After Fernando Alonso had won the Formula Nissan series at his first attempt, his prize was a Minardi test at Fiorano, in which he was studiously watched by a number of F1 teams – including officials from Ferrari.
Minardi’s sporting director Cesare Fiorio was on the look out for fresh talent for the 2001 Formula 1 season and the experienced campaigner was immediately struck by the talented Alonso, as he recalled: “I’ve dealt with over 300 young drivers over the years, but none have made the impression on me he did. None.”
On a dark December day, with rain teeming down onto a treacherous track, caution was warranted. Alonso calmly stepped into the Minardi and on his first lap past the pits was clearly right on the limit, braking as late as the experienced drivers for the first corner.
In shock Fiorio told him to stop immediately, for fear of damage to man and machine, but Alonso’s response was one of surprise. The lap time had proved he was 3.5 seconds clear of his nearest rival and he said he was taking it easy, learning his way, before really going for it…
Benetton boss Flavio Briatore lost no time in signing Alonso on a long-term deal and placed him in at Minardi where he made his Formula 1 debut at the start of the 2001 season. Fernando was just 19, but clearly had the pace to belong in the top echelon of the sport – and his future looked bright.
“Fernando has plenty of talent,” said Briatore at the time. “He could be one of the best and is in Formula 1 to become one of the best.”
At his first race in Australia, the rookie was able to haul his Minardi off the back row of the grid in qualifying. He was 2.5 seconds faster than his team-mate Tarso Marques and ahead of both a Prost and Jaguar too. Fernando stayed out of trouble and finished the race 12th.
While difficult to get noticed at the tail end of the field, the 19-year-old star kept his head down and kept on delivering throughout that debut year.
“The start of the season was very difficult for me because I was new to Formula 1 and the team had virtually no winter testing,” said Alonso. “We went to Australia with a new car, two new drivers and no mileage. But you have to be very strong in your head to drive for Minardi because you’re always at the back: the results never come.”
In Germany he managed a tenth place finish, having begun the restarted race in his team-mate’s car. Despite a completely different set-up he drove outside his comfort zone and reached the chequered flag – on the day of his 20th birthday. He also impressed at Suzuka in the final race of the year, but by that stage his future had been secured. For 2002 he moved to Briatore’s young driver development programme at Renault.
That meant a year on the sidelines, as test driver, watching and learning how a big team operates. There he partnered Jarno Trulli and someone who he unites with again at McLaren-Honda for 2015: Jenson Button.
“I think this year is going to be a nightmare,” said Alonso at the time. “But I’ll improve the car as best as I can and then let Jarno and Jenson set off without me. Testing for Renault is better than racing for Minardi. I’m only 20, I have a lot of time on my side before trying to achieve my objective: to be champion one day.”
In 2002, Alonso accrued over 4,500 miles during 33 days of testing for Renault – including one day for Jaguar at Silverstone. At this time he still lived with his parents in Spain, but rented a flat in Oxford to be close to his team in Enstone and to further improve his English.
That summer it was announced Alonso’s apprenticeship was over as he was rewarded with a race seat for 2003, but the Spaniard’s drive with a major team barely registered a flicker in his homeland.
“In Spain, F1 is a virtually unknown sport,” said the laidback racer at the time. “Only football and bikes count there. And the grands prix aren’t broadcast live…
“Maybe British drivers look at things differently. They’ve grown up in a world with F1, I didn’t. F1 is normal, it doesn’t mean anything special to me. It’s my job, like waiting in a restaurant or working as a bank clerk.”
However, Alonso’s performances in Formula 1 were anything but normal. In his second race for Renault (in Malaysia) he achieved history by becoming the youngest ever driver in the 53-year history of the world championship to claim pole position, at the tender age of 21.
That evening in Sepang, his manager Adrian Campos couldn’t hide his delight: “We’ve just pulled off a hell of a performance and Fernando has proved that he deserves his place in F1, which is everything I’d been battling for years.”
The following day, with flu and without fifth gear, the young Spaniard turned heads with his speed and set yet another record, becoming the youngest man to ever stand on a podium, with third place. Eleven races later, he made history as the youngest driver to win a grand prix with his success at the Hungaroring.
“What bothers me is that it has taken people seven years to realise how great he is,” said Campos. “I saw it clearly from the outset when he won Formula Nissan at his first attempt, with no experience. It confirmed what I was feeling – we are dealing with a genius.”
There was no doubt the Formula 1 establishment had been rocked by the arrival of this youthful superstar. Alonso had shown his worth in a less than superior car and his rivals began to fear what he might achieve with top-class machinery. The world was about to find out…