Fernando Alonso’s Route to F1

Route to F1

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Formula One was a minority sport in Spain when Fernando Alonso was born in July 1981.

Eight days before his birthday the unloved Jarama track held its last grand prix – a memorable race in which Gilles Villeneuve scored his final win for Ferrari.

Alonso would eventually follow in Villeneuve’s footsteps and drive for the Scuderia – and unlikely prospect for a youngster from a country where F1 was greeted with indifference at best.

But Jose Luis Alonso had been bitten by the karting bug, and his son first was just three years old when he first got behind the wheel of a go-kart.

The only Spanish driver ever to stand on the podium at a world championship event had been Alfonso de Portago, who shared second place at Silverstone with Peter Collins in 1956. Alonso had taken the first steps towards matching that achievement – and outstripping it.

1984-1998 – Karts

By 1993 Alonso, now 11, had begun to attract the attention of sponsors to support his increasingly hard-pressed family. That allowed him to take his fledgling career to the big time. A triple crown in the Spanish Junior Championships followed, and by 1996 Alonso was the benchmark for others to test themselves against.

That season saw others outside Spain sit up and take notice when Alonso took not only his fourth consecutive Spanish crown but the world championship as well, a feat he mirrored with the Spanish and Italian titles a season later when he moved up to the senior Intercontinental-A category (now KF2).

Alonso showed his class with a dominant performance at a gruelling Intercontinental-A European Championship event at Genk in Belgium in 1997. From a field of 162 runners he won every one of his eight heats.

Grip levels on the hot track ramped up rapidly due to the fact it was in near-constant use, but Alonso continued to control proceedings with another win in the pre-final. Here he is in the unfamiliar combination of a white and blue helmet in kart number 82:

However four laps into the final he made his first mistake of the weekend. Alonso dropped a wheel off the track, spun at speed and went up onto two wheels. Fortunately his kart landed the right way up but he was unable to resume. Victory went to Italian rival Alessandro Balzan:

1999 – Euro Open Nissan

Alonso was runner-up in the 1998 world championship and claimed the Spanish title again. Then former F1 driver-turned Formula 3000 team boss Adrian Campos to give the youngster a trial run at the Albacete circuit in Spain.

He acquitted himself excellently, proving promising enough for Campos to risk entering him for the 1999 Euro Open Movistar by Nissan championship. This championship was eventually taken over by Renault and now exists as Formula Renault 3.5, the series Kevin Magnussen won last year.

Six victories, including a double at Donington Park in front of watching F1 personalities, netted him the title. He clinched the crown at Valencia, passing Manuel Gaio early in the race then getting ahead of Tomas Scheckter (son of Villeneuve’s former team mate and 1979 world champion Jody Scheckter) thanks to the mid-race pit stops.

Here’s Alonso winning the championship at Valencia driving the number two car and now using the same helmet design he had when he arrived in F1 two years later:

That triumph earned him a test for Minardi, who Campos had raced for in Formula One. Alonso impressed the team’s sporting director Cesare Fiorio, who had previously worked for Alonso’s future employer Ferrari.

“The first thing I did was to call [Minardi boss] Gabriele Rumi to draw up a ten-year contract for him before word got round F1 about Fernando and someone stole him from us,” said Campos.

2000 – Formula 3000

Formula 3000 beckoned and in 2000 Alonso joined future F1 rivals Mark Webber, Sebastian Bourdais and Justin Wilson on the grand prix support circuit.

But 2000 was to prove a difficult year. The language barrier with his mostly Belgian colleagues at Team Astromega only began to improve late in the season as Alonso developed his command of English.

There were flashes of potential early in the year. At Silverstone – driving a full-blooded racing car in the wet for the first time – he qualified sixth, only to be excluded after his car failed scrutineering when a pair of engine mounting studs were found to exceed the maximum allowed diameter by less than two-tenths of a millimetre.

More misfortune awaited him at the Nurburgring where he made a superb start from 20th on the grid, only to land on top of Ricardo Mauricio amid carnage at the first corner. Alonso is in the yellow Astromega number seven:


Alonso’s progress was swift: on his first visit to Monaco he set fastest lap on his way to eighth place. He was a battling second in Hungary, hounding race winner (and eventual champion) Bruno Junqueira to the flag.

His form had peaked just as the season reached its end. But he signed off with a superb breakthrough victory at Spa Francorchamps.

Up against a field of generally more experienced drivers in equal cars, on a real driver’s track where he had not raced before, the teenager dominated proceedings. Alonso took pole position, fastest lap and led every lap of the way.

After 30 laps he won by 15 seconds – and it could have been more. His fastest lap was over a second quicker than anyone else’s:


Just two years after graduating from karts, Alonso was already being courted by F1 teams. Ferrari, who he eventually joined ten years later, were interested, but they were not as invested in young driver development as they are today.

While they hesitated, Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore. “Ferrari told us to wait, but then Briatore walked through the door with a contract under his arm,” explained Campos.

2001 – Formula One

Managed by Briatore and very much on Minardi’s radar after the successful 1999 test, Alonso stepped up to F1 for 2001. Formula One still wasn’t being broadcast live in Spain, so his parents followed his progress on Italian network RAI.

He again showed great improvement throughout the season. Although Minardi were going to be in the hunt for points, by the end of the year Alonso was humbling other drivers with better equipment.

It was at another great driver’s track – Suzuka – that Alonso gave a startling demonstration of his capabilities at the end of the year. He brought his car home 11th ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Prost, the BAR of Olivier Panis and both the Arrows drivers.

Briatore knew he had a star on his hands. In the days before in-season testing was banned Briatore decided Alonso’s time would be better spent testing for Renault throughout 2002 in preparation for a return to the top flight with them the following year.

It also meant no more participating in Minardi team principal Paul Stoddart’s PR exercises, such as this unusual staged ‘race’ for two-seater F1 cars at Donington Park. Alonso was surprised to find himself assaulted from behind by 1992 world champion Nigel Mansell at the last corner:

In 2003 Alonso moved into a Renault race seat alongside the experienced Jarno Trulli. At his second race for the team in Malaysia he qualified on pole position, the youngest driver ever to do so at the time. A new F1 star was born.

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Images © Renault/LAT, Boris 1964

38 comments on “Fernando Alonso’s Route to F1”

  1. Great driver, the way he dealed with Schumi in his 1st Championship, is just for a fewer, Overall i think this is the best current driver at F1

    1. * few not *fewer

    2. How is it possible to say that any driver in F1 is the “best” when all the cars are not equal in performance? Usain Bolt without doubt has been the best 100 metre runner in the past few years because he’s won the most gold medals and has broken world records. But the 100 metres is a level playing field. Whereas in F1, when you throw in the fact that every year each car has been different in performance and a whole host of other factors like reliability etc. it’s impossible to say.

      1. @insilico …which makes for so much more interesting discussions than with athletics events, as there is no doubt!

        1. Perhaps for you, but I for one am just completely sick of this whole discussion over who is the best or the greatest of all time. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

      2. but you can think analytically, and realize that perhaps overall Alonso, more then the other drivers can be nearly called the best of the field. he gets the best out of the package he has more consistently then most, so that is what makes the difference.

        1. “he gets the best out of the package he has more consistently then most, so that is what makes the difference.”

          You are in no position to make that call, how do you know that someone in a backmarker car who gets near to no coverage is not doing a much better job? You cannot.

      3. @insilico, i do so, because, Fernando had already the best car, won, had an average car, and won, had a not so good car and won. Drove with personality to achieve his 1st championship. Regardless the car he has, Alonso always try and does impossibles with that car.
        In 2001 With European Minardi – Did more than his teamates, Alex Young and Tarso Marques.
        2003 – Beat Jarno Trulli, was at the time the most younger driver to have a Pole Position and a Victory in a GP
        2004 – Beat again Trulli and Villeneuve
        2005 – Beat not only his team mate but everyone else to be the mos younger driver to win the Champioship
        2006 – Another Champioship
        2007 – Had the same points has his teamate
        2008- Beat his teamate
        2009- Beat again his teamates
        2010, 11, 12, 13 – Beat his teamates,

        That’s my opinion, and also in atlethics, there’s doping so seeing Armstrong case, i wonder how may were fooled by it? So if given Bolt example i can say that he take funny things…like others did

        1. Indeed, it’s hard to deny that Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel, Raikkonen etc. are overall a cut above the backmarkers, and possibly the midfield. Alonso’s win record as a junior is simply outstanding… that he also skipped straight up to FR3.5 and GP2 level (winning one, and winning in the other) before Minardi is amazing. Same for Raikkonen, Button, Massa, Davidson etc. in the same period.

          1. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
            5th May 2014, 16:25

            @fastiesty – Is Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel and Raikkonen a cut above Hulkenberg? Or Rosberg?

          2. If anything they are the best 2 drivers to challenge them, as they have both won GP2 first time out like Hamilton. So perhaps as Raikkonen and Alonso slow down and retire they will be the ‘top 4’ drivers on the grid. Ricciardo has been developing nicely however so could stake a claim, along with Grosjean. After that, it looks like whoever else gets to try a top car.. perhaps Bianchi in a Ferrari.

        2. So if given Bolt example i can say that he take funny things…like others did

          Only if you have evidence.

          1. Anytime anyone does something out of this world like that, it’s been known that years before they assumme doping, Armstrong and others are good examples of it…

          2. Bolt is an interesting one.. he breaks the mould, a bit like Tommie Smith back in the day (running as well as black power salute), who demolished the 200m WR. Bolt has set WRs at every level, being elite standard from the age of 15. If anything he had underachieved until the 2008 Olympics, being late teens/early 20s and not focussing on training. The only sceptical viewpoint would be that he topped out and then took something to continue his progression. But Armstrong had suspicions around him from day 1.

    3. Schumacher was his championship rival during his 2nd championship bid. Raikkonen was his main rival for the 1st.

      1. You’re right, thought it was the other way around, nevertheless my point stands…

  2. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
    2nd May 2014, 13:07

    @anthonyfrench – One the unexpected gems the site so consistently serves up: a fabulous article profiling the rise of not only the driver I believe to be currently the best on the grid, but one of the most complete racing drivers in recent history; great job. Lovely also to see Adrian Campos’ name receive some plaudits for giving F1 Fernando Alonso, and Adrian has been looking for another Fernando ever since (at one point Javier Villa, Campos’ protege, looked set for an F1 seat with Campos before Hispania took over the outfit). A true story of rags to riches elevated by Alonso’s talent, Campos’ determination and dear Jose Luis’ karting interest.

  3. It took a long time for the Spanish to recognise a new star in their midst. I had just ridden over the Pyrenees into Spain on the day he won his first GP in Hungary, 2003. At the camp site I had to ask the barman to turn on the TV, seeing Alonso leading I tried to get the message across that he was a Spaniard, the guy just shrugged and ignored it, doubt that would happen now.

  4. Great to see such a detailed article about FA. Largely ignored by the British Press – Nice one Keith!

  5. Lovely article there ! Alonso is perhaps the guy who climbed up the ‘not so easy’ way to success . If not for the ferrari decision , I wonder .
    Great sketch on one of the most consistent drivers in today’s f1 .

    1. If not Ferrari, wouldnt he have joined Red Bull?

  6. great article. with one little gripe. I don’t get why it read “son of Villeneuve’s former team mate and 1979 world champion Jody Scheckter” why was Villeneuve mentioned, why not just “son of 1979 wold champion Jody Scheckter”. I guess it relates to earlier mentioning Villeneuve and “Alonso would eventually follow in Villeneuve’s footsteps and drive for the Scuderia” but I don’t think Alonso ever meaningly followed any drivers footsteps, and I don’t think Villeneuve needed to be mentioned at all in this article, even when mentioning the last race held at Jarama

    1. I think more people have heard of Gilles than of farming-company-owner Jody.

      1. EXCUSE ME, Jody Scheckter is a world champion and you have not heard of that, yet you have heard that he is a farming-company-owner? COTD for you LOL! you must follow f1!

      2. C’mon Jody is WDC!

        1. I don’t think that means he would be as recognisable a name as Villeneuve. He was a name with a lot of hype around him, and he died in an F1 car.

    2. Agreed. Made no sense.

    3. Seems you asked and answered your own question, kpcart. What is wrong with mentioning Villeneuve? So what if Anthony French put that in. Why is that gripe-worthy?

  7. I remember Alonso saying some time ago that he regretted being a test driver for a full year for Renault, he said he would’ve preferred to stay in Minardi for that year if he had the choice, in his mind that was a wasted year because having driven full time a year before, he didn’t learn anything new.
    It makes sense and I suppose that’s how van der Garde feels right now.

    1. If you really think that being a test driver in 2002 was the same as it is now, you have no clue what you’re talking about. Test drivers were covering almost as many kilometers during in-season testing as race drivers would cover during all the races put together.

      And it was very useful for Alonso. He was learning English further by living in Oxford or something like that (don’t remember the exact location) and getting to know the team even better. If he had no clue how the car would feel and drive, I doubt he would have put it on pole in the second race of the season.

      If you can find a link to where Alonso said what you claim, I’d gladly say I think he’s wrong, even though he’s my favorite driver.

      1. Hey, it’s his words not mine! It was a couple of years ago in an interview in Spanish TV, I was streaming back then so I didn’t record anything.

        But I agree with him because attending all the races, being on the paddock, having a teammate and actually go racing is the next logical step after testing, not the other way around.

  8. Fernando Alonso was not my favorite during the times he won two world championships. And during his drive for McLaren. But when I saw him get the most out of the Ferrari as compared to his team mate, he gained my respect. You could also say I was more matured to like drivers based on their driving than their wins.

    By and far, Alonso is among the best of the current generation of drivers.

  9. Fernando is one of the first drivers in the lower categories I was aware of who made it to F1, which made his early years in Renault a little weird; how was this ‘kid’ beating drivers like Trulli? While I didn’t initially like him because of my Schumacher idolization, I’ve grown to like him and I’d say he is my favorite current driver.

    Nice article, hope to see some more!

  10. As a massive fan of Alonso, thank you Keith for posting this. Some of his performances over the years have been an absolute joy. None more so than in Hungary 2006, where in the link below, Keith analysed and compared his first lap with Senna’s first lap in Donnington 1993.


    Probably the most underrated grand prix performance I can remember. He was mesmerizing that day.

    1. Bah! I think this was the link I was after!


  11. Really nice article. I really became a fan when I went to my first Grand Prix as an adult which I could go to once I started working. It was Valencia 2012 and it was phenomenal to see his talent, good moves, and a little bit of luck to get him to win that race. From that moment I was won over and really appreciated his talents. I’m convinced he is the best driver out there so I find it disappointing that he doesn’t have the car to match with his talents.

    I’ve been so much in awe, that I went to Madrid in February just to see the Fernando Alonso Collection. I wasn’t disappointed; seeing his karts, his Nissan car, F3000 car, and his F1 cars, along with other memorabilia such as trophies, helmets and his model car collection. Seeing the cars which he drove to the World Championships were a highlight, but also seeing the trophy for winning the championship and they don’t make many of those! It was such a pleasure to attend, and I doubt that many other drivers would put in such efforts to open up their lives and careers to the public. Alonso is very special person.

  12. Been a fan since I was at Spa in 2000 and saw that performance first hand. I was actually watching the race because of Mark Webber, but saw something else unexpected that day.

    Then watching him handle the Minardi around Melbourne the next year, I knew there was driver destined to move a long way up the grid.

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