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The 28th Formula One World Drivers' Champion was at the time the youngest ever. Just 24 years old, Fernando Alonso also led the Renault team to the 2005 Constructors' Championship, thus ending the reign of the Michael Schumacher-Ferrari combination that had dominated for so long. The precocious and personable youngster who made so much history so soon comfortably wore the crown - a bright, polished, perfectly poised new star. Confirmation of his brilliance came in 2006 when he successfully defended his title against strong opposition from Schumacher, whose subsequent retirement left Alonso well-placed to succeed him as Formula One's resident superstar...
Fernando Alonso Diaz (his full name includes his mother's maiden name, according to the Spanish custom) was born on 29 July, 1981, in Oviedo, a city in the Asturias region of northern Spain, where his mother worked in a department store and his father was employed in the mining industry as an explosive expert. The Alonsos and their two children lived comfortably but were by no means a wealthy family. Luis Alonso, a keen amateur kart racer, wished to share his passion with his children and built them a pedal kart in the form of a realistic-looking miniature F1 car. It was originally intended for eight-year-old Lorena but she soon grew tired of it, whereupon her three-year-old brother eagerly climbed into the tiny cockpit and immediately felt at home. From the beginning little Fernando was not content to simply pedal around. He wanted to compete and to win.
Shortly after his seventh birthday he entered his first proper kart race and won, and before he was ten Fernando Alonso's name was engraved on several kart championship trophies. However, further progress would require more funding than his family's limited resources could provide. While his parents fully supported their son's increasingly successful pastime - with his father acting as his mechanic at the races and his mother making sure he also got good marks at school - Fernando knew the only way forward was to get sponsored drives by winning races - which he continued to do. Age proved to be no barrier - he was invariably the youngest driver in every category, and more often than not, the best. By his mid-teens his collection of kart titles included a world championship.
Onward and upward he sped, easily winning a 1999 Spanish-based championship for single seater racing cars, parlaying his prize of a tryout in a Minardi Formula One car into a drive in 2000 with a Minardi-backed F3000 team and a testing contract with Minardi's Formula One team, in which he made an impressive debut the following season. His obvious potential prompted Renault (formerly Benetton) to sign him as a test driver for 2002, a valuable experience that would enable him to immediately establish himself as a frontrunner when he joined the French automaker's team in 2003. In Malaysia, only his second race for Renault, the 21-year-old became the youngest ever pole winner. Starting from pole again in Hungary, less than a month after his 22nd birthday, he became the youngest Grand Prix winner in history.
In 2004 the difficult-to-drive Renault R24 kept him out of the winner's circle and he finished fourth in the championship. By now, having slotted seamlessly into the team, further polished his driving skills and honed his racecraft, Alonso was ready to take full advantage of Renault's excellent R25 car, in which he would really come of age.
From the beginning of the 2005 season the man to beat was the upstart Spaniard. Equipment variances were a factor, with Michael Schumacher's Ferrari off the pace for the first time in six years and Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren Mercedes proving to be fast but fragile. Meanwhile, the Alonso-driven Renault swept serenely through the longest ever Formula One season, scoring points in all but two of the 19 races, finishing in the top three 14 times and winning on seven occasions.
Alonso's nearly flawless performance (his only driving error came in Canada where he crashed while leading) was highlighted by a symbolic defeat of Schumacher at Imola, where he brilliantly fended off the best efforts of the seven-time champion. Schumacher's successor knew when to attack, how to defend, how to control a race - how to win the championship in a car that was usually not as fast as Raikkonen's McLaren. Both drivers had six poles and seven wins, and though the raw racer Raikkonen's challenge was undermined by mechanical misfortune, Alonso's adaptability served him best. His aptitude for adjusting quickly to changing circumstances, his competence at conserving his equipment, his capability of responding immediately to the invariably wise tactical instructions issued by the Renault team, all contributed to his success.
"I'm just a normal guy," insisted Alonso, whose swift ascendancy to superstardom left him somewhat embarrassed. Softly spoken, though fluent and articulate in English, his second language, he eschewed the usual trappings of success, choosing to live quietly in Oxford to be near the British-based Renault team that was totally devoted to their boy wonder. "My record is going to be in good hands," said Emerson Fittipaldi, who won the 1972 championship when he was 25. In his 25th year Alonso held onto his title even more firmly, securing second successive championships for himself and Renault after an epic duel with a resurgent Michael Schumacher.
Faced with a formidable opponent still at the peak of his powers, the cleverly quick Alonso's focus never wavered in the intensity of battle - the scenario that most appealed to his real racer's instincts. Fiercely determined and eagerly aggressive, he relished the cut and thrust, revelled in the thrill of the chase - all the while remaining supernaturally calm with a maturity that belied his youth and would serve him well in defending his title against the sport's most successful exponent.
Alonso began 2006 with a string of wins and podiums that by mid-season gave him a substantial lead over Schumacher, whose faltering Ferrari was subsequently improved to overcome Renault's initial performance advantage. Thus empowered, the German staged a brilliant comeback that made the Spaniard's eventual title triumph all the more memorable. The fact that they were so evenly matched, with seven wins each, substantiated Alonso's status as a worthy successor to the retiring Schumacher.
In pursuit of a new challenge Alonso left Renault at the end of the year and moved to McLaren, where a fractious relationship with the team and Lewis Hamilton ended with the Spaniard returning to Renault for two more seasons where inferior equipment restricted his results. In 2010 he realised every driver's dream when he was hired to become team leader at Ferrari where he immediately resumed his winning ways (he won five races) and finished second in the championship. In 2011 Ferrari's fluctuating fortunes restricted him to a single victory and fourth in the standings.
In an epic 2012 season he came within three points of winning the driving title for a third time, an achievement that ultimately went to his title rival Sebastian Vettel. But Fernando Alonso distinguished himself in what he called "my best ever season" by consistently flogging his far from fastest Ferrari for all it was worth, and more. His championship challenge was the product of a fighting spirit, clever racecraft and mistake-free driving that never waned.
Text - Gerald Donaldson