Alonso becoming the perfect Ferrari driver
23 March, 2010
Mar.23 (YF1) This is a great year to be a Spanish sports fan, especially if you are fond of the name Fernando. In a few weeks’ time Fernando Torres, the world’s most feared striker, will lead Spain in their bid to capture soccer’s World Cup for the first time.
And just a few days ago Fernando Alonso, the double Formula 1 World Champion who recently joined Ferrari, won the opening round of the 2010 season in Bahrain to earn an instant place in Italy’s heart as well as Spain’s.
Alonso, now 28 and in his sporting prime, is the man who single handedly lifted F1 alongside soccer as Spain’s national sport, drawing immense crowds to city streets to hail him as Spain’s first World Champion back in 2005 and again when he backed up the following year.
And now he comes to Albert Park for the 2010 Formula 1 Qantas Australian Grand Prix as the World Championship leader once more after leading team-mate Felipe Massa home in Bahrain for Ferrari’s first 1-2 finish in 27 Grands Prix.
“There could be no better way for him to start his adventure in red!” said Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali in the aftermath of March 14’s double success, in which Alonso also claimed the fastest race lap.
Not since Britain’s Nigel Mansell joined the Maranello squad in 1989 and won his first race in Rio de Janeiro has a new Ferrari driver made such a striking impact.
Australian fans will remember that Kimi Raikkonen won first time out in red right here three seasons ago, but the Finn never won the hearts of the tifosi, the fanatical Italian fans to whom Ferrari’s fortunes are the rhythm of life itself.
Alonso, whose fluent Italian, honed to perfection in his early F1 days with Minardi, makes him popular with local media and fans alike, looks set to carve a niche for himself at Ferrari that he was unable to occupy when he left his ‘home’ at Renault to join McLaren back in 2007.
Never comfortable with the McLaren way of doing things, Alonso was a relieved man when Renault welcomed him back to the fold the following year after the breakdown of his professional relationship with McLaren protégé Lewis Hamilton.
But now the signs are that, at last, Alonso is in his rightful place. “It was clear that eventually Fernando and Ferrari would get together,” Domenicali said when the Spaniard signed, and Alonso’s instant response was in a similar vein.
“It felt like a big red blanket had been thrown out to me,” he said on his arrival at Maranello. “I’m far better motivated than I ever was at Renault or McLaren.”
Alonso is clear sighted enough not to let the red mist blind him to the realities of being a Ferrari driver. Already he has spoken of the responsibilities that come along with this historic marque, and immediately after his Bahrain coup he was calming everyone down with his comments on what comes next.
Alonso knows full well that failure to win on a regular basis will put him in the firing line rather than the firelight, an image Domenicali himself used after the Bahrain race as he defended Ferrari’s decision to scrap the development of its mediocre 2009 car and focus as early as possible on building a 2010 challenger that would be up to the task.
“After a difficult season like last year,” he said, “and after a very difficult decision that we had to take last year, everyone was ready with the gun to fire. But that is part of the game.”
Like his team boss, Alonso was quick to underline the need to reproduce their Bahrain form at other tracks, starting here in Australia, a circuit that poses a very different challenge from the Middle Eastern venue and one where the Spaniard has won just once, in 2006.
“The first races of the season are very important,” he stressed. “We must get to the European part of the year with a lot of points in the bag and a high level of understanding of how the tyres work at various types of track. The key to winning will be to develop the car race by race.
“Now it’s time to think about Australia. We will see who has the best car at that track, but I think the top four teams will all be in the fight.”
The points in the bag will pile up faster than ever this year, Alonso made history in Bahrain as the first driver to score 25 points for a World Championship Grand Prix win under the new scoring system that sets a seven point difference between finishing first and second.
After 140 races, Alonso has already vaulted into fifth place in the list of points scorers in World Championship history.
The top three are the great triumvirate of modern Formula 1, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
Next up is the all time longest serving Grand Prix driver, Rubens Barrichello, who has started more than twice as many races as Alonso, and next, on 602 points, comes Fernando himself.
Alonso, like everyone else at Ferrari, will be mindful that 2009, which yielded just one race win, one fastest lap and fourth place overall, was the team’s worst World Championship performance since 1993, slim pickings for a fan base used to gorging themselves on title after title through the Todt-Brawn-Schumacher days in the early years of the 21st century.
That’s one of the most intriguing aspects of Alonso’s new surroundings, the fact that he will go head to head with the returning Schumacher again, this time with the Spaniard in the car that made Michael a Formula 1 legend, while the German has the might of Mercedes behind him as he bids to add to his record tally of 91 Grand Prix wins.
Alonso always said that his world titles were all the more satisfying because they were earned when Schumacher was still in his pomp and Ferrari was the team to beat, a state of affairs he will be keen to restore as he embarks on this three year contract with the pride of Italy.
Bahrain was his 22nd Grand Prix victory, and the 211th for his new team.
As Australia’s Mark Webber said in late February, “He’s the perfect Ferrari driver. He’s exactly what they need, he’s a passionate, fiery, but fair racer. It’s good for the sport to have Fernando in a red car.”