| Fernando Alonso
London: Every year, German-registered tour buses full of Michael Schumacher fans head south for an annual Spanish Grand Prix celebration.
The ‘Schumi’ supporters will doubtless be out in force again on Sunday but Ferrari’s five-time world champion, four times a winner and always in the points in Barcelona, may no longer be the biggest draw in town.
Fernando Alonso should ensure that, this time, many of those arriving in the Circuit de Catalunya coach parks are speaking Spanish and rooting for Renault.
The 21-year-old Alonso has a star quality like no other Spaniard in Formula One since the 1950s.
If anyone can get the locals, for so long keener on motorcycling and rallying than Formula One, to pack the stands then he is the man. In four races so far this season, Alonso has twice finished on the podium and become the youngest driver ever to start on pole position.
In Malaysia, he led the race. In Brazil, he ended it prematurely with a massive crash that could yet see him punished when an observer’s report is examined by the sport’s governing body.
Spain has known nothing like it since the late Marquis Alfonso de Portago finished second for Ferrari at Silverstone in 1956. Where Formula One was once elbowed out by tennis and soccer, the Spanish papers now talk of ‘Alonsomania’.
“To come to Spain fourth in the championship, just two points off second place and one behind Michael Schumacher would have been unthinkable at the start of the season,” Alonso said after the last Grand Prix at Imola.
“It will be a special race for me.”
The Spaniard, without a point in his career before March after a season at Minardi in 2001 was followed by a year as Renault test driver, has scored points in every round so far.
He has 17 points, more than either Williams driver and three more than Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello, and has outqualified Italian teammate Jarno Trulli in three of the four races.
Alonso, McLaren’s championship leader Kimi Raikkonen and Barrichello are the only drivers to have finished more than once on the podium.
“I think in a year or two’s time he can win the world championship,” said Renault technical director Mike Gascoyne in Malaysia.
“We thought Fernando has got the spark of a future world champion and I don’t think there’s anyone that doubts it.”
Comparisons to Schumacher and talk of Alonso as a champion-in-waiting have further stirred up the interest in a country whose drivers have in the past struggled in uncompetitive machinery.
Pedro de la Rosa, now testing for McLaren, and Williams’ test and reserve driver Marc Gene amassed only seven points between them in a total of 96 appearances.
Yet when both qualified on the grid for the 1999 Spanish Grand Prix, the crowd went up by 33,000 on the previous year.
Until this year, former Arrows and Jaguar driver De la Rosa and Francesco Godia for Maserati in the 1950s were the most successful Spaniards in Formula One in terms of points scored — six each.
Adrian Campos, Alonso’s manager, is one of four Spaniards who raced without ever scoring a point.
De Portago, who shared his car with Briton Peter Collins in 1956, was an all-round sportsman who could have been a winner had he not died in the 1957 Mille Miglia.
A recent article in the El Pais newspaper made comparisons between Alonso and golfer Severiano Ballesteros, tennis player Manuel Santana and motorcycle rider Angel Nieto.
All were pioneers, champions who drew huge followings in sports that Spain had never before excelled in and encouraged others to follow their examples.
“I’ve got more interesting things to do than think about that,” replied Alonso. “But it’s true that no Spanish driver ever had a chance to be in a great team and do good things.
“I am the first and people seem to be enjoying that and taking it seriously. Formula One can be a great sport in Spain.”
Unlike De la Rosa and Gene, both Barcelona locals, Alonso comes from the northern city of Oviedo in the Asturias region.
As he pointed out after his memorable pole, a position helped by new rules allowing drivers to qualify with different fuel loads for reasons of strategy, he may be young but he is no novice.
He started in go-karts at the age of three and was a winner already at the age of five.
His Formula One debut with Minardi came as a teenager, after he had entered Formula 3000 aged 18, and by the start of this season he could count on 18 years of racing experience.
“I was always the youngest driver in the categories,” said Alonso. “To be the youngest also to have pole position is a good thing and I hope to be the youngest driver to win a race...maybe the youngest driver to win the world championship.”