He’s raced the equivalent of twice around the equator – or a fifth of the way to the Moon – in his 17-season Formula 1 career. But as he prepares for what could well be his 311th and final Grand Prix start in Abu Dhabi, Fernando Alonso has revealed the one race of his that he’ll treasure the most when he enters F1 retirement on Monday morning: the 2012 European Grand Prix in Valencia.
The 29th of his 32 Formula 1 victories, Alonso started that race from 11th on the grid, neither he nor Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa having managed to progress into Q3 the day before. When the lights went out though, a thrilling race saw the Spaniard unleash a scintillating series of passes on some of his favourite sparring partners – including Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber – before inheriting the lead when the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel retired and holding on to win in front of his home crowd.
After the Grand Prix – which came just a day after the Spanish football team's 2-0 win over France in the Euro 2012 competition, which Spain later went on to win – a jubilant Alonso famously stopped out on track to celebrate with his fans, pounding the air and waving the Spanish flag from the top of his Ferrari before going on to share the podium with ex-Scuderia racers Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen.
“In a normal world, we would never be able to win [that race] again,” Alonso told the press conference ahead of this year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “If we repeated it 100 times, 99 of them we'll not end up first. It was a good activation of strategy, good overtaking, a lot of risk, but everything was well. The car was not particularly fast that weekend. We were not even in Q3. I think I lapped Felipe 10 laps to the end, so it was not that we were in a dominant position that day – and we were still winning.”
FERNANDO ALONSO: His greatest rivals
Alonso also used the Thursday press conference – which understandably focused heavily on the achievements of the two-time champion – to pick out the greatest rival that he’d faced off against during his career, which began at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix with Minardi.
“If I have to say one, it would be Michael [Schumacher],” said Alonso. “When I got to Formula 1, Michael was dominating the sport. You are in go karts and you see Michael winning, you are in different categories and you see Michael winning and then eventually you find yourself fighting wheel-to-wheel. So those battles were definitely special, or more emotional, at that time.
“It was a good journey, and if I had to choose one it would be Michael, but just for emotional reasons, not any technical aspect.”
Alonso’s last podium in Formula 1 came at the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix, while his last F1 victory was over a third of his career ago (109 races) at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona. Despite that, however, and the fact that his return to McLaren in 2015 has failed to yield the success with the team that he’d hoped for, Alonso also opened up about the one thing he’d miss most about Formula 1...
“Press conferences,” Alonso joked, before pausing for thought. “I think driving the cars. The cars are something special. It doesn't matter if you're 14th, fifth, or fighting for victories. Obviously, if you can be on the podium and win, definitely it's an extra celebration and joy, but when you go out of there for qualifying or even tomorrow in free practice and you drive these cars, they are very special and the amount of technology behind these cars would be difficult to replicate in any other series.
“But on the other side there are negative aspects of Formula 1, especially if you are 18 years here. You dedicate your entire life to Formula 1. You have no friends, no family, no free time, no privacy, no wife, no kids, no nothing - it's just full dedication if you want to succeed. So I think I have other priorities right now.”
For his final Grand Prix – assuming he doesn’t make a comeback further down the line, something he didn’t rule out as he addressed the press in Abu Dhabi – Alonso will race in a McLaren MCL33 wearing a special livery to replicate his current helmet design. It’s a poignant and fitting tribute by McLaren for a driver who appears set to go down in F1 history as one of the sport’s very best of all time.
ALONSO: I will miss 'amazing' F1