Ex-Minardi Formula 1 team boss Paul Stoddart has recalled how he believed Fernando Alonso was destined to become World Champion even before he graduated to the premier class.
Stoddart ran the Minardi outfit between 2001-05 before selling the cash-strapped backmarker team to the Red Bull group, where it was rebranded as Toro Rosso, now AlphaTauri.
During his time at the helm, the Australian became Alonso’s first-ever F1 team boss when the Spaniard made his bow in 2001.
However, Stoddart recounts how Alonso’s extraordinary talent first came to his attention when he was competing against his European Arrows team in F3000 during a weekend at the challenging Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
“Being a competitor to him in Formula 3000, in 2000, I saw him drive at Spa that year, which was a masterpiece of driving,” Stoddart told Formula 1’s Beyond the Grid podcast.
“He’d come to my attention throughout that year in 2000, but he was never out of my mind after that brilliant race at Spa.
“But Fernando, in those days and still even when he was with us, was very quiet and very unassuming. He just got on and did the job.
“I watched that race and what I saw in him that day was ‘this is a guy that’s destined to be World Champion’, even before he’d even got in an F1 car. And I wasn’t wrong, except he should have had four [championships] – not two.”
Stoddart eventually acquired Alonso’s services when he purchased the Minardi team, instantly handing the now-two-time F1 champion his debut in Australia.
The Oviedo-born racer had been loaned out by Renault to the flailing Italian squad to gather experience competing in the highest echelon of single-seater racing.
Alonso immediately impressed to wrangle a car significantly off the pace to 12th place in his maiden outing, confirming Stoddart’s earlier impression that he was encountering a special talent on his hands.
However, Stoddart chooses to remember a performance later in the year in Japan to capture a glimpse of how Alonso was already beginning to establish himself as the relentless race day performer he has been viewed as throughout his F1 career.
“The first race [confirmed my opinion] – Melbourne 2001. A car that has had one straight line test for 50 kilometres. That’s all it had, and he wrings its neck and brings it home in 12th place,” Stoddart explained.
“Now if you want another, it’s Suzuka in 2001. In those days we still had the Sunday morning warm-up and it was a tradition that if a driver was leaving, you took all the fuel out of the car and you let them have a glory lap.
“That was all agreed with me. I was called to a team principal’s meeting while Sunday warm-up was going on and for whatever reason, Fernando and his engineer had disagreed about him having a glory run.
“They put fuel in the car. So Fernando didn’t really get his glory lap – very few times had actually Fernando complained, but that was one of them.
“He came straight to me and I didn’t even know about it. He said, ‘I didn’t get mad, but they put fuel in my car.’ I said, ‘look, I can’t do anything about it. I’m really sorry, Fernando, I did say to give you the glory lap’. But Fernando wasn’t going to leave it at that.
“If anyone looks at the history of that race in Suzuka, Fernando put in 53 qualifying laps. If ever the world needed to know how good he was, look at the tapes!”
Having failed to taste championship success since his successive title double with Renault in 2005 and ’06, Alonso has moved to Aston Martin with the long-term aim of eventually ending up in a position where he can fight for that third crown.
Alonso’s stint with the Silverstone-based outfit has started extremely well, with the ex-Alpine racer scoring two podiums in the opening two races in a vastly more competitive Aston Martin package
He currently sits third in the Drivers’ standings, behind the dominant Red Bull pairing, to mark his best start to a season since 2012.
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