Alonso: 'Winning is more special with Ferrari'
Fernando Alonso has a tough challenge ahead: taking the proudest F1 team of all back to their glorious highs. After a victorious debut, he tells David Tremayne about the pleasures and pressures of life with the Scuderia
Saturday 27 March 2010
Is Fernando Alonso the man to return Ferrari to the glory of the Schumacher years? The early signs are good. His victory on debut – one which saw him match the likes of Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Kimi Raikkonen, who all won on their first start in the famous red car – at the Bahrain Grand Prix suggests he has what it takes, as does his evident excitement to be driving for Formula One's most famous team.
"You know, you hear all about these stories of what it feels like to race for Ferrari," he says with evident relish, "but until you really do it is very hard to imagine the emotion behind it."
Driving for Ferrari is one thing, winning for them another. The ease with which Alonso has moved into his role bodes well for this season, continuing with this weekend's Australian Grand Prix. "Every time you change teams you need to adapt yourself a little bit to the new people, the new philosophy of working, of preparing for the season," he says. "But it's been great here so far and I have felt very comfortable with the team from day one. So we were able to arrive at the first race with a good preparation, ready for the fight."
No one has ever looked readier "for the fight" in a Ferrari than Michael Schumacher, whose remarkable success with the team is both inspiring and intimidating. Ferrari are clearly delighted with the quick start their new recruit has made, but they're desperate not to heap too much pressure on his shoulders.
When asked if Alonso – who, lest we forget, has two world championships with Renault in 2005 and 2006 under his belt – can bring back some of the success Schumacher had, team principal Stefano Domenicali is cagey. "I think it is too early to say that," he says. "Michael and Ross [Brawn] was a fantastic period for Ferrari, but it is better to do the result and then celebrate, keep our feet on the ground. Fernando is a fantastic driver with all the potential to do a fantastic job, but we need to go ahead step by step."
Wise words. Schumacher won five of his world titles and 72 of his 92 grand prix victories with the Prancing Horse, and those who have stepped into the cockpit since have struggled to live up to that challenge. Felipe Massa, a charismatic and talented little racer, came so close to winning the crown in 2008 but ultimately failed.
Raikkonen, whom Alonso has replaced, did go one better in snatching the World Championship from Lewis Hamilton in 2007 but, given the expectations Ferrari had for him, even that was something of a disappointment. In the early years of the 21st century the Finn was widely regarded as the man most likely to unseat Schumacher as Formula One's yardstick, but when he actually replaced him at Ferrari the results were less than satisfactory. Kimi liked life too much to adopt the German master's philosophies for consistent success.
The victory in Bahrain suggests Alonso has a far stronger desire for success. "Winning the race was just a very, very special moment for me," he says. "Coming back to the top of the podium is always special but I think it is even more special with Ferrari, with all the history behind the team and all the expectations a driver has when he drives for Ferrari. There is no better way to start the relationship. I am in the best team in the world."
Bahrain was the culmination of one of the most intense periods in Alonso's Formula One career, he says. "We had been preparing ourselves physically and mentally for a lot of months, testing a lot in the winter. You arrive first at the grand prix on a Thursday, there's a lot of stress, media attention, etc, and then come to Sunday and it is time to deliver.
"So winning means a lot, but especially it means a lot with Ferrari, the first victory. It was very special, and it will be difficult to forget that day."
Like many before him, Alonso truly began to appreciate what it is to be a Ferrari driver only when he undertook his first official engagements with the team, when he had become an insider. In Maranello he was feted wherever he went in his smart new red clothes. When he started to test for Ferrari in Valencia, a record 36,400 spectators turned out to watch his every move in the sleek new racer that he described as "the best car I have ever driven".
He was savvy enough to give the Ferrari fans what they wanted, a big smile and nice words about their beloved cars. But you sense that he has been slightly taken aback by the sheer level of passion that Ferrari inspire in their supporters.
Back in his championship years with Renault it was hard to detect flaws in Alonso. The Spaniard seemed like the most flawless of the pretenders to Schumacher's crown. Where Raikkonen and Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya were mercurial, prone to moody hotheadedness or off days, Alonso was calm and focused.
Yes, there were the occasional "Greta Garbo" outbursts, as they came to be known, when he would voice the opinion that he felt "like an island within Renault", but that was just taken to be the odd bit of emotion surfacing in times of stress when he didn't feel fully supported. But the arrival of Hamilton in Formula One when Alonso went to McLaren put him under massive pressure and suddenly the flaws were all too apparent. He couldn't handle being upstaged by a rookie who was as fast as he was and, on the occasion when Hamilton scored his maiden win in Canada, less prone to the mistake that Alonso repeated time and again, underbraking for the first corner.
The psychological havoc that Hamilton wrought led ultimately to their argument after qualifying in Hungary and Alonso's ill-advised attempt to blackmail Ron Dennis into influencing the outcome of that season's title fight in his favour rather than Hamilton's. He left the team for a wilderness period back with Renault, relieved only by the "Crashgate" win in Singapore and another, next time out in Japan, which came courtesy of his own talent.
"It helped me become a better driver," he says now of his time at McLaren, which left various management members unable even to mention his name without curling their lips. "I've arrived with more maturity because of those experiences. I'm more relaxed, more at peace. I'm ready for any challenge."
Even the one to bring Ferrari back to consistent greatness? "Yes, if by that you mean bringing everything that I have learnt to bear on making the car better and pushing myself and my team to be the best we can be."
How did he feel when he knew he was going to win on debut with Ferrari? "I thought of many things," he says. "It was very long, not only for the two-minute lap but also because you try to bring the car home safely and you want to avoid all the kerbs, all the strange noises, everything, so it was a very long lap.
"But I was thinking about the great job that the team have done so far. I was thinking about the mechanics, everybody running in the garage to change the engine at the last moment that morning. So all that stress and all those difficulties that the team had are paid off now, and I was thinking just to celebrate with them."
He says that winning in Bahrain has in no way lessened the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. "There is always pressure at every race we go to. Even every test we go to in Spain, there are 20,000 people who expect us to be P1 at the end of the day, so we live with pressure on our shoulders. After that first win it was good to enjoy the time with the mechanics, with the guys who had helped to make it happen, but when I came here to Australia it was in my mind that we had to start again from zero.
"There are things to improve in the car, for sure. There's not a perfect car in the world."
How they love to hear that at Ferrari! It could have been Schumacher speaking, the German champion's quintessential restlessness and refusal to let complacency cloud his search for perfection. No hint of criticism, just confirmation of the need always to look ahead to a yet faster lap, a yet faster race time.
The signs are all there, of Alonso's determination and dedication, of his intense desire to lead and shape this legendary team. They love Massa at Ferrari, but they also know that the man with one of the best combinations of talent and backbone to lead them back down the old familiar paths to glory is the one sitting in car No 8. The marriage of Alonso and Ferrari is every bit as pregnant with potential greatness as those of Niki Lauda and Ferrari in 1974, Alain Prost in 1990 and, of course, Michael Schumacher in 1996.
Top of the world: Alonso's rise
World Championship standings
1 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 25pts
2 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 18
3 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 15
4 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 12
5 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 10
6 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 8
7 J Button (GB) McLaren 6
8 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 4
9 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 2
10 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1
*Alonso's victory in Sakhir this month was his 22nd in 141 races. The 28-year-old began his F1 career with Minardi in 2001, although he failed to score a point all season. His first win came the following year in Hungary in a Renault, with whom he went on to win consecutive titles in 2005 and 2006. He joined McLaren in 2007 before moving to Ferrari this season.
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