Formula 1's greatest drivers. Number 10: Fernando Alonso

 

This year, BBC Sport is profiling 20 of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. The BBC F1 team were asked to provide their own personal top 20s, which were combined to produce a BBC list. Veteran commentator Murray Walker provides his own reflections in a video of their career highlights and chief F1 writer Andrew Benson profiles the driver. This week, number 10 - Fernando Alonso.

Asturias in northern Spain is a rugged mountainous region that, historically, is renowned for breeding tough, fierce fighters. Fernando Alonso is a true child of his homeland.

There is no more relentless and forbidding competitor in Formula 1. His greatest qualities - among many - are the ability to pound out lap after lap in every grand prix at the absolute limit and always to get the best out of his machinery, however flawed.

These abilities have won him two world titles and 30 grand prix victories - fifth in the all-time winners' list - and have never been demonstrated more impressively than in 2012.

Ferrari started the season with, at best, the fifth quickest car. In the first eight grands prix, Alonso's average qualifying position was eighth. Yet after those races, he was leading the championship. Following his third victory of the season in Germany on Sunday, he continues to do so.

German GP 2012: Alonso wins at Hockenheim

Although his colossal gift is plain for all to see, Alonso responds with modesty when asked to sum up his own ability.

In a BBC interview in 2009, he said: "Maybe I'm not the quickest driver, maybe I'm not the most talented, maybe I'm not the hardest working, but I'm very consistent. I will always be there."

It seems an odd thing to say for a racing driver who is remarkably complete - quick in all conditions, brilliant in an imperfect car, extremely adaptable, highly intelligent, a brave and clinical overtaker, and always a factor.

But on the proviso that it is understood any shortfall he may have compared to a rival in a given area is on the minutest scale, you can see what he means.

Although undoubtedly super fast, Alonso does not very often produce a "special" lap in qualifying, the sort that moves the boundaries of what seemed possible.

It happens - one thinks of his spectacular qualifying lap at Singapore in 2011, for example - but not as often as it does for his contemporaries Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, or Ayrton Senna in the past.

Paradoxically, though, when he finds himself in a car with some kind of problem, Alonso is unequalled, his ability to compensate for the performance deficit quite staggering.

Alonso factfile

  • Races: 188
  • Wins: 30
  • Championships: 2
  • Pole positions: 22
  • First race: 2001 Australian Grand Prix
  • First win: 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix
  • Last win: 2012 German Grand Prix

The best example was the 2006 Italian Grand Prix, when he qualified fifth in a Renault missing much of its rear bodywork, before being demoted to 10th after being given a controversial penalty.

His engineers calculated how much performance the car had lost and say it should not have been possible to get that time out of that car. It was one of the most extraordinary qualifying laps of the decade.

That race was when his campaign for what turned out to be his second consecutive title was coming to a nail-biting climax.

He won his first championship for Renault in 2005, beating Kimi Raikkonen's faster but more fragile McLaren partly thanks to the consistent relentlessness that by then was already a trademark.

Already mighty impressive, Alonso had to step up another gear in 2006. After dominating the early races, Renault faced a determined fightback from Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, who employed the sort of dirty tricks they had perfected over the years to try to derail their rival.

That title came down to a duel between Schumacher and Alonso at Japan's Suzuka, which carried echoes of other great battles at that track between Senna and Alain Prost, and Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen.

After 36 flat-out laps, the race - and effectively the title - was decided when the engine in Schumacher's car failed for the first time in six years. A cruise to the podium in the final race in Brazil made Alonso the youngest double world champion in history.

Alonso wins dramatic Japanese Grand Prix in 2006

He had made his race debut for Renault at the expense of Jenson Button in 2003, after a year as their test driver.

The decision was criticised in the British media. But those who felt it was a bad idea had not been paying attention in Alonso's debut season in 2001, when he frequently had his uncompetitive Minardi in places with which the team were unfamiliar.

Once at Renault, a series of superb performances in his first season culminated in his maiden win at Hungary and removed any doubts about his potential.

Through the successful Renault years, though, were the first hints of what many argue is a flaw in Alonso's make-up. On the rare occasions when a team-mate has beaten him, he has not handled it well.

That became a real problem when he joined McLaren in 2007 alongside a novice Lewis Hamilton, who immediately proved to be at least as quick.

It turned into an epic, tense battle that see-sawed backwards and forwards, with virtually nothing to choose between them throughout the year.

Alonso felt McLaren were more supportive of Hamilton - and reasoned that only one of them could win the title in the face of a tough challenge from Ferrari drivers Raikkonen and Felipe Massa.

That person, he believed, should be him - partly because the team had employed him as their leader and partly because he felt Hamilton was ultimately too inexperienced.

Highlights - Singapore Grand Prix 2008 (UK users only)

The building pressure boiled over in Hungary, when Alonso threatened to go to the FIA with damaging information about the unfolding spy-gate scandal if they did not make Hamilton support him.

The incident ruptured the relationship between McLaren and Alonso for good, and badly damaged Alonso's reputation, to the extent that it has still not fully recovered. The whiff of potential involvement - never proven, always denied - in the 2008 Singapore race-fixing scandal has not helped on that front.

But despite being at loggerheads with McLaren, who did little to disguise the fact they wanted Hamilton to be champion, Alonso still took the title to the wire. Both he and Hamilton lost out to Raikkonen by a single point.

Alonso and McLaren agreed to separate one year into a three-year deal and despite talks with Red Bull he chose to go back to Renault and wait for a seat to open at Ferrari, which it did in 2010.

Had he gone for Red Bull, he might well now be a five-time champion - with the 2009, 2010 and 2011 titles under his belt as well.

Equally, had he better controlled his emotions in 2007 and stayed with McLaren, he might have won four titles in a row.

Alonso shrugs at this. "I have the titles I deserve," he says.

Not all would agree with that.

Alonso's team changes

2001 Minardi

2002-06 Renault

2007 McLaren

2008-09 Renault

2010-present Ferrari

Having taken the route he did, Alonso should have won a third crown in his debut season with Ferrari in 2010. Despite driving a car inferior to the Red Bull, he went into the final race leading the championship and lost it only because of a catastrophic strategy error by the team.

Alonso is the very essence of the sort of dynamic natural leader on which Ferrari thrive and the team seem a natural home for this proud, determined man. He is contracted there until 2016.

As for Alonso and Hamilton, the events of their season as team-mates left an indelible impression on both.

Neither troubles to disguise that he regards the other as his toughest rival.

Alonso praises Hamilton publicly. And it has recently come to light that while Alonso is happy for Vettel to join him at Ferrari in the future, he has vetoed Hamilton doing so.

Hamilton shares a similar high opinion of Alonso. "I love racing with Fernando, he's, like, the best driver here," he said after winning in Canada this year.

Number 11 - Alberto Ascari

Number 12 - Gilles Villeneuve

Number 13 - Nigel Mansell

Number 14 - Mika Hakkinen

Number 15 - Lewis Hamilton

Number 16 - Nelson Piquet

Number 17 - Emerson Fittipaldi

Number 18 - Jack Brabham

Number 19 – Graham Hill

Number 20 – Jochen Rindt