Spaniard seals the title - the youngest ever to do so
For over five years Formula One's most-asked question has been that of who would eventually succeed Michael Schumacher as world champion. Now we have the definitive answer - Fernando Alonso.
Alonso's startlingly mature performance this season has already marked him out as being one of the greats - Schumacher may well bounce back into contention next season, but, given time, Alonso may be the man who eventually overturns some of the German's numerous records.
Few who have followed Alonso's career to this point will be surprised that he's managed to become Formula One's youngest-ever champion, aged just 24. The Spaniard's father built his first kart when his son was aged just two - and it wasn't long before Fernandos preternatural talent became clear, an ability that's made his accession to the top look almost too easy.
Alonso made his mark in karting through dominance of the Spanish Championship, taking it for the first time in 1994 at the age of 13 and then claiming further titles in 1996 and 1997 - also finishing second in the European Karting Championship. By his own reckoning he was lucky to be able to break into single-seater racing - lacking anything like the financial resources of some of his rivals. In 1999 he landed a drive in the Spanish Nissan open series, winning the championship in his first year and securing backing from sponsor Telefonica for an immediate graduation to F3000. A series of strong performances in 2000 saw him take victory in Spa and finish the season in fourth place overall. One of the people who noticed this talented young Spaniard was Renault Formula One team boss Flavio Briatore, who was quick to sign him to a management contract.
Briatore and Alonso quickly formed a close relationship as mentor and protege - and the Italian's nurturing and careful management was integral to the creation of Alonso's remarkably mature attitude to Formula One racing. Briatore placed Alonso with the Minardi team, and after some testing in 2000 he was confirmed with a full race drive for 2001. When he started the first race of the season in Melbourne be was just 19 years, seven months and three days old - making him the third-youngest Formula One driver ever.
It was a year of valuable experience for Alonso. He didn't score any championship points in the uncompetitive Minardi - but he was learning the invaluable lessons that only come through racing at the highest level - and the pace that lay behind his excitingly aggressive driving style was obvious. The following year he was confirmed as test driver for Briatore's Renault team, leading many to predict that his career was taking a downward turn. It wasn't - this was all part of the strategy. After gaining vast experience of the Renault, Alonso was promoted into a full race drive for the team in 2003, inheriting Jenson Button's seat.
Alonso's pace was immediately obvious - as was his rate of development. He finished the first race of the season in seventh place, two places behind team mate Jarno Trulli. By the time they got to the next round in Malaysia the positions had been reversed, Alonso taking his first podium with a brilliant drive to third and Trulli crossing the line in fifth. And as the season developed, so did Alonso - turning a brilliant pole position into victory in Hungary and becoming the youngest-ever winner of a Formula One round.
2004 saw Alonso's development shift up another gear. At the start of the season he and Trulli were close to each other in performance - but as the year progressed Alonso started to leave his team mate behind. During the first eight races of the championship Trulli out-qualified Alonso six times. By the time Trulli was unceremoniously dropped by the team after the Italian Grand Prix, Alonso had closed that gap to 8:7. And he proceeded to make short work of Trulli's replacement, Jacques Villeneuve, too - comprehensively outdriving him for the final three races of the season.
The stage was set for Alonso to make 2005 his season. It was quickly clear that Ferrari lacked the pace to allow Michael Schumacher to protect his championship crown - while the fragility of Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren also served to boost Renault's prospects. But nobody could doubt that Alonso's championship was both deserved and earned by a series of devastatingly effective drives and victories in Malaysia, San Marino, Bahrain, at the Nurburgring for the European Grand Prix and then also in France and Germany. As the season drew to a close Raikkonen's increasingly improbable points-chase seemed to bring out the best in Alonso - driving clean, consistent races to strong points finishes.
To those at Renault, seeing such a rounded performance from a driver so young was no shock. In the words of Pat Symonds, a man who also engineered Michael Schumacher in his Benetton days, I think the thing that is surprising and what is a real compliment to him (Alonso) is that one forgets his age, because the maturity he shows is well beyond his age, even the time he has been in Formula One, which is not long. You just forget about it. It is like you are dealing with a guy who has a destiny, he knows that destiny and he is totally comfortable with it.
That destiny has now been fulfilled and heading into 2006, the biggest question has to be whether anyone will be able to get on terms with Alonso?