F1 » Fernando Alonso
Fernando Alonso enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks, skipping many of the junior formulae on a turbo-charged climb up the racing ladder to the pinnacle of the sport.
Introduced to motorsport at a young age when his father built the then two-year old Fernando a kart, Alonso quickly established himself as a star of the future between the ages of 13 and 18, as he won wherever he raced - from local festivals on home-made courses to regional and national championships the length and breadth of Spain. He also took his talents overseas, winning the world junior title in 1996 at the age of 15 and finishing second in the senior European Championship two years later. The success, however, prompted him to move into car racing at the earliest opportunity.
Eschewing Formula Ford, Formula Renault and even F3, Alonso jumped straight into the Spanish-based Formula Nissan series, where he was mentored by former Minardi F1 pilot Adrian Campos. Incredibly, he won the title at his first attempt, with six wins, nine poles and eight fastest laps, earning himself the right to try a Minardi F1 car and attracting the attention of renowned driver manager Flavio Briatore.
Despite creating ripples in the grand prix paddock, Alonso moved into the supporting FIA F3000 series for 2000, where he took Telefonica backing to the established Team Astromega. A difficult learning year among more season drivers restricted his scoring opportunities, but Alonso showed how much he had progressed by the final race, dominating at the notorious Spa-Francorchamps circuit to almost overshadow the title showdown between Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian – two drivers who would not get an F1 opportunity - and finish fourth in the standings.
Confirmation of a management contract with Briatore quickly followed, and the Spaniard found himself being farmed out to Minardi, where he began his F1 career the following year.
Now under the guidance of Australian Paul Stoddart, Alonso flourished in impoverished circumstances, easily out-performing team-mates Tarso Marques and Alex Yoong in both qualifying and races. A best finish of tenth at the German Grand Prix, and top qualifying of 17th in the USA did not go unnoticed, and Briatore was quick to take his protégé under his wing at Renault before anyone else could lay claim to him.
A year on the sidelines followed, which would have been difficult to swallow had it not been for the knowledge that Briatore intended to fit him into the team in 2003. Despite a generally lacklustre season from both drivers, Jenson Button was the one to make way for the Spaniard, who teamed up with Jarno Trulli, for his return to F1 action.
With the regie's return to frontrunning form, Alonso was able to take his first pole and podium second time out, in Malaysia, before adding further top three results in Brazil – albeit after trashing the R23 and bringing out the red flag - and, to great acclaim, in his homeland. Second place in Barcelona would have been a highlight in itself, had it not been for the feats of Hungary, where Alonso, still only 22, dominated from pole, lapping champion-elect Michael Schumacher on the way to a crushing maiden win – the youngest driver ever to stand on the top step in grand prix racing. Sixth in the championship with 55 points – 22 more than his more experienced team-mate – underlined the Spanaird's ability, and marked him out as a target for the Scuderia.
Despite the attention from Maranello, Alonso remained with Renault in 2004 and, while unable to add a second victory to his tally, scored points in twelve of the 18 races, including three podiums - in France, Germany and Hungary – as well as pole position at Magny-Cours. Although he had to watch team-mate Trulli win in Monaco, unlike the Italian, Alonso was still on board at the end of the year, with fourth place in the drivers' championship and another 59 points under his belt.
Renault went into the 2005 season having marked itself out as potential title contenders in pre-season testing, and so it proved, with Giancarlo Fisichella claiming victory in the opening round and Alonso following up with a hat-trick in Malaysia, Bahrain and San Marino - as well as two poles - to stretch out an early championship lead.
Alonso never lost his initial lead, and despite coming under pressure from Kimi Raikkonen, added three more wins to his tally - at the Nurburgring, Magny Cours and Hockenheim - on route to securing the drivers' crown at the Brazilian GP, the youngest driver ever to do so.
In total Alonso scored 133 points and took seven wins, taking the victory at the final grand prix in China, after having played it more tactically prior to guaranteeing the title. The Spaniard's only mistake was at the Canadian GP, when he hit the wall, other than that he scored points in every race and was on the podium 15 times.
Alonso remained with Renault in 2006 to defend his crown, however he decided before the season even began that he would not stay there after that and in a surprise announcement signed a deal to go to McLaren-Mercedes for 2007, a move that was confirmed in December 2005.
Despite that decision though, 2006 was an extremely successful one for him and Renault - and both successfully defended their crowns.
Fernando had a storming start to '06, winning in Bahrain and adding another five victories to his tally and three second places by the time the circus arrived in France, for round ten. Having scored 84 points from a possible 90, he was well on his way to taking back-to-back titles and looked unstoppable.
The second half of the season however was a different tale and Fernando [and Renault] came under increased pressure from Michael Schumacher [and Ferrari], so much so that by the time they arrived in Japan, the two title contenders were level on points, both having scored 116.
The Japanese GP though fell to Alonso and after Schumacher retired from the lead, Fernando came through to take the win and the ten points and put the title practically out of reach. Although it went down to the wire in Brazil, as they both had seven wins, Fernando finally came out top, by finishing second and taking his points total for the year to 134 points - 13 more than Schumacher, who could only manage fourth at Interlagos after a puncture.
Alonso left Renault with few regrets as he joined McLaren, despite the Woking team not having won a race in 2006, but, ironically, the swap was to prove both successful and the most miserable experience of the Spaniard's career.
The MP4-22 was a much more competitive animal than its predecessor, and McLaren went into the season vying for victory with Ferrari. Alonso, however, was not having things all his own way, despite being paired with a rookie team-mate.
Despite appearances, Lewis Hamilton was no ordinary newcomer, quickly proving to be the world champion's equal in terms of pace on track and mind games off it. Although Alonso took second and first places in the opening races, he was clearly rattled by the Briton, making mistakes at the start in both Spain and Canada in his haste to get ahead.
Brake problems scuppered his chances in Bahrain and set up the other, unsavoury, side of the season. Convinced that his British team was favouring its British driver, Alonso's relationship with Hamilton quickly soured, to the point where the pair each made petty attempts to spoil the other's qualifying efforts in Hungary.
That spat was the overshadowed by the outcome of the espionage row that engulfed McLaren and Ferrari, leading to the Woking team being stripped of all constructors' points. Alonso and Hamilton were allowed to retain their personal hauls, however, and took the title fight with Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen to the wire in Brazil.
Alonso had added further victories in Monaco, the European GP and Italy to his tally, but could manage only third at Interlagos. That proved insufficient after an accident in the wet Japanese GP had left him on the back foot, and Raikkonen came from behind to pip both McLaren drivers - who, ironically, ended the campaign tied on points for second place.
His relationship with the management in tatters - especially after it was revealed that he had tried to blackmail the team into giving him number one status by threatening to reveal espionage secrets to the FIA - it was no surprise when Alonso was released from his three-year contract.
A period of prevarication then followed - ironically because his expected destination, Renault, was involved in its own spy row - Alonso duly rejoined the regie for 2008, despite interest from Red Bull, Williams, Toyota and Honda. but the length of his deal at Enstone remained in question, with Ferrari expected to be partnering the Spaniard some time in the near future.
Fourth place at the season-opener in Melbourne proved to be something of a mirage, as the R28 proved far from a frontrunner and, as he scratched around for the occasional points, rumours inevitably began to circulate that Alonso was looking to move on for 2009.
Perhaps given extra motivation by the speculation, Renault produced one of the great F1 turnarounds, as a rapid development programme began to pay dividends. Alonso, too, proved an inspirational figure, and a run of fourth places eventually led to an unexpected victory in the inaugural Singapore night race, helped by an accident for under-fire team-mate Nelson Piquet Jr.
The Spaniard, however, promptly backed up his success with a consummate performance in Japan, before second place in the climactic finale in Brazil closed a run of six top four finishes that left him as the highest scorer of the run-in, and fifth overall.
The result was enough for Renault to add leverage to its hold on Alonso for 2009 and, despite rumours again linking him with moves elsewhere - notably BMW Sauber - the Spaniard stayed put.
However, with the regie's R29 again proving uncompetitive in pre-season testing, the rumour mill continued to crank, suggesting that Alonso was again biding his time while Ferrari sees out the contracts of its current pairing. Things failed to improve during the season - unlike 2008 - with the Spaniard only managing 26 points and ninth in the championship, with a sole podium in Singapore.
That result was somewhat ironic too, given the furore that rose up around the result of the 2008 night race which, it emerged, members of the Renault team conspired to 'fix', ordering Piquet Jr to crash out, thereby helping Alonso overcome his lowly grid position and take a future-saving victory.
With Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds quitting the team to save it from a ban, and the trend for manufacturers to end their F1 involvement in the economic downturn, doubt surrounded Renault's future, until it was eventually rescued by investment from Luxembourg-based Genii Capital.
Alonso, however, would not be a part of the future having, as expected, left Enstone for Maranello, where he forms a formidable Ferrari pairing with Felipe Massa. Early season testing provided a great deal of encouragement for the Spaniard, who proclaimed the F10 as the best F1 car he had driven, but it remained to be seen whether he could help drag Ferrari up from its own dire 2009 campaign - and also how he would cope with an equally-talented team-mate after the acrimony that surrounded his pairing with Hamilton at McLaren.
Right from the start, however, Alonso stamped his authority on the Ferrari team, quickly becoming its favoured driver, but, after a debut victory in Bahrain, they year appeared to be tailing off, with the Spaniard falling 47 points off the lead - under F1's revised scoring system - thanks to a combination of mistakes from team and driver prior to the British GP. Alonso never wavered, however, and predicted that he would still be champion.
Controversial team orders in the German GP got him back on track, and Alonso responded by following victory at Hockenheim with three more - and three other podiums - in the final eight races. Ironically, however, a team blunder would ultimately cost him the title - despite heading to the Abu Dhabi finale eight points in front - with a botched strategy leaving the Spaniard unable to cover eventual champion Sebastian Vettel at the front of the field.
Alonso remained at Ferrari for 2011 - and potentially for the rest of his career after signing a long-term contract extension mid-season - but had little celebrate as the Scuderia found itself largely eclipsed by both Red Bull and McLaren.
Only at the British GP, where the blown diffuser technology on which it lagged was outlawed, did Alonso compete for victory, beating the rest of the field comfortably. Unfortunately, the technology ban was overturned in time for the next round, and the Spaniard was left to battle for podium finishes rather than wins, although he continued to punch above the weight of his car. He remained third in the championship until the final round, when Mark Webber's Interlagos victory allowed him to move above the Spaniard.
Alonso continued at Maranello in 2012, hoping that the frustration of the previous two campaigns could be erased by a return to the front. However, while he indeed found himself in with a shot of taking the title at the final round, it only served to confirm the Spaniard’s status as one of the best on the grid. Ferrari’s F2012 was difficult from the start of testing and, save for a couple of races mid-season, always appeared to be trailing McLaren and Red Bull.
An unexpected triumph in the wet at Sepang was joined by others in Valencia and Germany, and a remarkable knack for grabbing podiums and scoring points kept Alonso out front in the title race until Suzuka. A start-line error there, however, allowed Vettel to shave 25 points off his 29-point advantage and the writing was on the wall as RBR proved the team to beat as F1 traversed Asia. Finishing in the top three in seven races around his Japanese DNF underlined Alonso’s fighting qualities, and it was only the smallest of margins that eventually denied him a third title.
Looking set to remain a Ferrari driver until the end of his career, the Spaniard remains part of an unchanged line-up alongside Felipe Massa in 2013.