The Spanish driver has never been happier and still believes he can win the Formula One world championship this season
This is a good time to be a Spanish sporting hero, a thought that brings a sudden smile to the face of Fernando Alonso as he sits in the Ferrari motorhome in the rainswept paddock at Spa. His compatriots Rafael Nadal, Alberto Contador, Pau Gasol of the LA Lakers, the MotoGP champion-elect Jorge Lorenzo and this summer’s World Cup winners – including his old friend Xabi Alonso – enjoy global renown. And he, twice Formula One’s world champion, is approaching the climax of his first season as the leader of the sport’s most charismatic team.
“You have to believe in yourself,” he says, “and 15 years ago it was difficult to believe that Spain was a good country for sport. Now everybody believes that we can do what other countries are doing. That self-confidence is very important.
“Spain as a country has developed very quickly. In terms of facilities we are now very well prepared. If you go to any little town in the middle of nowhere, you always have a tennis court, a basketball court, a building to do other sports in. That helped the current generation. We need to enjoy it, because a period like this may be difficult to repeat in the future.”
Alonso certainly gives the impression of relishing the latest phase of his 10-year career as a grand prix driver. Although his first season with the Italian team has been filled with incident and controversy, in cultural terms he appears to have found his spiritual home. But is he, for all the obvious pleasure of working in a Latin environment, nevertheless disappointed to find himself lying only fifth in the championship standings, behind Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button, and the target of fierce criticism for the victory reluctantly handed to him by his team-mate, Felipe Massa, in Germany five weeks ago?
“No, the opposite,” he says. “I’m very, very happy. My life now is the best I could imagine, ever. I’m driving for the best team in the world, and the integration with the team is very good. I fell in love with Italy and the tifosi, and I feel their support.”
He is spending more time in Maranello, he says, than he ever did at the headquarters of his previous teams – “Sometimes working, sometimes not working.” When there is nothing much to do at the home in Lugano which he shares with his wife, the singer Raquel del Rosario, he goes to stay with a friend near the Ferrari factory, or installs himself in Enzo Ferrari’s old apartment at the Fiorano test track, and explores the hills of Emilia-Romagna on his racing bike.
In his last two seasons with Renault, he says, he was going to a race merely with the ambition of making it into the third qualifying session as one of the 10 fastest cars. “That was the motivation. So if I think of my position one year ago, life has changed from black to white. I cannot ask more. For sure, winning the championship here will be the top, the last thing to complete a perfect moment of my life.”
Nor has he given up hope of overhauling the drivers lying ahead of him in this season’s table, given the new scoring system, which awards 25 points for a win. He has 141 points to Webber’s 161, thanks to his results in the last two races: the contentious victory at Hockenheim and a second place in Budapest.
“I think it’s possible,” he says. “There are only 20 points to the leader now. That’s less than one race. With seven races to go, there are plenty of possibilities. We need to be very consistent, to be on the podium in every race if we can, and for sure to win at least two of the seven. The car’s performance has improved a lot in the last couple of races and if we carry on in this way it will be possible. If we can’t, it will be difficult. So it will be necessary to win the race in the factory, as well as on the circuit.
“But whatever happens, I know that with Ferrari I’ll have this possibility for many years because this team is always in a position to win. That makes me very confident and very relaxed about my future.”
Nevertheless, the season’s incidents have come thick and fast. Victory in the opening race in Bahrain, making him the sixth driver to win on his debut for the Scuderia, came after Vettel suffered an engine problem. In Melbourne, following a first-lap spin, there was a thrilling drive from last place to fourth. In China he jumped the start – “Driver error,” he says with a rueful grin – and, after a penalty dropped him to 15th, again chased through the field to fourth.
His Monaco weekend was ruined when he lost control at the top of the climb to Casino Square and smashed into the barrier during a practice session. There was a look of barely suppressed self-disgust on his face as he lifted himself out of the car, knowing that he would have to set off from the pit lane on another adrenalin-fuelled drive to sixth place.
“Driver error again there,” he says, before putting it in perspective. “I’m sure that for all championship contenders there are two or three races a year you would like to change because you did something wrong. In our case, because there are high expectations, there are many more comments. When I’m in front or I’m half a second quicker than my team-mate, that is seen as normal. When we do something wrong, it will be everywhere. We have to deal with that pressure.”
It redoubled at Hockenheim when Massa moved aside to let him take the lead in what was widely seen as an example of the team orders outlawed eight years ago after Rubens Barrichello let Michael Schumacher through to win in Austria. This time an immediate fine of 0,000 was imposed on Ferrari and on 8 September the affair will be considered by a meeting of the FIA World Motor Sports Council in Paris, with further punishment a possibility.
The imminence of the hearing makes Alonso reluctant to discuss the affair in detail, although he did dismiss trenchant criticisms of Ferrari’s conduct from Niki Lauda, a double world champion with the team in the 70s. “What Lauda said isn’t worth bothering about,” he said.
He and the team were clearly shocked by the vehemence of the reaction – particularly from the British media, which turned against him during his disputes with Lewis Hamilton during their turbulent season together at McLaren in 2007 – but his response now is bland. “Being in the best team in the world, you have to expect that everything we do will be 100 times bigger than what it is, whether we do well or make a mistake,” he says. “We have to concentrate on the race this weekend. Then we’ll see what happens in Paris.”
For public consumption, at least, he rejects the idea that a team with championship ambitions needs to concentrate its efforts behind one designated lead driver. “I think now everything has to be 50-50,” he says. “The cars are exactly the same and the drivers are all super-talented, so I think having a first driver and a second driver isn’t working any more. There have to be equal possibilities for both. But for sure when there are only a few races to go in the championship, then it’s time to think what is best for the team.” In that last sentence may lie the key to an affair which is likely to take further twists.
Meanwhile he was fastest in wet and dry conditions in both yesterday’s practice sessions for tomorrow’s Belgian grand prix, at a circuit where he won twice in the old F3000 but has managed no better than second and third places in the senior formula. For Ferrari, by contrast, there have been no fewer than 16 wins since the first for Alberto Ascari in 1952, including a hat-trick in the last three years: another example of the pressure loaded on to any driver, however illustrious, who aspires to leadership of the Scuderia, and in this instance one who had to read Bernie Ecclestone’s remark this week that Alonso will never match Michael Schumacher’s achievements with the team.
“We all enjoy driving at Spa,” Alonso says. “The length of the circuit makes it very interesting. Seven kilometres give you plenty of time to feel the car and there are the type of corners that in qualifying, if you take a risk or if you push hard, you can make up a lot of time. The circuit has some gradients, up and down, and the kind of compression that you feel in your body at Eau Rouge is something that you only experience here. When you stop the car you say, ‘Wow, this was good fun.’ “