"A fighter with a Lion's heart"
That’s what Bernie Ecclestone says of Fernando Alonso. In our exclusive interview, the bullish Spaniard reveals how he handles fame, Ferrari – and some fiery magic
On the basis of cream rising to the top, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that the five fastest qualifiers for the Singapore Grand Prix were the five contenders for the 2010 World Championship: Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton, Button, Webber. The race, though, swiftly distilled to a two-hander between Alonso and Vettel, Bernie Ecclestone’s dream team. Were he still a team owner, Bernie says, Fernando and Sebastian would be his drivers of choice.
“Let’s be really blunt,” said Martin Brundle last winter. “If you were starting a Formula 1 team, there are three guys on the ‘must have’ list, aren’t there? Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton – you’d need to have one of them. I know Alonso can be a difﬁcult character sometimes, but boy, does he deliver!
“Fernando is a great racing driver – and, for me, his greatness was conﬁrmed at Monza that year they gave him a ﬁve-place grid penalty for supposedly holding up Massa…”
This was 2006, and the circumstances were these: in the closing minutes of qualifying Alonso’s Renault suffered a rear puncture, which meant a long lap back to the pits. The car was damaged, but after a swift safety check Fernando began the mother and father of all out-laps, striving to get back to the line in time for a ﬁnal banzai run. He made it by precisely two seconds and then drove a quite stupefying lap, setting fifth-fastest time in a car with signiﬁcantly damaged rear aerodynamics.
That wasn’t the end of the story. Fernando’s out-lap may have been the fastest in history, but it wasn’t quite as quick as Massa’s ﬁnal ﬂying lap, and afterwards Felipe complained that he had been held up. There was no protest from Ferrari, but the FIA stewards concluded that Alonso ‘had impeded another driver during the qualifying session’, and, while allowing that ‘such action may not have been deliberate’, deleted his three best laps.
Going into Monza, with four races left, Alonso headed Michael Schumacher in the World Championship. The stewards’ decision moved him down to 10th on the grid. It was a good day for conspiracy theorists.
“That was utterly scandalous,” said Brundle, “but Fernando’s final qualifying lap was unbelievable – how he set the time he did, with the sidepod hanging off that car, I will never understand. That was folklore stuff – instead of penalising him, they should have carried that car to an honorary pole position!
“In the Renault days Alonso had this bizarre driving style, and I remember thinking, ‘How will he ever get on in a McLaren?’ – and he went to McLaren, and drove in a completely different way. The bizarre style in the Renault was simply Fernando adapting to the car’s terminal understeer – it wasn’t his natural style at all, but he could produce it if he had to. He can simply adapt to whatever he has to drive, and that is a skill that’s a step above the others. The guy’s awesome…”
A Latin he may be, but fundamentally Alonso is remarkably composed. Engine mapping problems could have compromised his qualifying in Singapore, but he and the team calmly sorted everything out, and Fernando duly stole a crucial pole position from Vettel’s faster Red Bull. On his slowing-down lap there was no whoop of delight on the radio: “Thank you everybody, thank you…” was all he said.
Years ago Alonso told me that the only disagreeable aspect of life as an F1 driver was that he truly did not enjoy fame. At the time he was with Renault, living in Oxford, and he found it a way of life entirely to his taste. If he went out to a restaurant, he said, people didn’t bother him, and he appreciated that.
At Monza, where Fernando and I sat down to talk, I reminded him of what he had said. Given that he didn’t care to be famous, surely moving to Ferrari had only ampliﬁed the problem…
He gave a resigned smile. “Well, for sure it’s not an ideal situation – privacy is one of the secret dreams you have every night when you go to sleep. You say, ‘Well, maybe tomorrow I’ll be completely anonymous, and able to lead a normal life…’ That is one of my dreams, but… it’s the way it is, and there’s nothing we can change. I try to be as normal as possible when I’m away from racing – I try to be in places where there aren’t many people, and to have a very calm lifestyle.”
I recalled a Monza evening the previous year, when I’d been sitting with friends on the terrace at the Hotel de la Ville, and Alonso arrived with an entourage of maybe a dozen people, none of whom I recognised.
“Yes,” Fernando smiled, “I remember. It was two particular friends with their families who had come for the race. Still, my best friends – my real friends – are the ones I made at school, people I knew in the early days – not part of motor racing. It suits me very well.”
Life in his native land, he went on, has become ever more difﬁcult – when he is there, it is as if he were under house arrest. “Honestly, I’m not in Spain very much, and when I am I spend most of the time with the family – at home, rather than in a shopping centre or anything like that. I concentrate on very relaxed days, to wind down and recharge batteries…”
An intensely private man, then, which Fernando concedes is at odds with being a Ferrari driver: “It’s the same everywhere you go. In Melbourne, for example, you could really feel it there – there are Ferrari fans everywhere. But, you know, in a way it’s nice too, to feel all this passion from the fans – all these people wishing for good things for you. Yes, it’s a nuisance sometimes, in restaurants and so on, but it’s the price you have to pay, and… it’s OK.”
Alonso is the ﬁrst world-class racing driver to come out of Spain, and until his arrival the country, while traditionally besotted with motorcycle racing, showed little interest in four wheels.
“No, F1 was not very important – it was not easy to follow it in Spain. For all Spanish kids racing karts at that time, I suppose the name we knew best was Ayrton Senna – he was the man, the big idol – but it wasn’t until 2003 that F1 was televised live in Spain. When I started in F1, in ’01, my parents had to watch recordings on RAI, on Italian TV!”
Like Mark Webber, Fernando came into F1 with the much-loved, now defunct Minardi team, and I wondered if that spawned hopes of one day driving for Ferrari.
“Not really,” he said. “Something like that was far in the distance. Really all you think about is driving a better car. In a way Ferrari was always in my head, yes, but I think that’s natural for anyone who loves motor racing. Kids normally play with red cars, don’t they? That has nothing to do with Ferrari, but the red colour is… competition, is passion, isn’t it? If you ask people if they would like to drive a Ferrari, even on a motorway or in the city, 99 per cent will say yes – so imagine what it’s like for an F1 driver to be asked to drive for Ferrari!”
For years it seemed inevitable to me, and others, that one day Alonso would be bound for Maranello. “Fernando’s very much a typical Ferrari driver, isn’t he?” said Bernie Ecclestone. “He’s a ﬁghter with a lion’s heart – he has a passion for competing.”
For most of last season, it was an open secret that Alonso’s move to Ferrari – agreed long before, and originally set for 2011 – was likely to be brought forward a year. In the meantime though, Fernando was stuck with an uncompetitive Renault, and I suggested that it must have been difﬁcult to keep his motivation alive.
“Not really,” he said. “To know after qualifying that you are at best eighth or ninth is not really my thing, but I’m a competitor, and I don’t like to lose. In terms of the complete package we were not competitive, but I went to every race in the hope of being on the podium, or maybe – if the weather conditions were unusual – winning.
“In one way I was counting down the races - you think that very soon you are going to achieve one of the targets of your career: you are going to drive for Ferrari. Of course your mind turns to the future, you have some telephone calls with the designer of the car you will drive. So yes, you start thinking about next year, but… You know, with all the history I had at Renault, with a lot of success and a great group of people – most of them very good friends of mine – in a way I was sad, knowing that every race was a little bit closer to the ﬁnal one. Seven of my nine years in F1 had been spent with Renault. The last race was very emotional for me.”
As was the ﬁrst time he took the wheel of a Ferrari. Spain may once have been lukewarm about F1, but the Alonso factor long ago changed all that. “When I ﬁrst drove the car, it was at Valencia, and it would be difﬁcult to think of a better place to make my debut in a Ferrari – in my own country, just a test, but with 40,000 people there! It was like a big party. I felt very emotional and a little bit stressed, I must admit - it was not a normal test!”
Integration with Ferrari has proved easier than Alonso expected. “Being part of the team, knowing the philosophy… For some reason I thought that would be difﬁcult for me, but the culture is similar – I am Spanish, they are Italian, and we have the same philosophy of life. The integration into the team was very straightforward, from day one.
“From the outside, Ferrari is big – very impressive – but from the inside it’s much more. When I arrived, I was surprised by the town of Maranello – in fact, by the passion for Ferrari everywhere in Italy. Whether they like motor racing or not, they feel that Ferrari is theirs – it’s as if they all own Ferrari. Then there’s the factory, the people working there… The road cars are made 200 metres away from the F1 cars, and the people there also feel part of the successes and problems of the race team. When I arrived at Ferrari, it was like ﬁnding a big family – everyone with the same passion, whether they work on F1 cars or road cars, whether they are engineers or cooks or whatever. They are all Ferrari, and I love that.”
In the second half of the season, Alonso and the team really began to come on strong, but prior to that the cars’ competitiveness was patchy. Through it all though, Fernando continued to stress that this was the best, the happiest year of his career to date. Even more so than the 2005 and ’06 seasons with Renault, when he was World Champion?
“Yes, really,” he said ﬁrmly. “For one thing, my personal life is better than ever, and in part this is thanks to being at Ferrari, to the great atmosphere in the team. All right, it’s true that I won championships with Renault, but still it wasn’t complete somehow – I didn’t feel a hundred per cent happy with myself and my life. Now I have more experience and maturity - and also I’m not too stressed any more about media or anything like that. Overall my quality of life is much better now – there is no comparison. It’s true that the championship makes you very happy, yes, but overall – whether we win or whether we don’t – this year will be the best so far.”
Perhaps, I ventured, he has been more relaxed about the press since 2007, his unhappy single season with McLaren, on the basis that nothing could ever again be as bad as that?
Fernando laughed. “Well, I did not exactly have my best time at McLaren, but… I think it’s something you get with experience – you learn how to separate the important things from the unimportant things. Nowadays, whatever the questions at the press conference, whatever the papers say that morning, I sleep all night long – whether it’s good news or bad. I know that working with the media is a very important part of the job, but… It’s not something that gives you performance…”
Performance. The word defines Alonso. It was Martin Whitmarsh, after Fernando’s dominant victory for McLaren at Sepang in 2007 (only his second race for the team), who described him as ‘a lean, mean, killing machine’ – a man, in other words, put on earth to win.
Alonso’s remark about the media chimed with one Brundle had made to me. “Whenever I’ve interviewed Fernando,” Martin said, “I’ve always had the feeling of, ‘Will you make any difference to my career? No, so I’ll do whatever I have to do with you, but if it’s not affecting the stopwatch, then don’t expect any more from me…’ And you know what? He’s absolutely right.”
Alonso won his first race for Ferrari in Bahrain, but thereafter went through a difﬁcult period with a car neither as quick nor – more surprisingly – as reliable as he might have anticipated. Untypically for Fernando, there were also quite a few mistakes, and we suspected that he was trying to compensate for the car’s deﬁciencies.
“No, it wasn’t that,” he said. “I was always on the edge – not only this year. I accept that maybe I have made more mistakes this year than any other, and I have no problems in admitting that.”
Perhaps the most surprising error came at Shanghai, where Alonso’s Ferrari got on the move some little time before the lights went out. Not like you, I said.
“I know,” Fernando shrugged. “It never happened to me before, and hopefully it never will again. I saw green – and it was not green!”
Perhaps he feels that he has come in for more criticism than others. “Look at Spa, for example. On lap one [Rubens] Barrichello hit me from behind, and I was immediately last – but what people will remember about Spa is my spin, seven laps from the end. Yes, I admit it was my mistake – but look at the ﬁrst two in the race: Hamilton was in the gravel and was lucky to miss the barrier, and Webber lost six places at the start when he was slow off the grid. I thought to myself that if I had done that kind of thing, we would have seen two weeks’ review of my mistakes!”
Most costly of all was the error in practice at Monaco. Alonso had been fastest in both Thursday sessions, and looked like a contender for pole – until, in the Saturday morning session, he hit the fence at the entry to Casino Square.
“That was the worst,” he agreed. “The car was good at Monte Carlo, and we were very conﬁdent after the ﬁrst day – quickest in both sessions, good on low fuel, high fuel… Then I braked late and crashed. Of course I was upset with myself, but I thought it would be a matter of changing the suspension and the front wing - I hadn’t had the chance to try the soft tyres, but I thought, ‘No problem, I’ll use them in qualifying, and I’ll be away…’ I never imagined that the car couldn’t be repaired in time for qualifying, but when it was brought back to the garage they found the chassis was damaged.”
No spare cars in this era, of course, which meant that Alonso started this, of all races, from the back. A ﬁne drive took him to sixth place and eight points – but of course there lingered the thought that he should have been at the sharp end, running with the Red Bulls.
Perhaps Fernando’s best drive in the ﬁrst half of the season came at Sepang. His engine failed in the late laps, but prior to that he had coped brilliantly with a clutch problem, and remained among the front-runners.
“It was not possible to downshift, so… When I was, say, on a straight in seventh gear and needed second for the next corner, I had to downshift with the paddle normally – although the gears did not engage – and then, at the last moment, go back on the throttle to get the gear I had selected. A combination of things – all in 50 metres! I did 50 laps like that – it was busy…”
After Silverstone, the halfway point in the season, Alonso’s championship aspirations looked about done: fifth in the table, he had 98 points, while Hamilton was on 145. On the plus side though, Ferrari’s competitiveness was improving – at Montreal Fernando ﬁnished third behind the McLarens, but he was in the mix all afternoon and reckoned that had he not been held up by backmarkers, he might have won. As for the championship, he continued to assert that he wasn’t out of it.
He was right. At the next race, Hockenheim, he won – albeit in controversial circumstances, for this was the day when Massa was instructed to move over, and Ferrari’s intention to concentrate on Alonso for the title became clear. The team was ﬁned by the stewards on the ‘no team orders’ rule, but no further action was taken by the World Motor Sport Council.
The German Grand Prix marked the beginning of an Alonso spree: second at the Hungaroring, a blip at Spa, then superbly flawless victories – each from pole position – at Monza and Singapore. Five races, post-Silverstone, yielded 93 points; in the same period Webber scored 74, Vettel 60, Button 44, Hamilton 37.
One driver not a factor in the World Championship is Michael Schumacher, and that has been to the surprise of many, not least Alonso. “For sure, I thought he would go better. In fact, when we were winter testing I expected him to be a contender for the championship – although I also thought that [Nico] Rosberg was at a very good level, and Schumacher would not have an easy time.
“Maybe his performance has not been as good as we all expected, but I don’t think Michael has forgotten how to drive cars. OK, this year has not been perfect for him, but next year I expect him to be a contender – from race one.”
“Yes. Since he retired, F1 has changed a lot. We have gone onto these very hard Bridgestone tyres, and the downforce we have now is maybe half what we had when he raced in the past. Overall, I think the cars are more tricky to drive – or at least they drive in a different way. He needs time – even Michael…”
I brought up the subject of Schumacher’s driving ethics, citing the incident with Barrichello in Hungary. Alonso responded tactfully: “Well, I wasn’t in either of the cars involved in that, so I don’t know the situation exactly…”
All right, I said – but as long ago as 2003 you were in the Renault that was shoved onto the grass on the Hangar Straight at the beginning of the British Grand Prix…
“Hmm, OK, yes! Michael has always been… aggressive, when you go to overtake him. I think he needs to be careful with manoeuvres of this kind…”
His response reminded me of the unrufﬂed manner in which he has dealt at press conferences with endless hostile questions about the ‘team orders’ controversy: I’m not here to be distracted by off-track disputes – I’m here to win, and nothing’s going to get in the way of that.
Alonso the private man has a fascination for cards – and, more unusually, for card tricks. “I’ve always loved playing all the games, with friends. As for the tricks, that came from my grandfather when I was a kid – he was doing tricks with me, and I was fascinated. He started teaching me, and always gave me books and DVDs about card tricks as birthday presents.”
Some time ago, at the Renault motorhome, Fernando one day gave an impromptu performance of some of his tricks, and it made quite an impression on everyone present, including me.
“Ah,” he smiled, “I remember that, but you saw me four or ﬁve years ago – I’ve improved a lot since then! Now I do tricks with ﬁre and everything, and my favourite at the moment is this: you choose a card, you look at it, and you write it down on a piece of paper – I don’t see any of this. Then you burn the paper, and I pick up the ash and rub it on the inside of my arm - and you see the name of your card…”
After the interview I thought of something Brundle said to me last winter: “So here we are, near the docks, late at night, and we get caught up in something. Gangsters everywhere, threats, guns, all that stuff. You’ve got all the drivers there. Which of them are you going to get to sort it all out?”
“Alonso?” I said.
“Exactly!” said Martin. “I rest my case…”