Flavio's new favourite pulls another pole out of the hat

British Grand Prix: Magical Alonso is quick to race into Silverstone hearts
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The Independent Online

The 23-year-old from Oviedo, whose alter ego is an amateur magician, had kept Silverstone in suspense before revealing his hand on an afternoon of double pleasure for the Renault camp. It was Alonso's closest championship rival, McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, who had actually recorded the second-fastest lap time in yesterday's qualifying session. But the Finn had already been given a 10-place penalty after the failure of his Mercedes engine during an earlier second practice, meaning that, briefly, before Alonso intervened, Button and his BAR-Honda had ascended to rarefied heights.

You can think of a few drivers whose demotion of the British would-be champion with such a qualifying lap would provoke a degree of chagrin among the more parochially-minded in the grandstand. Not Alonso, whose adopted nation this has become, and whose engaging, pop-star-like presence at the pinnacle of the podium five times already this season in place of a certain robotic German - coincidentally also introduced to us by Briatore - has endeared him to all aficionados.

At this mid-season stage the youngest-ever grand prix winner and "pole-man", he appears destined for the ultimate accolade: the youngest-ever champion. "Fernando's still very young," says Briatore, the former Benetton man who, with his perma-tanned features and shock of grey hair, remains an enduring and somehow reassuring spectacle on the Formula One circuit. "You must remember that when Michael arrived he was three years older [than Alonso]. But Fernando is very mature for his age. He makes very few mistakes. Like Michael, he works very hard, and is a truly amazing driver. But Michael has won seven championships, so it is a very difficult comparison."

Briatore, the character who once responded to all the pre-season optimistic noises emanating from Formula One team bases by opining "in winter, everybody is a champion", prefers not to be too prophetic about his charge emulating the icons of Formula One.

But the Italian does enthuse: "Fernando motivates the whole team and motivates himself. Talent is important, but you need more than that. From the start, I felt he was very special. But it was important not to burn him out too early, because immediately everybody gets so excited and wants to put the driver straight into Formula One. I believed his route prepared him very well."

From that traditional apprenticeship of karting, Alonso progressed through a championship triumph in the Euro-Open Movistar Nissan and then Formula 3000 to a modest beginning in Formula One. One top-10 finish with Minardi in 2001 represented his apprenticeship. From there, he joined Renault as a test driver and by 2003 was a race driver, claiming 55 championship points and his first victory (in Hungary) in 2003. Last season, though without a win, he still managed fourth in the drivers' championship.

"I was never totally obsessed with making it to Formula One," says Alonso. "For me, this is a job like any other - it has its own pressures and restrictions. But of course, it brings its own privileges, too."

Not that he flaunts those privileges, or his relatively new-found wealth. Many of his rivals reside in Monte Carlo. He could live in Spain close to his parents but prefers the sedate life of Oxfordshire, close to the team's headquarters in Enstone. There is really no alternative. "It would be very difficult for him back home in Spain," explains his engine race engineer, Remi Taffin. "When the grand prix circus arrives there, everybody wants to talk to him, so he cannot move." Here Alonso is at peace with himself off the track, playing tennis, going to the cinema, occasionally dining out with friends - an environment which is a required antithesis to his aggressive but consumately controlled and confident driving style.

Alonso has already established a 24-point lead over Raikkonen. At the conclusion of a week in which the lesson that front-runners do not always prosper some may contend that such a leadership can only be a burden. Alonso prefers to regard the advantage as offering him a welcome margin for errors, particularly when confronted by a circuit like this old World War II bomber base, which is regarded as more suited to the McLaren cars of Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya, third on today's grid.

Back in 2002, on the Grand Prix weekend here, he would have probably donned his apron and assisted the chefs in preparing the team's pizzas. This time, well, he'd no doubt do the same, were it not for other priorities, the practice sessions and yesterday's qualifying, not to mention numerous briefings and debriefings with engineers to attend over the four days.

Alonso insists on a complete understanding of his car's complexities. He has taught himself to be computer-literate. When engineers discuss the car's problem areas on their screens, he will reach for the mouse and suggest solutions. Grand Prix driving is a two-way street in communication. There must be mutual faith in each others' expertise, driver and engineer.

"He is a winner in whatever he does, as well as a team man," Taffin says. "We play tennis sometimes, and he still has the same spirit, still fights for every point. He doesn't like to lose. The team did some karting in Magny-Cours. Fernando wanted to be part of it, he enjoyed being with the guys."

You wonder whether the sang-froid he always appears to exude ever deserts him? "The only times when he relieves the pressure on himself is when he crosses the line, screaming into the radio if he gets the win, like at Magny-Cours, saying 'thanks everybody'," says Taffin. "In the race, though, if you talk to him he is completely different; very quiet, very composed."

He adds: "Fernado has proved he has the spirit talent of being a world champion. He has also shown that he is capable of leading the team, to be the guy who is in front and pulling everyone to work harder and harder."

As yesterday demonstrated. Briatore, for one among the Renault team, believes he can confirm that today, McLaren's Montoya and Raikkonen, and - who knows, BAR-Honda's Button - willing.

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