This weekend, Formula 1 arrives at the Catalunya circuit for the Spanish Grand Prix. It is regarded as the start of the European season, an expression that dates back to the time when the majority of races took place on the “Old Continent” after a brief prelude and before a short finale further afield. That is no longer the case, with only eight of the twenty races on this year’s extremely long calendar taking place in Europe. Nevertheless, after a hectic start to 2012, with four Grands Prix taking place in the space of just five weeks, the Spanish weekend does represent a sort of new beginning for the twelve teams on the grid. It also comes hot on the heels of the first in-season test session in Formula 1 for a couple of years. Last week, Scuderia Ferrari and ten other teams spent three days testing at the Mugello circuit as an important build up to the Spanish weekend and the rest of the season. The Prancing Horse’s difficulties with its F2012 have been well documented and the test was therefore a valuable chance to assess all the work that everyone in Maranello has been putting in to improve the car for the forthcoming races.
Apart from the updates evaluated at Mugello, as well as further new components due to arrive in Barcelona, Fernando Alonso knows he can also count on the intangible benefits of racing in front of a home crowd this weekend, when he will be fighting to close the relatively small ten point gap to the leader of the Drivers’ Championship. “Racing in Spain is something unique for me that I only have twice a year in Barcelona and Valencia,” said the man from Oviedo. “It’s a sensation I enjoy a great deal, with the support you feel from the people in the grandstand, indeed with the support you feel from the whole country, when you arrive at the airport or when you see the news on the TV. I get a lot of attention over that weekend, with everyone wishing you the best. It’s a very nice experience that makes it a special weekend. The support of the public is important, because when you feel all that emotion flowing towards you and the team, I think it makes you pay extra attention to all the details relating to the race car, its set-up and all the preparation for the race itself.”
Alonso has said that, as a first step on the road to being totally competitive again, this weekend the F2012 has to be good enough to make it through comfortably to the Top Ten qualifying shoot out on Saturday afternoon. Maybe the home crowd can help: “It makes you give the maximum and you get a bit extra for that one timed lap at your home Grand Prix because perhaps you give everything that little bit more attention,” maintains Fernando. “When you are driving the car on track you notice the fans and their support, especially the first laps you do in Free Practice on Friday and Saturday. It’s a bit more relaxed then, so you have time to wave to the grandstand and see all the support, the flags and you can feel the emotion. Then there’s also the slowing down lap after the race on Sunday when, whatever the result I have had, you can sense the people are very happy, having enjoyed a great weekend of motorsport, off the track as well as on, because there are a lot of activities around the circuit itself. I think everyone enjoys the experience of being at the track and of course, every year for some people it is the first time they have experienced seeing a Grand Prix live and, as a driver you share that experience with them.”
Alonso has only won his home race once, but he has two victories at Monza, the last in 2010 at the wheel of a Ferrari, the home race for the team. He sees similarities in the feelings these home wins generated. “I think the two wins brought similar emotions that you don’t get from other races. Probably, Barcelona in 2006 was the best feeling I’ve had from winning a race, getting that victory was something special, feeling the happiness of the crowd. After all the tension of working hard throughout the weekend, if you win on the Sunday, then all the adrenalin comes out and it is a really special feeling. I think it is the same with Monza, where you are aware of what it means to the team and you feel the passion of the tifosi. When you win in Monza, you realise you are part of something very big in this sport. That makes you very proud, racing for Ferrari. Between the two, maybe Spain is more emotional for me, seeing all the Spanish flags in the grandstands and there is a special feeling inside, because it is your country and it makes me proud to be Spanish. In some ways I consider myself a flag bearer for Spain, because in motorsport in recent history, there have not been many Spanish drivers who have had the opportunity to get on the podium, to win races and championships, so there is a feeling that all the Spanish people who love motorsport regard me as the guy to follow, the guy to support. Throughout my career I have always raced with the Spanish flag on my helmet and I am so proud to represent Spain all over the world.”
If there is one sound more persistent than the noise of the engines around the Catalunya track, it is the sound of the crowd endlessly chanting, “Alonso, Alonso…” The man himself admits that popularity does have its consequences: “There is a small price to pay for racing at home and being popular,” he explains. “It does create some stress and it does not allow you to relax properly, as there are always photos to be taken, autographs to sign and extra commitments, inside the paddock for the sponsors and outside the paddock with the fans. You just have to manage to deal with it as best you can.” While Alonso expects the home crowd will give him a boost, he evidently feels he should do as much as possible for the fans in return, to make them feel closer to the action. “This is the first time I go to the Spanish GP as an adopter of social media, such as the website, Facebook and Twitter and I feel it brings me a little bit closer to the fans,” he reveals. “It is not easy for the public to get an understanding from the inside of our work, our preparation and the races, so if they follow me on Twitter, they can find out what I’m thinking on Saturday night and what I had for breakfast on Sunday morning before the race. I am happy to share this with them, as I think it is interesting for them to understand what is routine work for us. I think they will enjoy following it, especially my thoughts from the Spanish Grand Prix, as there is more going on at my home race in terms of commitments than at many other races.”
On the top step of the podium here in 2006, Fernando has yet to win this event in a Ferrari, unlike team-mate Felipe Massa, who was victorious in 2007, one year before the Prancing Horse’s last Spanish win to date which came courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen. The Scuderia has won a further nine times in Spain.