the starting grid. On Sunday at the Spa circuit in Belgium, the 24-year-old Spaniard could become its youngest world champion.
The Renault driver needs to score four points more than McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen to clinch the title. With three races to follow Spa, it is more a question of when rather than if Alonso, a “veteran” of just 64 grands prix, wins the title.
Despite the record-breaking nature of the achievement, of far greater significance is the rebirth of interest his duel with Raikkonen has generated in the sport after five years of total domination by reigning champion Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. Alonso has always said that to win a world championship while Schumacher is still racing is worth far more than in the years after his retirement.
His success has electrified Spain. Before he came along the country had no significant television deal for F1. Now Telecinco pulls in about 5m viewers a race, more than mature F1 television markets such as the UK and France. This week a panel, including Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former International Olympic Committee president, awarded him the country’s highest honour for a sportsman, the Prince of Asturias, a cross between BBC Sports Personality of the Year and the Legion d’Honneur.
Alonso lives quietly in a riverside apartment in Oxford, a short drive from the Renault team’s headquarters in Enstone. An intensely private man, if he has a girlfriend she is not seen in public.
Born into a middle-class family in Oviedo, in north-west Spain, Alonso began driving at the age of three. His father José Luis built a kart for Fernando’s older sister Lorena, who did not like it, so it was adapted for her infant brother. He started racing properly when he
There is no racing background in the family; his father worked with explosives in the quarrying business. Fernando admits to having been heavily influenced by his grandfather, a mercurial figure, who taught him magic and card tricks, still one of his passions away from the race track.
Karting gets more expensive the higher the level one goes, and it was a familiar tale of a family making sacrifices to allow the son to race. It paid off; in 1996 Alonso became karting world champion aged 15.
Two years later he came to the attention of Italian Flavio Briatore, who had steered Schumacher to two world titles when managing the Benetton team in 1994-95. Briatore had left Benetton and was developing his driver-management business. He signed Alonso to a long-term deal and started plotting the path, which has brought him – remarkably quickly – to the threshold of the world title.
The 18-year-old Alonso impressed immediately in Formula 3000, then the leading feeder series for F1, winning the support race at Spa. From there Briatore brokered an F1 seat with Minardi, one of the sport’s lowlier teams, where Alonso learned the ropes away from the spotlight.
Then Renault bought Benetton and Briatore was duly installed as managing director. In 2002 he made Alonso the team’s test driver, giving the young man many thousands of miles behind the wheel. Schumacher noticed him at this point and told colleagues that Alonso was a future champion. He was not wrong; the following year Alonso graduated to the race team, took pole position in Malaysia aged 21 and won his first grand prix in Hungary aged 22.
Alonso’s qualities as a racing driver are obvious. Although not the fastest over a single qualifying lap – that honour belongs to Raikkonen – he is extremely fast over a race distance, not letting his pace drop over the course of the 200 miles, as many drivers do.
He is also fiercely intelligent, like Schumacher, and even when driving on the limit he has spare mental capacity for thinking about tactics.
His driving style is distinctive. It is a style refined in Renaults, which have an in-built tendency to under-steer, or push straight on in a corner.
Alonso is still full of awe at the capabilities of an F1 car. “The amazing thing is the grip and the G-forces through the corner. You find it hard to believe that the car will go round the corner at the speed you are doing,” he says. “Sometimes, when everything is working perfectly, it seems that there are no limits at all. You almost feel invincible.”
Renault has produced an excellent car this year. They best interpreted a rule change restricting the aerodynamics and in the first half of the season Alonso was able to build a commanding championship lead, taking six wins in 12 races. Since July the McLaren has been the car to beat, but to get the extra speed they have taken risks with the reliability, particularly of the engine, and Raikkonen has lost many points with technical failures.
This is not a question of bad luck, but owes much to Alonso’s fighting spirit. Rather than drive carefully to protect his points advantage, Alonso’s attitude has been to put pressure on McLaren and make their cars break. The tactic has worked brilliantly.
Despite driving at the limit the whole time, he makes few mistakes. This season he crashed in Canada and lost the front wing at the start in Hungary, but these were the only blots on an otherwise perfect record.
His fellow drivers know that there is a relentlessness about him. “I just want to get there first,” he says.
“I am like that with everything. I just want to be racing someone.”
James Allen is ITV Sport’s lead F1 commentator