Fernando Alonso Diaz (his full name includes his mother's maiden name, according to the Spanish custom) was born on 29 July, 1981, in Oviedo, a city in the Asturias region of northern Spain, where his mother worked in a department store and his father was employed in the mining industry as an explosive expert. The Alonsos and their two children lived comfortably but were by no means a wealthy family. Luis Alonso, a keen amateur kart racer, wished to share his passion with his children and built them a pedal kart in the form of a realistic-looking miniature F1 car. It was originally intended for eight-year-old Lorena but she soon grew tired of it, whereupon her three-year-old brother eagerly climbed into the tiny cockpit and immediately felt at home. From the beginning little Fernando was not content to simply pedal around. He wanted to compete and to win.
Shortly after his seventh birthday he entered his first proper kart race and won, and before he was ten Fernando Alonso's name was engraved on several kart championship trophies. However, further progress would require more funding than his family's limited resources could provide. While his parents fully supported their son's increasingly successful pastime - with his father acting as his mechanic at the races and his mother making sure he also got good marks at school - Fernando knew the only way forward was to get sponsored drives by winning races - which he continued to do. Age proved to be no barrier - he was invariably the youngest driver in every category, and more often than not, the best. By his mid-teens his collection of kart titles included a world championship.
Onward and upward he sped, easily winning a 1999 Spanish-based championship for single seater racing cars, parlaying his prize of a tryout in a Minardi Formula 1 car into a drive in 2000 with a Minardi-backed F3000 team and a testing contract with Minardi's Formula 1 team, in which he made an impressive debut the following season. His obvious potential prompted Renault (formerly Benetton) to sign him as a test driver for 2002, a valuable experience that would enable him to immediately establish himself as a frontrunner when he joined the French automaker's team in 2003. In Malaysia, only his second race for Renault, the 21-year-old became the youngest ever pole winner. Starting from pole again in Hungary, less than a month after his 22nd birthday, he became the youngest Grand Prix winner in history.
In 2004 the difficult-to-drive Renault R24 kept him out of the winner's circle and he finished fourth in the championship. By now, having slotted seamlessly into the team, further polished his driving skills and honed his racecraft, Alonso was ready to take full advantage of Renault's excellent R25 car, in which he would really come of age.
From the beginning of the 2005 season the man to beat was the upstart Spaniard. Equipment variances were a factor, with Michael Schumacher's Ferrari off the pace for the first time in six years and Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren Mercedes proving to be fast but fragile. Meanwhile, the Alonso-driven Renault swept serenely through the longest ever Formula 1 season, scoring points in all but two of the 19 races, finishing in the top three 14 times and winning on seven occasions.
Alonso's nearly flawless performance (his only driving error came in Canada where he crashed while leading) was highlighted by a symbolic defeat of Schumacher at Imola, where he brilliantly fended off the best efforts of the seven-time champion. Schumacher's successor knew when to attack, how to defend, how to control a race - how to win the championship in a car that was usually not as fast as Raikkonen's McLaren. Both drivers had six poles and seven wins, and though the raw racer Raikkonen's challenge was undermined by mechanical misfortune, Alonso's adaptability served him best. His aptitude for adjusting quickly to changing circumstances, his competence at conserving his equipment, his capability of responding immediately to the invariably wise tactical instructions issued by the Renault team, all contributed to his success.
"I'm just a normal guy," insisted Alonso, whose swift ascendancy to superstardom left him somewhat embarrassed. Softly spoken, though fluent and articulate in English, his second language, he eschewed the usual trappings of success, choosing to live quietly in Oxford to be near the British-based Renault team that was totally devoted to their boy wonder. "My record is going to be in good hands," said Emerson Fittipaldi, who won the 1972 championship when he was 25. In his 25th year Alonso held onto his title even more firmly, securing second successive championships for himself and Renault after an epic duel with a resurgent Michael Schumacher.
Faced with a formidable opponent still at the peak of his powers, the cleverly quick Alonso's focus never wavered in the intensity of battle - the scenario that most appealed to his real racer's instincts. Fiercely determined and eagerly aggressive, he relished the cut and thrust, revelled in the thrill of the chase - all the while remaining supernaturally calm with a maturity that belied his youth and would serve him well in defending his title against the sport's most successful exponent.
Alonso began 2006 with a string of wins and podiums that by mid-season gave him a substantial lead over Schumacher, whose faltering Ferrari was subsequently improved to overcome Renault's initial performance advantage. Thus empowered, the German staged a brilliant comeback that made the Spaniard's eventual title triumph all the more memorable. The fact that they were so evenly matched, with seven wins each, substantiated Alonso's status as a worthy successor to the retiring Schumacher.
In pursuit of a new challenge Alonso left Renault at the end of the year and moved to McLaren, where a fractious relationship with the team and Lewis Hamilton ended with the Spaniard returning to Renault for two more seasons where inferior equipment restricted his results. In 2010 he realised every driver's dream when he was hired to become team leader at Ferrari where he immediately resumed his winning ways (he won five races) and finished second in the championship. In 2011 Ferrari's fluctuating fortunes restricted him to a single victory and fourth in the standings.
In an epic 2012 season he came within three points of winning the driving title for a third time, an achievement that ultimately went to his title rival Sebastian Vettel. But Fernando Alonso distinguished himself in what he called "my best ever season" by consistently flogging his far from fastest Ferrari for all it was worth, and more. His championship challenge was the product of a fighting spirit, clever racecraft and mistake-free driving that never waned.
His 2013 season was equally impressive, when he was again second overall in a year of even greater domination by Vettel. Flattering a Ferrari that was never more than the third best car (which is where the team finished), Alonso won twice, was second five times, consistently collected high points and failed to score in only two races.
In 2014 his car’s serious limitations left the proud Spaniard winless for the first time in his five years with an increasingly floundering Ferrari team. Yet his reputation as the best of the current drivers remained intact as did his determination to demonstrate his superiority by winning another championship. In pursuit of this goal Alonso chose to disregard their previously acrimonious relationship and rejoin a similarly ambitious McLaren team, for whom 2014 was only their second winless season since 1980. For 2015 McLaren announced it was ‘laying the foundations for future domination’ by renewing a formerly all-powerful alliance with engine supplier Honda and appointing a new team leader in superstar Fernando Alonso.
His 13th year in Formula 1 was the worst by far for the two-time world champion, whose 2015 McLaren-Honda was embarrassingly uncompetitive. Alonso was classified 17th in the drivers’ standings, while his team finished ninth among the ten entrants. Unreliable in the extreme, hopelessly slow when it ran, his car’s consistently poor performance provoked an increasingly frustrated Alonso, whose public criticism of his employer contravened the adage that a team loses and wins together.
The Spanish charger’s 2016 season (his 14th in the sport) began with a massive accident in Australia, after which he endured yet another year of inferior McLaren-Honda equipment. Flattering his car by far, he finished 10th overall in the standings. While he occasionally complained publicly, his warrior mentality never faltered, nor did his reputation suffer as he raced as hard as ever in a losing cause.
The previous successes of the two-time Drivers’ Champion faded further into the distance in 2017 as his floundering McLaren-Honda team finished a humiliating second last in the Constructors’ Championship. Alonso, his Spanish conquistador mindset undimmed, drove as hard as ever for scant reward. He managed to salvage points in only five races, leaving him a lowly 15th overall among the drivers.
Increasingly exasperated by the severe handicaps of a F1 engine that was notoriously unreliable as well as embarrassingly slow, he distracted himself by skipping the Monaco Grand Prix and racing a Honda-powered IndyCar in America’s Indianapolis 500. There, he started fifth then led for a while before retiring with an engine failure.
At the end of the season McLaren ended its F1 partnership with Honda and announced a switch to Renault power for 2018, a move that helped convince Fernando Alonso to stay in the sport he once upon a time dominated.
In 2018 he aggressively manhandled the maximum from still poorly performing equipment to haul himself up to 11th in the drivers’ standings. Sharing the winning sportscar in World Endurance Championship racing at the 6 Hours of Spa and the 24 Hours of Le Mans confirmed his talent was still there. He also made plans for another attempt at winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2019.
But being reduced to an embarrassed also-ran in F1 no longer appealed to the proud 37-year-old Spaniard. He decided to leave that branch of the sport where he had been competing for nearly half his life. After 18 seasons and over 300 Grands Prix Fernando Alonso's record of success stood at 32 wins, 22 poles and 97 podiums. It could have been much more had he made better career choices and avoided episodes of political strife, though he preferred to be remembered for his fighting spirit.
Then after two years away from Formula 1 the Spanish warrior who wanted to be known as the guy that never gives up returned in 2021, driving for the Alpine F1 Team – the rebranded French squad formerly known as Renault where he won his two driving titles in 2005 and 2006.
During his hiatus Alonso won the 2018-2019 FIA World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice – all with the Toyota sportscar team. While his F1 record remains intact it will be a tall order for the 39-year-old veteran to win again. His last F1 victory was at his home race in Spain in 2013 (with Ferrari) and he left the sport with his reputation as a team player somewhat diminished. Perhaps his successes with Toyota – where he equally shared the laurels with other drivers - have given him a deeper understanding of what a driver’s contribution entails beyond being a fiercely competitive individual in the cockpit.
A successful champion should know when it’s time to go – then stay away. This adage refers to the several champions whose ill-advised comebacks tarnished their reputations. Notable exceptions include Niki Lauda and Alain Prost who returned from sabbaticals to win another driving title. Time will tell how Fernando Alonso fares in this regard.
Text - Gerald Donaldson