ROME, Oct 1 – At least until Lewis Hamilton came along to steal his thunder – and the championship limelight, Fernando Alonso, who Ferrari unveiled as their new driver Wednesday, was happily basking in the afterglow of two straight world championships and the status of youngest ever world champion.The Spaniard’s 2005 triumph with Renault saw him lift the crown aged just 24 – a mere six years after he first discovered Formula One as a spectator.
A second title followed 12 months later, but since then a career which had become plain sailing has had to negotiate choppier waters.
At least with this latest move Alonso, with 21 race wins under his belt to date, can afford to smile again, both professionally and financially.
"I’m very happy and proud to become a Ferrari driver. Driving the prancing Horse represents a dream for everyone who does this job and now I have the good fortune to be able to realise that," he told reporters after clinching a move to partner Felipe Massa next season.
Ferrari chief Stefano Domenicali believes he has pulled off a coup which has been accelerated in the wake of the Crashgate controversy which saw Renault persuade Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, ensuring the safety-car came out a moment which helped Alonso to get to the front of the grid – though he insists he had no knowledge of the Piquet shenanigans.
"We are sure these two great drivers will form the best possible association at the heart of a team such as ours," Domenicali said.
"We are very happy to welcome a driver who is a winner, who has shown his extraordinary worth in landing two world titles. Fernando has an exceptional personality," added Domenicali, who added Ferrari would ensure both racers have a highly competitive car.
Alonso, a national hero after he snatched Spain’s first ever drivers crown, was the man who had it all when he swapped Renault for McLaren only to find in Hamilton a rookie teammate who was not going to be overawed for one moment by the arrival of the champion.
A titanic tussle ensued and Hamilton gave even better than he got, just missing out on the title by a point with Alonso, who bagged seven wins in his first title season and then another seven in his second, found his nose put out of joint by his even younger rival.
The tousle-haired man from Oviedo, who spent four formative years in karting before making a Formula One debut in 2001 for Minardi in Melbourne, had bagged a Renault test driver’s slot by the following year and then became the youngest ever race winner aged just 22 and 27 days when he took the chequered flag at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2003.
He ended ths season sixth, then moved up to fourth the following year before finishing top of the heap while finding time to dub Michael Schumacher "the most unsporting driver in the history of Formula One."
With McLaren in a rut after failing to win a race in 2006, Alonso seemed the perfect choice with his generally cool demeanour and intelligent driving.
But the presence of Hamilton and the latter’s sheer, if still raw, talent unnerved him.
The Spaniard blocked the Briton in Hungary during qualifying, costing him pole before the Spaniard was penalised and Hamilton put back to the front of the grid.
Then a summer spy scandal erupted and saw McLaren thrown out of the championship.
Kimi Raikkonen – whom Alonso now replaces for the Prancing Horse stable – sneaked in to win the title with Hamilton second and Alonso third.
Given the simmering feud between Alonso and Hamilton the Spaniard left and rejoined Renault, adding a pair of wins in the 2008 season despite his car not being competitive early on, showing he had by no means lost his touch.
Pole Robert Kubica is now primed to leave BMW Sauber to become Alonso’s replacement at Renault as the Spaniard heads for pastures new on an annual salary of around 20 million euros.
He follows in the footsteps of late aristocratic compatriot Alfonso de Portago, who raced for Ferrari in the 1950s, while Marc Gene is a test driver at the stable.