|Shedding the Paradigms of a Champion|
|by Jeremy McMullen|
| If, while watching a Formula One race, you see one car in particular losing parts, and yet, seemingly going faster, you've found Fernando Alonso. Sometimes it would appear the aerodynamically sensitive pieces, like the barge boards and diffuser strakes, only slow Alonso down. No matter what, this twenty-five year old double-world champion makes Formula One fun again. Breathtaking speeds and pieces of bodywork slung off in all directions like a sparkler on the fourth of July all add to the spectacle that is Fernando Alonso; it is what makes watching him amazing and fun.|
But it isn't merely bodywork Fernando has eliminated to enable himself to go faster. In only four years of competition in Formula One Alonso has also destroyed the norms; the apparent qualifications that are necessary before a driver can be considered a viable contender for world champion. Alonso is one of Formula One's prodigies; a talent beyond his years.
After what seemed a millennium of status-quo racing, passing and excitement returned to Formula One. All throughout the period from 2000-2004 it seemed the number of on-track passes that took place could have been counted on one hand. Were it not for Fernando, Juan Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen, and to some degree, David Coulthard, each F1 race for the last few years would consist of a parade of cars only making a lot of noise. And though not alone, it would appear that the young and brash style Alonso brought to the table seemed to fit the Renault Team's style better than, say, either Raikkonen's or Montoya's at McLaren-Mercedes.
From day one of his Formula One career Alonso has had his foot firmly held down on the gas. Almost like a kid at play, Fernando's style is fast, almost reckless, but a whole lot of fun to watch. It is, however, this 'at play' attitude that caused many people to fail to take notice and take such a driver seriously in the past. Alonso has changed all that.
Characteristics assigned to young drivers are usually 'fearless' and 'reckless'. Rarely are 'patience' and 'focus' included. While this attacking behavior certainly characterizes Alonso, patience and control are the obvious talents that surprise everybody given his age. While Alonso is young he has shown maturity beyond his years, and thus, dismisses the general attitude toward young drivers.
Age is one of the most obvious barriers Alonso has demolished by becoming world champion, not once but, twice. Before even being old enough to get a reduced rate on driver's insurance, or, even rent a car, Fernando celebrated his first world championship and was well on his way toward two in a row. In fact, at the age of 24 years and 59 days Alonso set the record and became the youngest world champion of all-time. He broke the previous record held by Emerson Fittipaldi by some eighteen months.
While most people are still discovering their desired career or direction in life Alonso already had a few years experience behind the wheel of the greatest and most advanced race cars on the planet. And yet, to look at Fernando's life is to see a story of a man destined for racing and for demolishing barriers.
Each generation has them—those who take the technology of the day and push the envelope until new seemingly impregnable barriers are erected. In racing, as in most sports, the barrier being attacked the most is age and the ability of an adolescent to operate in the same manner as those with years of experience. There are, and have been, many who are able to drive a race car, and yet, there are far fewer who are born to do so. Fernando is one of those born for those mechanical thoroughbreds.
Born in Spain in 1981 Fernando, for sure, seemed born for racing. Though his father was passionate about motorsports and was an amateur kart racer himself, it was Fernando that would take it to levels beyond the family's imagination. With his father as a mechanic Fernando began competitively racing in karts before the age of ten and with great success. It was this success that procured sponsorship so he could continue racing despite the family lacking the funds to support his career.
Before the age of sixteen, Alonso had already won numerous Spanish karting championships in the cadet and junior categories. And by the time he was sixteen he was competitively competing in the Inter A karting category. He would go on to win the Spanish and Italian championships. And though he would eventually finish second in the European championship he would score nine wins.
At the age of eighteen, Alonso would move on to the Spanish Euro Open Movistar by Nissan. He would end up winning the series in his only year of competition. This led to a direct jump into Formula 3000 in 2000 at the age of nineteen. Fernando would finish his only season in Formula 3000 with one win and an overall fourth place finish. That would be enough, as it was off to Formula One for Fernando for the 2001 season, and all at the age of twenty. Though he would not be the youngest ever to start a Formula One race, Fernando would eventually tear down even greater barriers than merely being the youngest ever to compete.
Of the paradigms associated with young drivers, the lack of patience and control amidst the fury of a race have been notoriously written in the parts of wrecked cars and sand traps. Yet to watch Alonso is to watch a driver apparently with years-upon-years and miles-upon-miles of experience. He drives fast and, yet, extremely mature. Of course Alonso would have his moments where he would show his age. In fact, at the 2001 San Marino Grand Prix, Fernando hit one of the curbs in one of the chicanes and launched himself into the air eventually coming to a rest head-first in a tire barrier. But even champions have their days. Remember, even Michael Schumacher has seen his fill of off-track excursions.
These car launching episodes were not the norm however. In his first season in Formula One, Alonso was repeatedly out-pacing his more experienced teammate at Minardi and was, in fact, putting in impressive qualifying displays. The fact of the matter was that Fernando represented a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale situation in Formula One. Alonso was not content to sit back and wait to pass in the pits. Fernando is a racer and the pits only add to what he is able to do on the track. He does not rely on the pit crew to determine his final finishing place. To get an idea of Alonso's singular vision and competitiveness when behind the wheel all anybody has to do is take a look at the many inspiring drives he has presented over his short history in Formula One. And though he would end up with a third place finish, one of Fernando's most accomplished drives took place at the very first race of the 2005 season in Melbourne, Australia.
After being mired back in 13th place due to torrential rains during his qualifying, Alonso was able to climb up to 10th by the end of the first lap. For the next fifteen laps or so Alonso would be stuck behind Jacques Villeneuve, who qualified fourth, but had a poor start. On the tough and twisty track, overtaking was very difficult. Couple that with a competitive Villeneuve, and you have a much faster Alonso stuck in the pack with no where to go. But, unlike past seasons and drivers, Fernando did not lay back in wait, looking for pitstops to make up the difference.
Lap after lap, Alonso slid around in the lack of airflow behind Jacques trying to find a place to pass. Finally, after sixteen laps, Alonso would find his way past Villeneuve and would begin rocketing up through the field. Within three laps of clearing Jacques, Fernando set the fastest lap of the race and would continue to do so for the next four or five. In fact, it was within ten laps of passing Villeneuve and his Sauber that Alonso would go on to set the fastest lap of the entire race, and this, with half of the race still to go. After the fast laps and recycling of drivers from their pitstops, Alonso held the lead. By staying out and flying around the track, Fernando was able to move up further in the field after his first stop. But yet again, his forward movement would be slowed.
If one word could describe the Australian Grand Prix for Alonso it would have to be 'frustrating'. Upon re-entering the track after his first stop, Fernando would get stuck behind the Toyota of Jarno Trulli. Though Trulli ran second for much of the first part of the race, blistering tires began to slow down his pace and that of Alonso. Finally, after more than five laps, Fernando passed Trulli for the sixth spot and continued his charge forward. Undoubtedly, however, these obstructions slowed down Alonso's charge to the front and, potentially, kept Fernando from scoring an even better result. But yet, despite all of the frustration, Fernando kept his head and patiently looked for ways past.
Though his pace wasn't as torrent as before his first stop; Alonso kept the pressure on. And, after his second and last stop, Fernando would sit third. Despite being close to the second-place car piloted by Rubens Barrichello, there were too few laps left to make a real challenge for the position.
While he would have loved to have won the race, Alonso did all he could and salvaged a good result. He would be rewarded for the good and patient drive by the fact that his major competitors for that year's championship all finished behind him. The race set the stage for what the rest of the season would hold. Fernando drove smart throughout the season, turning it on when he needed to, and also, holding back when impatience could have ended a race in failure—all signs of a champion.
The 2006 season would only reaffirm Alonso's reputation as a driver ahead of his time. With the seven-time world champion filling his mirrors both on the track and in the points, Alonso showed no signs of cracking under the pressure. And cracking was something Schumacher had been accustomed to seeing in other drivers under the same circumstances.
After a great start to the season, which saw Alonso score six wins in the first nine races, and also, score his first ever pole, fastest lap, and victory in the same race at the British Grand Prix, the door came loose. Schumacher's resurgence meant the fight for the championship would go down to the wire with Alonso. Yet with his points lead diminishing, Alonso was bending, but he wasn't breaking. And this was a very unusual characteristic of a driver his age.
At the Turkish Grand Prix, he held off Michael to finish second after a 13 lap duel. He stared the master in the face and won their battle. After a frustrating Italian Grand Prix that saw Alonso controversially punished and failing to finish due to a mechanical problem with his engine, the pressure really mounted, but he, again, did not break.
Alonso struggled with his tires at the Chinese Grand Prix and seemed destined for total collapse. When the race was over he would lose his position as the points leader to Schumacher and with only two races left. However, at the Japanese Grand Prix, Alonso acted like the veteran, pressuring Michael throughout the first part of the race. Finally, and to many people's surprise, it was the Ferrari that cracked under the pressure. Michael's engine blew which meant he would not finish the race. With this Fernando rocketed to a first place finish and a repositioning of himself as the overall points leader. At the final race of the season, Fernando would finish second, but Michael's fourth place finish meant that Alonso would hold on to and successfully defend his title. And oh, Fernando had only turned twenty-five less than three months prior.
So, what's next? What is the potential of the driver regarded so highly by his peers? Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion, said to The Guardian (about Alonso) back in 2005, 'I've never seen any driver of that age so completely composed and consistent…I cannot find a single weakness in Alonso from any viewpoint…I think he is perfect.'
One thing's for certain, all of the apparent rules of the past are currently being re-written. And no matter what the final records about Alonso's career say, the fact is that all will be able to say they had fun watching him write them.