Toreador of the track

Spain's speed machine is in hot pursuit of the world title only four years after making his formula one debut
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The Independent Online

Back in the Fifties a colourful, London-born nobleman, the 17th Marquis Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca de Portago, the Count of Mejorada, was the man who had everything, much of it in his lengthy name. "Fon" as he was affectionately known, was an outstanding all-round sportsman who not only raced cars but competed in the Grand National, won the French amateur jockey championship three times, was a crack shot and an accomplished polo player, swam to Olympic standard, created Spain's Olympic bobsleigh team in 1956 and also broke the Cresta Run record.

But he could not win grands prix and, in 1957, an accident in which he, his co-driver, Ed Nelson, and 10 spectators were killed brought the famed Mille Miglia to an end. Francesco Godia, Antonio Creus, Alex Soler-Roig and Emilio de Villota came and went, barely leaving a ripple.

In 2001, Fernando Alonso finally arrived. Four years later, the man from Oviedo is poised to go all the way. Just ask Michael Schumacher, the reigning champion, who more than once this year has had Alonso do to him what, back in 1994, he did to the late Ayrton Senna.

In Bahrain earlier this season, Alonso handled Schumacher nicely until the German retired. But it was in Imola, where the Ferrari was setting a frightening pace, that he truly showed the class that will probably win him the world championship this season and will be on display at tomorrow's British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Alonso was hounded mercilessly over the final 10 laps by Schumacher, but his nerve held despite pressure from the hardest man in racing. In fact, he pulled a few tricks of his own, slowing down when Schumacher needed most to maintain the momentum that would enable him to challenge before the next corner, subtly positioning his Renault so that there was never quite room for even Schumacher to consider one of his trademark barges.

Had it been anyone else, except for his fellow pretender Kimi Raikkonen, they would have cracked long before the chequered flag. But the spurs that Alonso has won are very sharp. Having already become the youngest-ever winner in Hungary in 2003, aged 22, he remained unruffled as he reeled off his third win of the year.

"I think I do it naturally, not only me, but all of us," he said, referring nonchalantly to the tactics that had defeated the mighty Schumacher. "We are professional enough and we know how to keep positions and how to control when you have a very slow car compared with your competitor, but maybe I am the only one to say this literally to the press."

The Nürburgring, in May, and, only last week, Magny-Cours, yielded his fourth and fifth victories. Pretty soon he will need the fingers of both hands to make his personal indication of success on the slowing down lap.

"That put me in mind of Jimmy Clark," said the veteran Formula One writer Nigel Roebuck after Alonso had controlled the French Grand Prix from the start. "That was the way he used to win races." No praise comes higher than that.

From the moment he came into Formula One with Minardi in 2001, Alonso stood out. "This guy has the kind of talent that only comes along now and then," Minardi's sporting director, Rupert Manwaring, said then. "He can just do things with the car that you would not expect any driver to be able to do, and he is so calm about it."

That is one of Alonso's characteristic qualities, that almost preternatural calmness and the refusal to come unglued. At Silverstone in 2003 he and Schumacher had a royal scrap and Alonso momentarily found himself helped on to the grass. Afterwards he did not even refer to it.

He is to Spain what Emerson Fittipaldi was for Brazil in the Seventies, the trailblazer.

"Maybe I have that role now," he concedes, "but I don't feel it inside. Perhaps for them I am a hero, but I don't feel like a hero inside."

Instead, he believes he is the same man who drove for Minardi. "Yes, exactly the same. But maybe not so many people came to talk to me!"

Back then, Montoya and Raikkonen made the headlines. Now it is Alonso making the running. "But I am exactly the same," he stresses. "Normally I stay with my family, play video games, go with friends to the cinema. Not really any strange thing to relax. It's OK living in England, apart from the weather!"

The price of fame has changed how he is perceived in Spain. "It is more difficult to walk on the street there, to go to the hotel, to be in the traffic, stopped, because the buses stop and people get out and they ask for autographs and so on, so it is more difficult to move around there, but I am in England normally and when I am here I can relax and prepare for each race and then arrive there at the last moment just to sit in the car."

Like Schumacher, he is strong technically, and very quick. And, Canada apart, where he hit a wall when leading, he does not make many mistakes. Can he improve anywhere? "No, I don't think I have any big area I need to improve," he says, but it is a measured, contemplative statement rather than a boast.

"Always you learn things, as you said, and I'm 23 years old so I have a lot of time to learn more things. I don't know which area I have to improve but I'm sure I will improve with time. I am very young. I only drive the car as fast as I can, and I have time to learn things."

His rival, the British BAR-Honda driver Jenson Button says: "I think he is very consistent which is important when you are involved in winning a championship."

Two years ago, when he was brought back to Formula One with Renault after a year out testing for them in 2002, he could barely believe his results when he replaced Button. "It is fantastic!" he said. "But I work a lot all my life to arrive here and to be the best in all the categories that I did. And now I arrive in Formula One and it is more difficult than all the categories that I did because the cars are very different, and I have to work to make my team the best, to put Renault at the top so they can win and I can win.

"I have time, I am in a good position because I am young, I am in a competitive team, but you have to work a lot to achieve your targets." So far in 2005, he has hit most of them.

Off track, while Schumacher is married with two children and a family life that is obviously a crucial support structure, Alonso is still single, a young man enjoying life to the full. And he is resilient.

The biggest shunt of his career came in Brazil in 2003 when he was fighting for the win. "We were talking about the 'in' lap, to change tyres at the pit stop," he recalls. "There were yellow flags everywhere because the safety car was on the track, so you don't know what happened in the next corner. I did one lap, no problem, then in the last corner there were pieces of Webber's Jaguar..."

He hit the barriers hard, a g-force of 35 on the left-hand side, 33 on the right as the car ricocheted like a pinball. Alonso laughs. "In Formula One always the speed is so high that when you crash, always is a big one!"

How long was it before he recovered from that? A smile. "I was ready when I went out of the car, but they took me to hospital just in case."

At Suzuka in 1991 Michael Schumacher had a similarly massive shunt, and just shrugged when Professor Sid Watkins, who was then Formula One's chief medical officer, advised him to take it easy before he made "a very good-looking corpse". Schumacher's response was to go faster and, eventually, to win seven crowns.

Alonso comes from a similar mould. If he does secure his first title this season, it will not be his last.

How's my driving? Who's hot and who's not from the Class of 2005

At the beginning of the season, the motor racing correspondent of 'The Independent', David Tremayne, ranked the current drivers from one to 20. As the season reaches its half-way point, he reassesses this year's grid

1= Fernando Alonso (2nd at start of season)

Once Alonso got the right car, he flew. Brilliantly quick, makes few mistakes, and knows how to win. Best tip for 2005 champion.

1= Kimi Raikkonen (3)

Only bad luck has denied him the chance to fight Alonso for the points lead, but could still deny the Spaniard.

3 Michael Schumacher (1)

At times brilliant, but at others there have been hints that the fight is not always there.

4 Jenson Button (4)

Has endured a season from hell, but is still hungry enough to pull off a win.

5 Jarno Trulli (12)

Enjoying a new lease of life as Toyota team leader.

6 Felipe Massa (13)

The man Frank Williams rejected has begun to come of age.

7 Giancarlo Fisichella (6)

When he won in Melbourne he seemed to have cracked it. But a run of poor luck shows little sign of turning.

8 Juan Pablo Montoya (7)

After a slow start has finally begun to hit his stride at McLaren. Has the speed to challenge Raikkonen.

9 David Coulthard (8)

Leaving McLaren has liberated him. His motivation is as high as ever - as is his instinct for partying.

10 Nick Heidfeld (9)

Has given several masterclasses on how to overtake but his big break with a top team has come when the machinery is poor.

11 Rubens Barrichello (5)

It was not until mid-season that Barrichello found any form after his opening race second place.

12 Mark Webber (11)

F1's Mr Nice Guy, but there have been too many mistakes at key moments.

13 Jacques Villeneuve (14)

Has still to recapture the old form, and the Monaco incident with Massa raised questions about his overtaking judgement.

14 Christijan Albers (New Entry)

Once an F3 star, then sidetracked in German DTM, has been surprise of the season with his pace in an uncompetitive car.

15 Takuma Sato (10)

Has had a poor year and still needs to control his impetuous streak.

16 Christian Klien (NE)

For a guy with his experience from 2004, Klien has been disappointing for much of 2005.

17 Narain Karthikeyan (NE)

Still feisty in his red mist moments, Karthikeyan has proved he deserves an F1 chance. What would he do in a decent car?

18 Tiago Montiero (NE)

Lately the Portuguese driver has quietly asserted himself. A podium at Indy was a fluke, but one he deserved.

19 Patrick Friesacher (NE)

Showed pace in F3000, but so far in F1 he's been overshadowed by team-mate Christijan Albers and needs to try harder.

20 Ralf Schumacher (16)

All season he's been outdriven by Jarno Trulli, and word has it that Toyota are investigating the wisdom of their investment. About time too.