Richland’s Road of Nostalgia: Fernando Alonso – From Minardi To The Top (Part 1)

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As we prepare for another year of what will surely be thrilling Formula 1 action, I’ve decided to take a look back at one of the masters of the modern era – Fernando Alonso. Although the Spaniard is regarded by many of one of the most complete drivers’ on the grid, he began his F1 career back in 2001 at the rear of the grid with Minardi.

Since Fernando Alonso’s Championship success in both 2005 and 2006, each driver has started their separate career’s with a team well established in the sport, except maybe Kimi Raikkonen in 2001 with Sauber. Lewis Hamilton started his career with McLaren in 2007, enabling him to hit the ground running in terms of competitive results. Jenson Button started his career in 2000 with Williams alongside Ralf Schumacher, despite a tough stint with the likes of Benetton/Renault, BAR and Honda.

The latest World Champion, Sebastian Vettel, entered the sport via BMW Sauber back in 2007, but with Red Bull’s Young Driver Programme behind him, his rise to the top was also greatly assisted. Now before I plunge into Alonso’s rise to the top, I must add that although the above drivers’ may well have started off with established teams, it certainly takes nothing away from their incredible talent. So, let’s go!

2001: Minardi-European – 23rd in Drivers’ Championship – 0 points

After being crowned Champion of the Euro Open by Nissan Championship in 1999 and a season in F3000 in 2000, Fernando Alonso eventually entered Formula 1 with Minardi in 2001 to team-mate Brazilian driver Tarso Marques. At the time, the Spaniard became the youngest driver to enter the sport at only 19 years of age.

Fernando Alonso impressed many during his debut season with Minardi in 2001.

Fernando Alonso impressed many during his debut season with Minardi in 2001.

As was the case throughout the majority of their time in Formula 1, Minardi were battling towards the rear of the grid throughout 2001. The outfit had gained a reputation of being a team who, each year, struggled to stay afloat in the dog-eat-dog and money-fueled world of Formula 1. The 2001 season was to be no different for the small Italian team, despite being purchased by Australian businessman Paul Stoddart before the start of the new season.

However, Fernando Alonso failed to let Minardi’s lack of pace disrupt his debut race weekend at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. The Spaniard successfully qualified within the 107% rule for the race in 19th, not to mention a stunning 2.6 seconds ahead of his team-mate. Fernando Alonso proceeded to finish his first race, eventually coming home 12th ahead of the Benetton of Giancarlo Fisichella who he would incidentally race alongside in 2005.

Despite suffering a season plagued by mechanical issues with his Minardi, Fernando Alonso managed to finish eight races during the 2001 season. In comparison, Tarso Marques finished six races throughout the season, eventually being replaced after the Belgian Grand Prix by Malaysian driver Alex Yoong. Fernando Alonso’s personal best finish of the year was 10th at the German Grand Prix, however at the Japanese Grand Prix Alonso impressed greatly with 11th. The Spaniard finished ahead of both Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Olivier Panis, Enrique Bernoldi, Jos Verstappen and team-mate Alex Yoong.

Due to Fernando Alonso’s strong performances with Minardi during his debut season, it was highly rumored throughout the paddock that the Spaniard would replace Kimi Raikkonen at Sauber, with the Finn set to replace Mika Hakkinen at McLaren. However, future Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa moved to Sauber instead, therefore ending speculation linking Alonso to Sauber. The Spaniard’s manager, Flavio Briatore, was considering moving Alonso to Benetton [who were later rebranded as Renault] for the 2002 season, however Briatore eventually elected to appoint Fernando Alonso as the team’s reserve driver for 2002 and instead signed British driver Jenson Button to team-mate Jarno Trulli.

2002: Renault – Test Driver – 0 points

Although Fernando Alonso would have understandably preferred a full-time drive at Renault for the 2002 season, there’s no denying that his stint as the team’s reserve and test driver benefitted him greatly. Although the team finished regularly in the points, they failed to finish on the podium all season. Both Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button finished a best of 4th throughout the year, allowing Renault to finish the season 4th in the Constructors’ Championship with 23 points behind Ferrari, Williams and McLaren.

Fernando Alonso tested for Jaguar in 2002 at Silverstone.

Fernando Alonso tested for Jaguar in 2002 at Silverstone.

During Fernando Alonso’s year as Renault’s reserve and test driver, the Spaniard completed 1,642 laps during testing at various venues including Barcelona, Valencia, Silverstone and Jerez. Alonso even completed a day testing for Jaguar at Silverstone in May, impressing greatly and finishing as the fastest of the five drivers testing for the marque which included Eddie Irvine and Pedro de la Rosa.

For the 2003 season, Flavio Briatore elected to replace Jenson Button with Fernando Alonso, a decision which created widespread criticism throughout the British media. However, after the decision was made to replace Button with Alonso, the team’s technical director Mike Gascoyne later insisted to F1 Racing Magazine that their decision was the correct one.

2003: Renault – 6th in Drivers’ Championship – 55 points

Fernando Alonso started his first season in a full-time race seat with Renault in positive fashion, as the Spaniard qualified 10th and managed to finish the season-opening Australian Grand Prix 7th. This result saw Alonso score his first points in Formula 1, with the revised points scoring system now allowing drivers finishing as far back as 8th to score points. Alonso’s productive start to the season continued next time out at the Malaysian Grand Prix when he became the youngest driver to secure pole position in the history of the sport, in what was a sensational Renault front-row lock-out.

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Fernando Alonso became only the second Spanish driver in the history of F1 to finish on the podium at Malaysia.

During the race, Fernando Alonso was held back by numerous obstacles including problems with his gearbox towards the latter half of the race. Team-mate Jarno Trulli suffered a disastrous start to the race after a collision with the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher, however Fernando Alonso still managed to finish a superlative 3rd for Renault in only his second outing for the team in a race eventually won by Kimi Raikkonen, becoming only the second Spanish driver in the history of the sport to finish on the podium since Alfonso de Portago in 1956.

The next race in Brazil was a bittersweet occasion for Fernando Alonso, who qualified 10th for what turned out to be a wet and crazy race. In a race which saw many drivers slide off of the track in the increasingly tricky weather conditions, Fernando Alonso suffered a horrific incident which ultimately brought a premature end to the race. On Lap 53, the Jaguar of Mark Webber slammed violently into the tyre barrier at the fast sweeping final corner, dislodging several tyres from the tyre barrier.

Caught unawares by the severity of the incident, Fernando Alonso stormed around the final corner at racing speed and collided with one of the many tyres on the track, which threw the Spaniard heavily into the retaining tyre wall. After the incident, Alonso was visibly shaken by the impact, and was forced to sit down at the side of the track as the red flag was flown signaling the end of the race. However, due to the rules the official race results were taken from the previous lap, which meant Alonso actually finished the race 3rd overall behind Kimi Raikkonen and surprise winner Giancarlo Fisichella.

After yet another points finish with 6th at the San Marino Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso wowed his faithful supporters at the Spanish Grand Prix. The local hero started a promising 3rd, and finished an even better 2nd behind race winner and reigning World Champion Michael Schumacher.

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Fernando Alonso took his first race victory at Hungary in 2003.

Fernando Alonso continued to finish consistently in the points throughout the remainder of the season, despite several misfortunate retirements at the Austrian, French, British, United States and Japanese Grands Prix. At the Hungarian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso stormed to his first career victory in Formula 1, with a flawless lights-to-flag win from pole. This saw the Spaniard become the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix, finishing ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Michael Schumacher was once again crowned Champion for the fourth season in succession for Ferrari, whereas Fernando Alonso ended the season 6th overall in the Drivers’ Championship with 55 points scored in comparison to team-mate Jarno Trulli who finished 8th with only 33 points scored.

Picture(s) Copyright © Renault F1

Click here for part two of our Fernando Alonso feature!

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