Spanish delight

AP

Fernando Alonso's task, by many accounts, was as tough as Schumacher's. And the Spaniard brought to Interlagos all the race craft he had showcased during his triumph in the 2005 World Championship, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

He almost had his moment stolen from him: Felipe Massa, in Brazilian overalls rather than customary scarlet, celebrated like an underage reveller in the Rio Carnival. Massa had just won his home Grand Prix at Interlagos. Fernando Alonso, who had poked his Renault's nose past the line before anyone else's at his home Grand Prix earlier this season, would have understood Massa's sentiments.

But, the Spaniard, with a pirate's mane tamed by a blue bandana when not stuffed into a helmet, wouldn't be denied. The youngest-ever Grand Prix winner, the youngest-ever World Champion also became just the eighth driver in Formula One history — after Ascari, Brabham, Fangio, Hakkinen, Prost, Schumacher, and Senna — to nail back-to-back titles.

"We only needed one point," said the 25-year-old, who debuted with Minardi in 2001. "The important thing was to become champion for the second consecutive time. It's unbelievable." Then, Alonso let the world in on something a little more revealing: "This has been a very close season. It's been good to fight with him (Michael Schumacher). To become champion when Michael is still on the track has more value. I'm fortunate that I've won two when he has been around."

Clearly a departure from when he had said, a shade petulantly, that "(it) doesn't mean the title will not mean the same after he'll (Schumacher) retire. No matter how much the fans love him, the world title will mean as much to me as it does now, even with Michael out of the picture."

Alonso and Schumacher were locked in a most fascinating battle for supremacy — a battle that brought back memories of the Schumacher-Hakkinen and Prost-Senna jousts for the purity of racing seen — and Alonso, frustrated by Schumacher's late surge in a clearly superior Ferrari, had been growing a touch testy. He insinuated that "commercial and political interests" in the sport were allowing the German and his team to "go over the line of what is acceptable".

Needle notwithstanding, the rivalry had given the sport, ravaged by the fiasco of the 2005 US Grand Prix, a shot in the arm: it was therefore befitting that the rivalry was settled in a high quality race on an exacting track. Equally befitting that Alonso, after the race, said it was a pleasure to race against Schumacher, and that he and all the other drivers wished the seven-time world champion well in retirement.

Schumacher's coruscating charge at Interlagos after slipping to 17th following Fisichella nicking the Ferrari back tyre like a blunt razor blade was the stuff of legend, 15 years in the making. His moves to nip past Fisichella and Raikkonen — who'll succeed the great man at Ferrari — braking late, and slipstreaming past showed that at 37, his instincts, his reflexes, and his technique were intact. Alonso, who finished second to seal the championship, was no less brilliant. But in a less showy manner. His task, by many accounts, was as tough as Schumacher's. "If I start from the front of the grid then I'll be drawn into a fight, which normally would be fun, but for this race may not be a good thing where all I need to do is finish in the points," Alonso had said.

The erstwhile wonderkid needed to bring to Interlagos all the race craft he had showcased during his triumph in the 2005 World Championship, when he had won with a slower but admittedly more reliable car than Raikkonen's McLaren. He did just that. He didn't try to squeeze past Jarno Trulli off the start grid; he lapped quick enough to pip Raikkonen courtesy a pit stop; he defended well, choosing the right racing lines, against the flying Jenson Button; most crucially, he didn't suffer from what Hakkinen once termed "brain fade", the slip-up of the mental cogs when most required.

In short, Alonso demonstrated just why Niki Lauda, three-time world champion, felt compelled to say Alonso, who started with a pedal car as a toddler like many other drivers, was "perfect, the most complete performer in Formula One today and thoroughly deserving. The more pressure he has the better he delivers. I've never seen any driver of that age so completely composed and consistent. I cannot find a single weakness from any viewpoint."

The G-word was being bandied about a great deal this past race weekend. Schumacher — pondering the last time he'd twiddle a thumb to downshift — was undoubtedly among the greatest of all time. How did Alonso stack up? What does it take to become great in this sport? Did technology equalise things and take genius out of the equation? "Don't you believe that," the astute Frank Williams told Guardian's Frank Keating nearly 20 years back. His words still ring true. "There are 27 guys on that grid and it really is a question of the quick and the slow. Some are born quick. Honestly, some have mountains more talent."

Williams, who was managing Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell at that time, went on to delineate the difference between speed and skill. "Speed is speed. Raw, untarnished stuff. Skill is steering a Grand Prix car through, say, a right-hander at 188.5mph, not lose one inch of control on your line — and do the same for 80 laps. Car control, pretty special."

The season of 2005 proved Alonso had scary car control. Granted, Formula One cars have come a long way since they needed to be steering-corrected on a straight, but Alonso's record of just one driving error — the crash in Canada — was special. 2006 saw more of the same with six wins in the first nine races before the Schumacher revival. In a final twist of fate, the motor-racing gods, so benevolent with Schumacher, chose to throw a mechanical failure at him in the crunch race at Suzuka — Ferrari's first engine blowout in five years. And Alonso, to his surprise, was a shoo-in for the world championship.

Schumacher's exit will doubtless weaken Formula One. But, new fault lines are emerging: Alonso will exchange Renault's blue-and-yellow for McLaren's black-and-silver; Raikkonen, who disappointed in an under-par car, will turn out in blood red, and partner the talented Mr. Massa; Button, straggly stubble and all, will continue testing over the winter with Honda, hoping to begin 2007 at the pace he finished 2006 with.

"The full terror and the full reward of this fantastic game, motor-racing, are given only to those who bring to the car talent honed by obsessive practice into great skill, a fiercely competitive will, and a high intelligence with the flagellating sensitivity that so often accompanies it," wrote Ken Purdy in his masterpiece on Stirling Moss, who Juan Manuel Fangio called the "best in my time". Alonso has shown he has got what it takes — and then some. For Formula One's sake, the pretenders — some young, some not so — need to push a determined pedal.

ALONSO FACTFILE Name: Fernando Alonso Date of birth: 29/07/81 Place of birth: Oviedo (Spain) Career details: Kart

Spanish junior champion (1993, 1994, 1995). World junior champion (1996)

F3000 Debut: 2000 Formula One Debut: Australia 2001 (Minardi) First win: Hungary 2003 (Renault)

Teams: Minardi (2001), Renault (2002 test driver), Renault (2003-2006), McLaren-Mercedes (starting from 2007)

Formula One honours

World champion 2005 and 2006 (Renault); 15 wins; 15 pole positions; 88 races; 361 points.

In 2006: 7 wins, 6 pole positions, 7 second places, 2 fifth places, 2 retirements.