If it's Spain, it must be Fernando Alonso. That was the message yesterday as Valencia prepared to stage the European Grand Prix at the new facility in the port that has lately been home to the America's Cup. The fact that tickets are already being advertised at half price in the locality suggests that Spanish enthusiasm for Formula One is primarily dependent on how the local hero is doing.
His manager travelled to the track direct from Rome, refuelling speculation of a change to Ferrari one year sooner than planned (insiders firmly believe the deal is done for 2010 regardless of what the champion Kimi Raikkonen decides to do). But Rubens Barrichello also admitted that he is looking over his shoulder as Alonso holds talks with Honda.
"I think the team are definitely talking to Fernando, but I have never been so enthusiastic about my whole situation with them," Barrichello said. "I left Ferrari because I didn't have the freedom to do what I want to do, and at Honda I have that but not the car to perform. I am waiting for that chance. The day that I feel that I am slower than I was in my first race is the day I will call a stop. So I am still talking to team, and other teams. I want to be racing."
Alonso, however, chose this moment to talk up his Renault team as they battle for fourth place in the constructor' championship with Toyota. "I am reviewing whether to stay with Renault for another year," he admitted. "And why not? I have been saying for the last three months that I will concentrate in the next three or four races on our crucial fight with Toyota. September, October, it will be time to think about 2009."
In other words, once Raikkonen has made his decision whether to continue next year. "I want to win podiums, and races, next year," Alonso reiterated. "We will see how strongly Renault can finish the season and how much confidence I have that they will do well in 2009. The change in the regulations will be a bit into the unknown and we will not know which team will be slow and which will be quick. But Renault were world champions two years ago so they know how to build quick cars."
As hedge-betting went, it was all good stuff.
On a more serious note, the former champion spoke of the Spanair plane crash which killed 153 people in Madrid the previous day. It was Spain's worst air accident in 20 years. "It was a great shock to our nation," Alonso said. "I will be asking the other drivers to observe a minute's silence before practice tomorrow."
Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa indicated that they were more than willing to participate. "I definitely want to do that and send out my own heartfelt feelings to all the families and people of Spain," Hamilton said.