The first time Fernando Alonso got his hands on the car was at the early age of three. His father, José Luis Alonso, a big kart fan, decided to build one himself for Fernando’s eight-year-old elder sister, Lorena. She didn’t particularly take to the pocket rocket, but her kid brother most certainly did. The pedals needed some adjustment, but Fernando was able to get karting.
“It all started out as just a plaything, but from the age of five or six it was clear that he had more of a spark than other kids of his age,” says the racing driver’s dad.
His first victory came in 1988 in Pola Liviana, and he ended up winning the children’s title the same year, claiming eight race victories during the championship.
At the age of eight Fernando went beyond the confines of Asturias to win both the Galicia and Asturian regional championships in the children’s category. In 1990, by this time racing in the juniors, he won his first victories in Asturias and in the Basque Country. By 1991 Fernando’s passion was becoming more intense, and travel and materials increasingly costly. “We didn’t have the financial resources to allow Fernando to compete at higher levels. The costs just rocketed,” according to José Luis. “Fernando was always aware of the efforts which we were all making as a family. I would be going along to all the races to act as his mechanic, his mum had to do without seeing her son at weekends, which was the only time she could be with him. Lorena didn’t get as much time with her brother as she would have liked, quite apart from the financial costs involved. The only way to progress was for Fernando to win races and for someone to mark him down as a racing driver for the future, as none of the official bodies or companies we asked for support would help us out. Fernando knew that if he was to go any further it was all up to him, and he made the grade”. Simple as that: the same year he clinched runner-up spot in the Spanish championship at the Santos de la Humosa track, near Madrid.
In 1992, Fernando raced in the 100 cc category, requiring special dispensation from the Federation since given his age he should have been competing with the juniors. “I’ve always been the youngest at every category, and so maybe that’s why I’m used to breaking that kind of record, and perhaps it strikes me as less of a big deal then it should do. It may seem like I’m not celebrating all my achievements, but I do value them, it’s maybe just something that doesn’t sit easily with me. I was always the youngest in every category I raced in,” recalls Fernando.
It was at a very young age that Fernando was faced with one of the defining moments in his life. “He had not even turned twelve when Genis Marcó (owner of Genikart, importer of Parilla engines and Mike Wilson chassis) set him a trial. He was racing in the Catalan Championship at Mora de Ebro, south of Barcelona, and Fernando new that this was the most important moment of his life. He was very mature for his age, he always has been, even now, and he won the race at a canter. It was the make or break point at the start of his sporting career,” claims his father.
“After that race Mr. Marcó said he could race with them in the Spanish Championship, and I was no longer his mechanic. It was with them that he won the 1993 Spanish Championship. Fernando was just a kid and I went with him to all the races through ’93, ’94, at the end of 1995, which was when IAME began to handle the travel and everything. Between Genis and IAME they took care of the lot,” says José Luis.
Aware of the considerable financial efforts being made by his family in order to allow him to fulfil his passion, Fernando himself rolled his sleeves up: at the age of just 14 he was playing mentor to youngsters aged 7 and 8. “I like the mechanical side, and helping other kids gave me personal satisfaction, while also giving me some extra income to help out. I was paid around 100,000 pesetas, or 600 euros, and that helped meet the costs so I wouldn’t be a burden to anyone,” explains the racing driver.
The international travel also meant a considerable effort for the family. “We would head off on Thursdays after school and while I drove, Fernando would sleep on the back seat. When the races were over on the Sunday, it would be another 18 or 20-hour trip back to Oviedo to get Fernando to school for Tuesday morning”.
It was at this point that Fernando began to fill up his trophy cabinet. In 1995 he finished third in the World Championship held in Braga. In ’96 he won the World Junior Title in Ghent, and the national championship in Sils. In ’97 he won championships in Spain and in Italy, while in 1998 he won the Paris Bercy, was Spanish International A champion, won the Parma Industry Trophy and the Open Ford, and was European Formula A runner-up.
It was in 1998 that Fernando was given his first opportunity in Formula Nissan. Ex-Formula 1 driver Adrián Campos, who selected the Asturian as the replacement for Marc Gené, recalls the moment: “It really impressed me. Fernando went to Albacete and didn’t start from first on the grid, but he took the lead during the race and then made a mistake. Over the course of the season he made further mistakes when he was out in the lead. I spoke to him and he said that he needed to learn how to push it to the limit throughout the whole race, and that “until I learn to do that I’m not going to stop”. In the second race at Albacete he won, and I remember saying to him over the radio: “Fernando, you’ve got a 42-second lead over the next guy, slow it down,” and he said to me: “I’m wearing my brake pads out, I can’t go any slower”. Between the first and second races in Albacete I remember having my heart in my mouth, I felt so bad for him because of the mistake he had made. It was the first race and he almost won it, but he put his arm round my shoulder and said: “Don’t worry, I’ll win the next one”, and so he did”.
In Formula Nissan Fernando achieved 9 poles and 6 victories, making him the Euro Open Movistar Champion.
After winning the Nissan, in December of the same year Fernando tested a Formula One car for the first time on the Jerez track. “We were in Jerez to try out six or seven drivers “, says Cesare Fiorio, former sporting director of Lancia, Ferrari, Ligier, Prost and Minardi. “One of them was Fernando Alonso. In the morning it was raining and we didn’t think we would be able to give them a real trial, but felt that maybe it would be worth just to see if any of them really stood out. They all did a few laps and by the end of the day Alonso was far quicker, a second and a half or so, and you could see he had it all: sense, concentration, intelligence… the attributes which, combined with talent, make for a champion”.
“He is the prodigy of prodigies. In 40 years I have had more than 300 race drivers under me, and I had never seen anyone like him. He’s one of those drivers who comes around every 10 years. Schumacher, Prost, Senna, Piquet all had their eras, and he is most definitely set to occupy the centre stage of Formula One for the next 10 years,” claims Fiorio.
Following a brief stint in F3000 with the Astromega team, Fernando finally ended up in Formula 1 for good. Ferrari took an interest in him and offered him a role as a test driver, but after that verbal agreement Flavio Briatore enquired after Fernando, ultimately leading him to sign for Renault, who loaned him out to Minardi.
His debut came in 2001 in Australia. The best finish he achieved with Minardi was a tenth place in the German Grand Prix.
In 2002 his secondment to Minardi came to an end, and so he headed back to Renault. He spent a year there as a test driver, and in 2003 was given his full racing colours after Jenson Button moved to BAR.
On his debut with Renault he finished seventh in Australia, and went on that same year to become the youngest driver to achieve a pole position. That was at the Malaysian GP, and he was 21 years old. 2003 was also the year when he suffered the worst accident of his career, colliding with a wheel after Mark Webber had suffered an accident in the Brazilian GP.
And in 2003 Fernando became the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix: in Hungary, at the age of 22. His record for the season included one victory, two poles and four podium finishes, giving him sixth place in the championship.
In 2004 Fernando did not win any races, but racked up more points than the previous year and also achieved one of the best starts ever, finishing third in the US Grand Prix having been ninth on the grid.
In 2005 Fernando finally won the coveted World Championship. His stats for the season were spectacular: seven wins, six polls and 15 podiums. 2005 was another year in which Fernando made history: as the first Spaniard to become World Cup champion, as well as being the youngest winner ever.
His country of birth was also keen to honour his achievement, in the form of the Prince of Asturias Award for Sport.
In 2006 Fernando was once again world champion, this time clinching the title in a thrilling final race. His tally for the season provides further proof of a born champion: seven wins, six polls, fourteen podium places.
In 2007 Fernando Alonso signed for the McLaren team, racing in the MP4/22 car with which he achieved third place in the World Championship. The figures speak for themselves: four victories, two poles and 12 podium finishes.
In 2008 Fernando decided to return to his first home: Renault. There he achieved a fifth-place finish in the World Championship, with two victories and three podium finishes.
In 2009 Fernando stayed at Renault for a further season with a car, the R29, which did not prove as competitive as hoped. One pole position and one podium finish were enough to give the Asturian driver ninth place, and although it was not his finest year, his racing was of a high standard.
2010 is a key year in the career of Fernando Alonso, with his move to a legendary name in Formula One: Ferrari. On his debut with the Italian team in pre-season testing in Valencia, Fernando was fastest for the day, and his first Grand Prix went like a dream. In Bahrain he started from third on the grid before racing to victory.
2010 could most certainly prove a great year for Fernando, with the combination of the top team and the top driver offering the promise of great success.