His was a school run like no other. There were three timing splits – a bridge, a sign and a gatepost – and Fernando Alonso timed himself every morning through the streets of Oviedo. He had two aims: to improve his sector times and to beat his grandmother, whose job it was to take him to school.
“I had to beat her,” says Alonso. “Every day! That doesn’t make me sound very nice, does it?”
It makes him sound very competitive, but everything is a competition to Alonso. He talks unashamedly about the selfishness required to win in F1. “You need to have no heart,” he says. “You are not enemies with the other drivers, but you have to focus on yourself to win. If you can ‘hurt’ someone by getting an advantage over them, that’s even better.”
Surely, then, it’s this love of competition that explains why Alonso races in F1.
“No, that’s not it,” he says. “I am a competitive person and competition is important in F1, but I don’t race in F1 for the competition. I can get that in other areas of my life, like cycling and playing tennis – or racing my mother to the supermarket. The reason I race in F1 is because the cars give me a feeling that I can’t get anywhere else. It’s unique.”
“It’s hard to explain what this feeling is like,” he says, “because nothing else comes close to F1. Your brain has to re-set every time you get in the car because things happen so fast. If you haven’t driven an F1 car for a few weeks, the level of performance takes you by surprise.
“I go karting to enjoy the competition; I drive in F1 for this feeling. The driving styles in karting and F1 are quite similar, but nothing unexpected happens in a go-kart. Your brain is never taken by surprise. You can predict everything that the kart is going to do. That isn’t the case in F1, where you’re taken by surprise all the time. When you hit the brakes, your brain takes 0.2s to catch up. That’s a very nice feeling; that is the feeling.”
Alonso’s appraisal of an F1 car’s capabilities is more akin to a rookie than someone who’s contested nearly 300 GPs over a 16-year period. His description of the car’s performance taking him by surprise implies that he’s still chasing the limit of the car, when nothing could be further from the truth.
“Fernando extracts the maximum from everything around him,” says his race engineer Mark Temple. “He drives it in a very aggressive manner. He really attacks the braking areas and throws the car into the corners, but he doesn’t lose out on corner exit. Often, if a driver’s aggressive on entry he loses out on exit, but Fernando manages to keep the car on the limit in both areas.”
This ability to keep the car on the edge of adhesion sheds light on Alonso’s incredible feel for grip, which sets him apart from most of his rivals, and it’s also the source of ‘the feeling’ that he craves behind the wheel. He rides the limit of an F1 car’s capabilities for so long that he experiences the feeling of euphoria for prolonged periods. That is what makes F1 worthwhile for Alonso – and it comes naturally to him.
“I’ve never needed to prepare myself mentally before getting in the car,” he says. “I’m ready all the time; I don’t need to psyche myself up. My mentality doesn’t change, whether it’s free practice, qualifying or the race.”
Before the start of a race Alonso is often seen chilling with his engineers, while other drivers are meditating alone, listening to music or searching for the mental stimuli they need to perform when the lights go out.
Such an unemotional approach to driving is at odds with Alonso’s love of the feeling he gets on the limit in F1. But there are many sides to his character; a more calculating side has always tempered his passion. Add a razor-sharp intellect to the mix and you have one of the most complete drivers in the history of the sport.
“He’s the most intelligent driver I’ve worked with,” says Mark Temple. “Combine this intelligence with a supreme level of natural talent and you’re left with a very potent combination. It allows him to do so much else while driving the car. He processes a lot of data and he’s always thinking about strategy.”
Alonso was particularly impressive in Monaco last year. It was a wet-dry race and it was easy to make a mistake during the early laps, as happened to Jolyon Palmer, Kimi Raikkonen and Kevin Magnussen. But Alonso was constantly talking over the radio about strategy and car performance, while keeping it out of the barriers and keeping Nico Rosberg at bay.
While most drivers have to focus exclusively on their driving, Alonso has the spare mental capacity to think about a myriad of other problems at the same time. This stands him apart from his peers, but it doesn’t explain why he races in F1. That’s more subtle and intuitive; that’s down to the feeling he gets when taking an F1 car to the limit.