The giant-killing performances were what caught your attention first: hustling an uncompetitive Minardi around Suzuka to finish a barely credible 11th in 2001; seemingly appearing from nowhere to grab his first pole position (Malaysia 2003); and becoming the then-youngest-ever grand prix winner (Hungary, again in ’03, appropriately nabbing the honour from Bruce McLaren himself, who’d achieved in way back in 1959) in truly effortless fashion.
With his intent signified, his move to the Renault team gave him the firepower to fulfill his ambition.
Armed with 2005’s R25, the greatness that had been glimpsed in snatches was quickly and thoroughly refined. It was immediately apparent at that year’s San Marino Grand Prix, where his incredibly precise defence of the lead kept no less than keening, hungry world champion Michael Schumacher at bay. It was a performance marked by the skill of an old veteran rather than a hungry newcomer.
The trickle of victories quickly turned into a torrent: seven wins by the end of the season, but – just as important – a steady stream of podium positions (five runner-up spots and three third places) that cemented his ascent to the title. Underlining the point, his was a world crown won with the seasoned experience of a master, not that of a fresh-faced youngster feeling his way nervously toward his first championship.
He was crowned in Brazil, finishing third behind – presciently – two McLarens. Standing on the podium, his ear was turned by Ron Dennis, who quietly assured the Spaniard that his future surely lay in one of Woking’s silver cars.
A deal was quickly signed – but for 2007, leaving him to once again race for Renault in ’06. That season, the old enemy – Schumacher – was back in contention, and both he and his Ferrari team used every weapon in their sizeable armoury to peg back Fernando’s progress.
It made for a tense, nervy and paranoid season – but one where Fernando once again triumphed by playing the numbers game whenever he lacked the outright competitiveness to win. For the record, he still scored seven victories, and backed those up with seven further runner-up spots.
His 2006 title made him the sport’s then-youngest-ever double world champion.
Buoyed by this momentum, he quickly made his mark at McLaren in 2007, winning his second race for the marque and quickly re-establishing the team at the competitive vanguard after a disappointing ’06 season.
More victories followed – he led home an emotional McLaren one-two at Monaco, showcased his controlled aggression to snatch victory at the Nurburgring, and pummeled the opposition into submission at Monza. But his winning progress was matched by his rookie team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who also took four victories – and, at season’s end, the McLaren challenge wasn’t concerted enough to stem the singular charge of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who took the title by just one point at the final race in Brazil.
If the title near-miss was a blow, it wasn’t the most problematic issue in a season that was overshadowed by competitive rancour both on and off the track. The fallout was intense, both McLaren and Fernando parted company – the Spaniard returning to Renault for two largely uncompetitive seasons before joining Ferrari for 2010.
Fernando’s time at the Scuderia was a rollercoaster of highs and lows – he won his very first race in a red car, at the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix, but went on to lose the title by the narrowest of margins after a strategic error cost him dearly at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi.
In 2011, he scored a solitary victory at Silverstone, then wrestled a less-than-competitive Ferrari to three magnificent victories in 2012 as he spearheaded the charge to usurp world champion Sebastian Vettel. While Fernando gave his all, his brave campaign once again came undone at the final race.
While his final two seasons at Ferrari coincided with a dip in the Scuderia’s competitive fortunes, his period with the Maranello squad would repeatedly underline his credentials as the greatest, and most respected, driver in the sport. And while the record books won’t fully reflect his successes, history will tell us that Fernando Alonso stood a shoulder above his peers in terms of reputation and ability.
At McLaren Honda, he has resolutely vowed to take the reunified giants back to the top step of the podium, while at the same time replicating the past successes of his favourite driver and his childhood idol, Ayrton Senna.
While he has yet to drive a McLaren Honda that does full service to his considerable talents, his drive and ambition remain undimmed. His races throughout 2016, when given the merest sniff of an opportunity, were sublime – and culminated in him claiming the season was one of his best-ever in Formula 1, because his innate confidence in the car enabled him to drive it to the maximum on almost every occasion.
For 2017, he will be looking to further maximise those opportunities.