Fernando Alonso is the man who ended Michael Schumacher’s Formula 1 reign, and became the then-youngest champion in F1 history. A second consecutive crown was confirmation of his brilliance, and with Schumacher retiring, Alonso seemed certain to replace him as the sport’s dominant superstar.
Agonisingly, no titles have followed in the intervening years. A fractious first move to McLaren, and subsequent spells with Renault and Ferrari, yielded success in the form of 17 victories and three championship runner-up finishes - but not the one piece of silverware he really desires. Perhaps ironically, it has been in inferior machinery that Alonso has come to be regarded as one of the finest drivers not just on the current grid, but in history. Given his calibre, his relentless hunger and determination, there is still much to achieve...
Born on July 29, 1981, in the Spanish city of Oviedo, Fernando Alonso’s racing career started when he was just three years-old, when he was the lucky recipient of a kart made by his father, originally for a less than enthusiastic older sister. Alonso took to racing like the proverbial duck to water. After four years spent ‘playing’ with the homemade kart, local and then national competitions swiftly followed.
The young Alonso’s talents knew no bounds and in 1992 he clinched the first of five Spanish karting championships, a tally only overshadowed by a world crown in 1996. Eschewing other series, the Spanish teenager was determined to finish his apprenticeship in karting. An offer to drive in Formula Nissan, however, proved too much of a temptation and Alonso joined ex-Formula 1 driver Adrian Campos’s team. With typical aplomb he won the title, showing he was more than capable of making the switch to racing with gears.
A problematic move to F3000 in 2000 was but a brief hiccup, and a Formula 1 test with Minardi that same year secured him his first F1 race drive with the team. It would prove to be a baptism of fire. Minardi, struggling for money and resources, was far from an ideal debut seat, but after outshining team mates Alex Yoong and Tarso Marques in qualifying, and with a tenth-placed finish in Germany, Alonso was signed by Renault as a test driver for 2002.
The move proved a masterstroke for team and driver alike. With his raw speed and fierce commitment much in evidence, the test seat became a race drive for 2003. Alonso surpassed his promise with ease and, at the age of 22, made Formula 1 history, becoming the youngest-ever pole sitter in Malaysia and then the youngest Grand Prix winner with a maiden victory in Hungary. That, however, was just the beginning.
Renault were off the pace in 2004, but the following year Alonso pushed the French team’s ever-improving machine to its limits, drawing on his natural consistency and flair for improvising in even the most challenging circumstances. Claiming the drivers’ crown with two races left to run, Alonso - then the youngest title holder in F1 history - instantly became Michael Schumacher’s heir apparent. A second successive title - deservedly won at Schumacher’s expense during the German’s final season - served to bear out Alonso’s position as the vanguard of a new generation.
For 2007 he moved to McLaren, giving him the chance to become the first man since Juan Manuel Fangio to score successive championships with different teams. But while the car was quick, so was his team mate Lewis Hamilton, and an intense rivalry saw the pair finish level on points, beaten to the crown by a single point by outsider Kimi Raikkonen. It was a disappointing end to a frustrating year for Alonso, whose relationship with McLaren grew increasingly strained, particularly after his evidence helped condemn the team in the Ferrari ‘spy scandal’ affair. It was hence no surprise when news came that he would be returning to Renault for 2008.
Renault’s ’08 machine was no championship contender, but that didn’t stop Alonso showing his class. As the season progressed he was pivotal in transforming the R28 from a lacklustre performer into a race-winning machine. He took it to back-to-back victories late in the season, first at the inaugural Formula 1 night race in Singapore, and then in Japan.
Sadly that form did not continue into 2010 and the R29's lack of pace saw Alonso on the podium just once, in Singapore. Three days later that season’s worst-kept paddock secret was confirmed - that he would move to Ferrari for 2010 to partner Felipe Massa. There he made an instant impression, winning on his debut for the Scuderia and quickly establishing authority over his new team mate. Though the car struggled at subsequent rounds, the team were back on form by July and Alonso took a further four wins as he made up a 47-point deficit in the standings to go into the final round a strong title contender. But poor pit-stop strategy in Abu Dhabi halted his charge up the table and he ultimately finished second by just four points to new world champion Sebastian Vettel.
Season two with Ferrari was to prove yet more frustrating, with the team’s 150° Italia rarely able to match its Red Bull and McLaren opposition. Despite that, Alonso took victory at Silverstone and a further nine podiums as he consistently out-drove his machinery en route to fourth in the final driver standings, a solitary point shy of Mark Webber in Red Bull’s title-winning RB7.
2012 was to prove a better season, although in the underwhelming F2012 he was made to fight for every point. Stellar results, such as his against-the-odds win in the rain at the Malaysian Grand Prix and victory in front of an adoring home crowd in Valencia, put Alonso at the head of the drivers’ standings for much of the year. He was eventually overhauled by a rampant Sebastian Vettel with three races to go, but had he not been taken out on lap one in both Belgium and Japan it might well have been him, and not the German, taking a third world title. As it was, Alonso missed out by three points.
Alonso’s early 2013 season was blighted by inconsistency, but fine wins in China and Spain plus seven further podiums meant he finished a clear, albeit distant, second overall to Red Bull's all-conquering Vettel, despite his Ferrari F138 being not even the second-best car.
2014 followed the now all-too familiar feeling of frustration. Ferrari’s F14 T proved uncompetitive, and while Alonso’s heroics rescued two podiums, the team failed to win for the first time 1993. Needing new energy, Alonso opted to part ways with the Scuderia and return to ‘unfinished business’ at McLaren.
Once more, Alonso' choice of timing for a team move was not fortuitous. While a rejuvenated Ferrari took the fight to Mercedes, McLaren dropped to the back of the grid, their revived partnership with Honda getting off to a highly difficult start. The team's MP4-30 machine was painfully slow and unreliable, and in it Alonso scored in just two races, ending the 2015 season with a meagre 11 points.
His 2016 campaign started in spectacular fashion as he walked away from a huge crash at Melbourne’s Albert Park. It forced him to sit out the following round, but he went on make the very most of his somewhat improved McLaren machinery, with some feisty drives - including a superb fifth place in Monaco - earning him 54 points, more than twice that of team mate Jenson Button.
But the revived McLaren-Honda partnership took another, ultimately terminal, nosedive in 2017, when an increasingly frustrated Alonso could wrestle no more than 17 points from his underpowered machine. A maiden appearance in the Indy 500 provided an entertaining distraction, though ironically this too ended with Honda engine failure.
Speculation over his McLaren future finally ended with confirmation of the team's move to Renault power for 2018 - a move that promised a package to match Alonso's ambitions of a third world title and hence convinced him to stay with the Woking squad for another year.