Byline: Chris Jenkins
Fernando Alonso was expected to crack in the closing laps of the April 24 San Marino Grand Prix. Instead, it became a defining moment for the young driver's career.
Alonso's rearview mirrors were filled with the screaming red Ferrari driven by seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher. Schumacher darted left and right behind Alonso's Renault in the final 12 laps, waiting for a slight mistake that would allow him to take the lead.
A pro-Ferrari Italian crowd dressed mostly in red bounced in anticipation, waiting for the 23-year-old Alonso to surrender.
"They ask me if I felt a lot of pressure when Michael was behind me," Alonso says of going wheel-to-wheel with Schumacher on the world's biggest motor sports stage. "And I said I know pressure (from) when I was forced to win to race (the) next weekend in go-karts" as a preteen in his native Spain.
Adding spice to a sport that had become stale after years of domination by Schumacher, Alonso has won four of the first eight F1 races. Despite crashing in Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, Alonso has a comfortable 22-point lead on another talented young driver, Finland's Kimi Raikkonen, heading into Sunday's U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Schumacher, meanwhile, is an uncharacteristic fifth in the standings after earning the championship in each of the last five seasons and winning 13 of 16 races last year.
Perhaps it's appropriate Alonso's hobbies include performing magic tricks, something picked up from his grandfather. Poof! Alonso has made Schumacher's air of invincibility vanish.
Retired racing legend Mario Andretti, who won the F1 championship in 1978, says Alonso's success is "refreshing."
"We all become a lot more curious now because it's not as predictable," Andretti says. "The last few years, it was boringly predictable."
F1 is suddenly interesting again, particularly in Spain, which never had a top-level F1 driver but now is wrapped in "Alonsomania" to go with the fervor for French Open tennis champion Rafael Nadal. The country's No. 1 sports nut, King Juan Carlos, sat courtside as Nadal won the French Open on June 5 and calls to congratulate Alonso after each race victory.
"You can see him in all the sports events, always supporting the Spanish performers," Alonso says of the king. "This is really nice for us."
Then again, maybe the king is just lucky Alonso answers the phone. In Spain, Renault team managing director Flavio Briatore says with a laugh, "He is bigger than the king."
Tiring of the issue
At 36, Schumacher is the oldest driver in what is increasingly a young man's sport. Even at 23, Alonso is in his fourth F1 season.
But people in racing don't think Schumacher's skills have diminished with age. Instead, they blame his equipment.
Formula One cars are technological marvels, built from scratch by teams with nine-figure annual budgets. In appearance and technology, they have more in common with fighter jets than passenger cars. If a great driver doesn't have a great car, he won't win.
Although Schumacher was fast enough to hound Alonso in the San Marino race, he no longer has the best equipment in the field. Tires are a major issue; Schumacher's team has a contract to use Bridgestones, which don't seem to grip the track as well as Alonso's Michelins this season.
"If you put Michelin tires on the Ferrari, they would go out and win every race," says former British American Racing team boss Craig Pollack, business manager for driver Jacques Villeneuve. "All of a sudden, Michael would be very fast again."
Alonso acknowledges he might have a slight equipment advantage on Schumacher this year, but he seems perplexed by the way conventional racing wisdom works.
As Alonso sees it, when Schumacher doesn't win, observers say it's because his tires have let him down. But when Schumacher was running away with races last year, Alonso says, observers said it was because he was a great driver with a great team -- not because Schumacher had superior tires, which Alonso insists he did.
"All the teams in the Formula One, we know that last year they had a big advantage with tires and no one talks about this," Alonso says. "Only because Michael was the best and Ferrari was the best, they won all the races. But now ... they realize how good the tires were last year."
Young drivers making their way
Alonso doesn't expect Schumacher's struggles to continue; engineers will work to improve his car and tires. After finishing second Sunday, Schumacher said in his news conference his car was able to go at a "reasonable" pace.
"We just still have to work on the package to get it right at every moment," he said.
But Alonso sees Raikkonen, who won Sunday's race in Canada after Alonso crashed, as his biggest threat.
In a trend that mimics recent developments in NASCAR, Alonso and Raikkonen are the top of a crop of younger drivers coming into the sport.
F1 teams are hiring younger drivers for many of the same reasons NASCAR teams do: They accept lower salaries than veterans and typically aren't as stubborn. But Pollack -- who represents Villeneuve, a former F1 champion struggling with a lower-level team -- says younger drivers are only succeeding because F1 officials allow teams to develop technology that makes the cars easier to drive.
"It looks to me as if he's hyper-reliant on the electronics in the car," Pollack says of Alonso. "He can get away with his driving style because of the electronics, because it's going to correct" mistakes.
F1 cars have traction control, a complex system that helps prevent a car's rear end from skidding when a driver mashes the gas pedal. Such systems are banned in NASCAR, where officials severely restrict technology that makes racing more expensive without making it more entertaining.
(At the request of some veteran drivers, NASCAR changed technical rules in the offseason to make its cars harder to drive; some blame the changes for increased slipping, sliding and crashing on the track this year.)
Alonso's first boss in F1, Minardi team principal Paul Stoddart, says technology makes it easier for a young driver to make the jump to F1. But Stoddart, who says Alonso is "the most naturally talented driver I've ever worked with," also says he would win under any set of rules.
"It still takes a lot of (guts) and a lot of grit, determination to get out there and thunder along at 270 kilometers an hour (168 mph)," Stoddart says.
Says Alonso, "When we talk about traction con-trol, OK, it's a help, but it's not as easy as it seems, probably."
Young drivers also might be getting hired in F1 because teams are getting more big-money backing from major automakers. Ferrari, Renault, BMW, Toyota and Honda are deeply involved in F1.
A few years ago, when teams were more dependent on outside corporate sponsorship, they often looked to hire drivers with established reputations because it would be easier to find sponsors for a "name" driver.
"These big companies, they want the best (driver) possible," Alonso says. "It doesn't matter if he's rich or not rich or young or old."
From rich family life to riches
Alonso, born to working-class parents in Spain's Asturias region, didn't have a family fortune to support his early racing career. His father was an explosives expert who blasted mine shafts. His mother worked in a shopping center.
Alonso's first go-kart was a hand-me-down from his older sister, who received it as a gift at 8 but wasn't interested. Alonso was only 3, but after a few modifications to help him reach the pedals, he was behind the wheel.
He can't remember back that far, but he has photos and a trophy from 1984. "And I was born in '81, so it's true," he says.
On weekends, he and his father made long car trips to enter races. If he didn't finish well, he wasn't going to attract interest from organized karting teams who could help pay the bills.
"It's not an easy sport from the money point of view," Alonso says. "And (there were) two or three points in 12 years or 13 years we were either awaiting a sponsor or nothing -- back to the normal life, with no go-kart. But we were always lucky, we'd get a sponsor, because we had no money."
By 11, he had done well enough to attract attention from professional karting teams that gave him the money to keep his career going. He also worked as a mechanic for younger kart racers -- something he says he enjoyed and might still be doing if he hadn't made it as a driver.
By 1995, Alonso was driving in international kart races and did well enough to graduate to developmental car racing series in Europe that serve as the fast track to F1. He made his F1 debut in 2001 and became the youngest driver to win an F1 race, the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2003, 16 days after his 22nd birthday.
Alonso says his life as a youngster was "normal." That's hardly true today.
Renault's Briatore says Alonso's growing fame is a "gold jail." Instead of living in Spain, where he would be mobbed every time he left his house, he lives near team headquarters in England.
Like the majority of F1 drivers, Alonso has to speak fluent English so he can communicate with team engineers, who are mostly British, and fulfill sponsor and media obligations. Alonso has a reputation for being shy but doesn't come across as robotic.
"He's one of life's nice guys, actually, and to be as talented as he is and gifted as he is and still have his feet on the ground is" great, Minardi's Stoddart says.
On the track, Alonso is not afraid to show emotion. In the Canada race, he shook his fist as he passed a slower car that was holding him up. He then zeroed in on teammate Giancarlo Fisichella, the race leader.
Although he was obviously faster than Fisichella, attempting to pass a teammate can be a tricky political situation. Making a risky move that crashed out both team cars would be seen as a disaster and might affect a driver's long-term career prospects.
But as he followed Fisichella, who was being ordered to push his car harder to stay in the lead, Alonso said forcefully over his in-car radio, "I have to do what I have to do!" He took the lead a few laps later.
"I think there's still more to come," Stoddart says. "I think his personality will develop even more as championship and race success come. And I think in the end he's going to be a very worthy world champion."