Alonso keeps composure as plans begin for coming of age party

The Spaniard's early-season form has put him in pole position to become the youngest-ever world champion tomorrow. David Tremayne reports
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The Independent Online

But everyone there is tiptoeing around the idea that the 23-year-old from Oviedo might clinch the title this weekend. "I remember 1997 with Michael, all the hats were in storage," says the team principal, Flavio Briatore, referring to the premature manufacture of caps proclaiming the German as that year's champion before his costly clash with Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez.

The maths favour Alonso. All he needs are four more points here than his arch rival Kimi Raikkonen, and he will supersede the great Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, who was 25 when he won his first title in 1972, as the age record holder.

Jenson Button, whom Alonso replaced at Renault for 2003, compares the Spaniard favourably with Michael Schumacher, the man whose crown he is likely to appropriate. "Fernando is a good driver and he's been very consistent. One of the keys is always to score well in the opening races because then you can dictate how you run the last races. Fernando can afford to be cautious, whereas Kimi really has to go for it."

The Finn's McLaren-Mercedes has often been unreliable at crucial moments this season. After the recent Italian Grand Prix McLaren's team chief, Ron Dennis, curiously suggested that the world champ-ionship is nothing more than a "badge of office," and that while he may well become the youngest world champion Alonso is not as good a driver as Raikkonen.

Last week Briatore reacted robustly to this bunch of sour grapes. "This is one opinion. I respect Ron Dennis's opinion. My team says 44 million people in Spain are having a completely different idea; so are about 72 million Italians and 50 million French. [It] is already about 300 million against one. But I always respect the minority...

"Personally, I [do] not agree. At Monza Raikkonen was very lucky, because another metre and he is in the gravel! Fernando only make one mistake this year, in Canada. Was enough!

"I don't know whether Fernando will win the championship. But for 23 years he is a very old guy. Really cool, I mean, not emotional. It is difficult to keep everything going when you have to manage the pressure and keep cool, keep thinking positively and keep the support of the team. There is always pressure. When we say there isn't, [it] is bullshit. If you go in the emotional part, forget it, you make a mistake.

If Fernando were to start complaining left and right, everybody would start panicking. But he doesn't. He really is cool."

Briatore cites the job Alonso did at Imola, keeping a hungry Schumacher at bay throughout a nerve-racking 13 final laps. "[It] was a piece of driving that gave him more confidence, made him more mature. That one race gave him the experience of three years. Especially having Michael behind you!

"Five years ago Fernando had a poster of Michael in his room, so to hold that boy behind him was not easy. Those 13 laps for him looked like three days! But he did it, and for me Fernando is more motivated than Kimi."

Schumacher, meanwhile, does not appear to be. Sir Jackie Stewart has suggested that the multiple champion should have retired at the end of 2004. "I think he went on a year too long," the former triple champion, who retired at the top of his game in 1973, says.

Even Schumacher himself admitted last week, "For the first time this year I have become demoralised."

That is like Larry Olivier saying he had tired of acting, for one of Schumacher's greatest assets is his consuming passion for racing. If ever there was a sign that he might be acknowledging that it is time to hand on the torch to the young lions, it lies in those 10 words.

Button, like many of his rivals, has an equivocal view of Schumacher and is all too aware that being in the right machine is more than half the battle. It was once said that Schumacher was so superior that he could win races in a Minardi, but 2005 has given the lie to such hubris and demonstrated that even Superman needs the right cape. "People forget very quickly about drivers," Button says, invoking thoughts of that poignant line, "great is the glory but short is the reign". "I'm not sure that Michael was ever a superior talent. But obviously he is a great talent and very focused. But we all are, frankly."

Alonso appears unaware of the pressure. "It is possible not to think of it," he says evenly of how close he is to success. "I am concentrating on the race. I know it is very difficult to win the championship here because I need a Kimi retirement, basically, if I want to be champion and I don't think that is going to happen. The McLarens are favourites to win so I think we will have to wait for more races."

That is OK, his manner says. He is as cool as Iceman Raikkonen. He is a man who knows that, barring disaster, he is the champion in waiting.

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