Features - Profile
SEPTEMBER 26, 2005
The new World Champion
BY JOE SAWARD
Fernando Alonso, the new World Champion, comes from the town of Oviedo, the capital of the principality of Asturias, an autonomous province on the north coast of Spain. There is a proud heritage in the region and an independence which one sees sometimes when the Asturias flags appear when Alonso is around.
Aside from the racing which took place in the 1920s and 1930s at San Sebastian, there is nothing in the region to suggest that a career in motor racing is a logical thing to do. But Fernando's father was keen on motorsport and built his son a mini go-kart when he was two years of age. Despite that Fernando did not begin to compete seriously until he was 13 when he began karting at the Cadet level. Within two years he was competing and winning in international karting, notably with victory in the 1996 Junior Karting World Championship. This drew him to the attention of the small but passionate racing community in Spain and in 1999 he was signed up by race team owner Adrian Campos to compete in the Open Fortuna Nissan series.
Campos had been lucky to be born into a very wealthy family, the heir to a huge frozen foods company. This enabled him to go racing in style and he started out in 1983 funding the construction of the Avidesa Formula 3 car, which was named after the company's ice cream brand. After a season driving the car he changed his tactics and bought a ride in the front-running Volkswagen Motorsport team and to his credit won a heat at the Monza Lotteria in the summer of 1984. After that he moved to F1 with Minardi in 1987 and stayed for a year before being replaced after a fruitless spell during which he either failed to qualify or retired from the races. He went on to a more successful career in Spanish touring car racing, tried his hand at Le Mans and then helped to put together the Open Nissan championship to help Spanish youngsters make an impact on the international scene. In the first year of the series Campos ran Marc Gene and with backing from Telefonica Gene moved into F1 with Minardi. Campos needed a new youngster and hired Alonso. The new boy did not take long to make an impression, winning at Albacete, in the second race in which he competed. He won again at Jarama and in September travelled to Donington Park and won both races. Further wins followed in Barcelona and Valencia (where he beat a young Tomas Scheckter) after losing to him in the first of the two races that day. The result was that he won the title at his first attempt, beating Manuel Giao and France's Laurent Delahaye.
It had been an impressive performance and Telefonica, which at the time was keen to increase its involvement in the sport, arranged for Fernando to join a group of young drivers to test for Minardi at Jerez de la Frontera. After just nine months of car racing, Alonso was in a Formula 1 car.
Campos, who was looking after Alonso's management at the time, convinced Telefonica that it must support Alonso and with the money available a deal was negotiated for Fernando to drive for the Astromega Formula 3000 team alongside Frenchman Fabrice Walfisch. At the same time, thanks to the Telefonica link, Alonso was also asked to do some testing for Minardi. In the midseason, however, Telefonica chairman Juan Villalonga resigned from his position and his replacement decided that he was not interested in spending money in Grand Prix racing. At Spa Alonso won his first (and only Formula 3000 victory) ahead of his replacement team mate Marc Goossens and an impressive supporting cast which included Bruno Junqueira, Justin Wilson, Mark Webber, Franck Montagny, Enrique Bernoldi, Tomas Enge, Sebastien Bourdais, Tomas Scheckter, Christijan Albers and Darren Manning. He finished the year fourth in the championship and as Telefonica backing had disappeared Campos was faced with a problem of finding more backing for his protege. In the end he decided that the best course of action was to sign a management contract with Flavio Briatore. The downside was that Fernando would have to give a percentage of his future salary to the Renault F1 team boss, but the deal meant that it was in Briatore's interest to find work for Fernando. A deal was done for Fernando to drive for Paul Stoddart's Minardi team as team mate to Tarso Marques. It was a last-minute rush to get things ready as the team had only just been taken over by Stoddart and results were few and far between. Alonso had made little real impression, apart from showing himself to be a solid and very mature individual. At the end of that year, it was time for a difficult decision. To continue at Minardi might have an adverse effect on his career (although, as it turned out, his replacement Mark Webber used the opportunity to good effect) and Alonso and Briatore decided that he would be better off as a test driver for Renault with Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button. Alonso's contract stipulated that in 2003 he would move up to replace Button in the race team.
This he did and with the graduation coinciding with the impressive Renault R23, Fernando was able to do well and in Hungary he won his first victory. Hopes of building on that in 2004 were swept away as Ferrari dominated with 15 races wins. Trulli won for Renault in Monaco but although Alonso looked good it was not until after the French GP where Trulli rowed with the team and his performance dropped away dramatically, that Fernando emerged as the team leader.
Even in Melbourne this year Alonso was overshadowed by team mate Giancarlo Fisichella but that was to be a short-lived success and Alonso won the next three races. After the San Marino Grand Prix the Renault performance tailed off and McLaren became the team to beat but reliability problems allowed Fernando to pick up wins at the Nurburgring, France and in Germany.
In recent months it has been very clear that Renault was not as fast as McLaren but Alonso has kept his cool, taken the chances when they came along and wins the world championship in style - the youngest man ever to be World Champion.