Fernando Alonso has been in the game a long time. He first got behind the wheel – albeit of a go-kart – at the age of three. He made his Formula 1 debut over 15 years ago. But still, approaching his 36th birthday, the two-time World Championship winner is showing no signs of slowing down – on or off the track.
‘I think I’m a little more calm than I once was,’ the Spaniard tells me. ‘A lot more experienced, too. But still as hungry as ever. The day I get strapped into a Grand Prix car and don’t feel the desire to compete, that will be the day I stop. But I’m a long way from that point at the moment.’
Formula 1 stands out from the sporting crowd when it comes to competitors. Whereas athletes and footballers bow out before they hit forty, it can be years before racing drivers hit their stride.
‘There’s two main reasons for that,’ explains Alonso. ‘Firstly, the chance of injury is thankfully less – you see a lot of footballers struggling to recover from injuries in the later stages of their careers, and once you can’t play to your full ability, it’s time to look elsewhere. In grand prix racing, we’re fortunate that it’s not the same kind of high-impact sport. Although, when impacts in F1 do occur, they’re usually considerable!
"The day I get strapped into a Grand Prix car and don’t feel the desire to compete, that will be the day I stop"
‘But also, it’s a lot harder to break into Formula 1 than it is to break into soccer. It takes years of careful preparation to become a grand prix driver – although, of course, there are a few notable exceptions to that rule.’
One such exception is Alonso’s current racing partner, Stoffel Vandoorne who, four years ago, was signed up to McLaren’s Young Driver Programme. But, despite the decade between them, Alonso and Vandoorne’s professional relationship doesn’t seem to display any of the animosity that typifies other teams.
‘I’ve known Stoffel for a couple of years now,’ comments Alonso, ‘and I’ve watched his career in the junior series with great interest. It’s always interesting to have a rookie driver alongside you in the other car – they have a different approach to the job than somebody with more experience. But that’s refreshing: they ask questions and make demands that you perhaps wouldn’t think of asking when you’ve been in the job for a long time.
‘And, frankly, he’s also an extremely good guy – straight and honest – which is very good for the team atmosphere.’
Alonso may be a stalwart of the sport, but he is anything but stuck in his ways. In fact, the 35-year old tells me that another long-time racer, Jenson Button, recently gave him some invaluable advice.
‘Jenson told me that ‘you should never stop learning’. And that’s true. There’s always something new to learn. This year, for instance, we have new regulations, new ways of doing things, so every race will be about maximising your learning and understanding, and deploying it to the best of your ability.
"It’s always interesting to have a rookie driver alongside you in the other car – they have a different approach to the job than somebody with more experience"
‘And I’ve changed my style for a lot of different reasons over the years. One of the roles of a racing driver is to be able to adapt and manage across a spectrum of different variables – to be a little more aggressive, or gentle, or considerate. I think back to 2005 or 2006, when the cars were very different – different tyres, different engines, refuelling – and the techniques that you used in those days are a huge contrast to what we’ve had for the past few years.
‘Happily, the new regulations for 2017 seem to give back a lot of those old feelings: the need to push, to be aggressive, and really work the tyre. And that plays a role in the strategy: it’s nice to be able to push for the whole race, and be less concerned about tyrewear, or fuel saving. But, like I say, the challenge is to always be adaptable. You can’t, for instance, only be a specialist on a certain type of track, or a particular type of corner, or only in the dry. A world champion has to master all those disparate elements.’
But, even though automotive technology has arguably made things easier on the track, the life of an F1 driver off the track has become considerably more challenging.
‘I think social media has changed a lot of things for people in the public eye – some for better, some for worse. You look at racing drivers, or Hollywood actors from the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, and you can see how they’re able to ‘hide’ behind a public persona, or shield themselves from unwanted attention.
"You can’t only be a specialist on a certain type of track, or a particular type of corner, or only in the dry. A world champion has to master all those disparate elements"
‘That’s all different nowadays. But you can’t go back, so it’s important to embrace the new methods. I use Twitter and Instagram to show people the interesting things in my life – and I don’t lose sight of the fact that, despite being a grand prix driver for nearly 20 years, there’s always something interesting or exceptional to experience.
‘Also, Formula 1 is a mindset,’ Alonso adds, ‘both in the terms that you need to embrace it fully and allow it to take over your whole life, and you either flourish at that, or struggle; and in the sense that it rewards experience and preparation.
‘You’re always preparing. You wake up on the morning after the final race of the season, and it’s not an ending – it’s a beginning. It’s merely the first day of the new season. You never stop working on your fitness, your diet, your experience, your preparation.
‘Okay, you might have a week off when you can rest, but you can’t let your standards drop – ever.’
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