How many times have we heard a driver described as "a future champion"? Too many to count and with some of them it was probably an inadvisable claim in the first place. Certainly since the turn of the century it's been a very difficult task for...
How many times have we heard a driver described as "a future champion"? Too many to count and with some of them it was probably an inadvisable claim in the first place. Certainly since the turn of the century it's been a very difficult task for any driver, or team, to make their mark due to Ferrari's dominance. But after five years, Formula One finally has a new world champion and he's one that has long been expected to be crowned.
Fernando Alonso began his career the usual way in karting. At the age of 13 in 1994 he claimed the Spanish Championship, then again in 1996 and '97. He moved to single-seaters in the Nissan open series in 1999 and promptly won the title. The following year he again moved on, this time to F3000 and got noticed by Flavio Briatore. He also tested for Minardi and at 19 years old he debuted in F1 with Minardi in 2001.
"Like many drivers, Fernando started his career with Minardi, and even in those early days, there were obvious signs of his huge natural talent and ability," said team principal Paul Stoddart. "It was equally clear that with the right team and the right car at the right moment, (Alonso winning the title) was always going to happen."
Unsurprisingly, Alonso didn't score any points in his rookie season with the little Faenza squad but he learnt a lot and his performances were noticed. 2002 saw him sit on the sidelines in a test driver role with Renault, where he continued to learn and hone his talents. Some speculated that perhaps he would never escape from test driver purgatory but Alonso and Briatore were just biding their time.
The Spaniard returned to racing in 2003 with Renault and set about making his mark. He became the youngest ever driver to take pole position, in Malaysia, where he also scored his first podium finish with third. He went one better for second in his native Spain and his maiden victory came in Hungary. It was another record, the youngest ever race winner and also the first Spaniard to win a Grand Prix.
The rest of the year was unremarkable and Alonso finished sixth overall in his first competitive season. 2004 was difficult; the R24 was an awkward car and Alonso didn't win a race. Such was Ferrari's strength Alonso's then-teammate Jarno Trulli was one of only three non-Ferrari drivers to take a victory, at Monaco. Trulli shone in the early part of the year but by mid-season Alonso was bettering him. Fernando improved his ranking to fourth by the end of the season.
Come 2005 and the scene was set for Alonso to take his turn in the spotlight. Renault got the car right and while rival Kimi Raikkonen struggled with the unreliable McLaren, Alonso took three straight victories in the first four races. He took three more, in Europe, France and Germany, but then the speed and the reliability of the McLaren finally came together.
Since Alonso's victory in Germany, the McLaren pair have won every race between them, Raikkonen in Hungary, Turkey and Belgium and Juan Pablo Montoya in Italy and Brazil. But Alonso continued to make his presence felt and racked up the points, three second places in the last five races and one third. The third in Brazil was the one that clinched his maiden world championship.
"He has shown he is a subtle strategic thinker, and a mature guy," said Renault president Patrick Faure. "He knows how to attack, to start from the front and win a race. He knows how to defend his position like in Imola. He also knows how to manage a situation, and not go for broke when his car isn't good enough to run at the front. And he is only 24! We are witnessing the blossoming of an exceptional talent."
Seven-time champion Michael Schumacher was gracious in defeat and had praise for the man who has taken his crown. "Congratulations to Fernando. He and his team deserved to win the title this year, they did a terrific job," said the German. "I'm happy for them, but of course I'm also looking forward to fighting for the title myself once again next year."
Raikkonen, who put in some tremendous performances of his own in his fight to catch Alonso, was naturally disappointed but has respect for his rival. "He definitely deserves it," he said. "Whoever has the most points at the end of the season or before the end of the season deserves it and I don't have anything bad about it. We lost it this year and now we try to win it next year, so for him and for Renault it was a good year."
Alonso was also respectful of the Finn. "It was fantastic for me and for him, the competition," he commented. "I think thanks to Kimi this world title is much better for me because Michael had some problems with the Ferrari this year and to beat the McLarens and especially Kimi this year was extremely difficult."
So what does it feel like to be the youngest ever champion? "I still find it hard to believe that it is true, that it has actually happened," said Alonso. "I can't really feel anything at the moment but I think it will come slowly. I have achieved my dream, the thing I have been fighting for since I was three years old. This is the maximum in my life, but I have not had time to think about it yet. Slowly, moments from my career will come back to me. I am sure it will happen in the next few days."