Multi-million dollar Valencia street circuit a stark reminder that Alonso is still F1’s star attraction.
It was a welcoming gift fit for a king: five and half kilometres of sweeping high speed race track, carving its way through Valencia’s vibrant, sprawling cultural metropolis.
No dollar was left unspent on this the latest addition to the ever-expanding Formula One itinerary; a commercially-led response to the wave of Spanish interest that carried Fernando Alonso to back-to-back world championships, ending years of Ferrari-Schumacher dominance.
Just as the meteoric success of Schumacher warranted an extra stop at his homeland, so the baton is passed to Alonso with this weekend’s inaugural dash around the Juan Carlos I Marina branded as the European Grand Prix, allowing Barcelona to retain the rights to honour its hero earlier in the year.
It’s a fitting homage; after all, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Alonso is the only driver on the grid to have triumphed in the Schumacher era, seeing off the German for the championship not once, but twice.
And as Formula One continues to strut its stuff in the global marketplace it is encouraging to see that the pull of a double world champion is still every bit as strong as the commercial temptations presented by these new venues.
“I’m very proud and now with a second race, it’s something that I was not expecting three or four years ago, for sure,” admits Alonso. “We cannot forget that in 2003, when I started winning races with Renault and being on the podium, national TV was not broadcasting the races live.”
“Now, in 2008, we have fans at tests over the winter and we have full grandstands at the two Spanish Grands Prix and two races here in Spain, so there has been a big change in Spain and all the Spanish people about Formula One. I am in the middle of everything, so I am very happy.”
The stage was set then for an explosive second home-coming as the F1 entourage hit the track for the opening day of practice at the new street circuit.
The man from Oviedo didn’t disappoint. On a day that others struggled with the dust and wind kicked up by the Mediterranean, Alonso, the champion that he is, had no such qualms. Spurred on by his partisan crowd, the Spaniard vaulted to the top of the timesheets in the afternoon, winding up P2 overall, a whisker shy of pace-setter Kimi Raikkonen. Though not before getting fined 10,000 euros for crossing the white line on the entrance to the pits.
The highly sought-after Renault driver who is rumoured to be on his way to Honda for 2009 before pulling on the red overalls at Ferrari maybe having a less than desired year with the Enstone squad, but encouraging performances of late, including third place at Hungary, have left him knocking on the doors of the front-runners.
Any other driver and such recent success would have left them boyued ahead of Saturday’s all crucial qualifying session. Not so of Alonso. The 28-year-old was his usual reserved self having spent much of the day fending off the rumours that he was Honda-bound for 2009.
“We kept to our programme today, which was to complete maximum mileage and verify our simulations,” he said. “The circuit is both interesting and challenging, and the final sector is definitely my favourite and quite exciting from the cockpit.”
“The initial results from today are encouraging, but we must now continue working hard to have a solid qualifying session tomorrow and ensure a good level of performance in the race.”
He said as much before planting his car on the front-row of grid at Barcelona.
For the second time around Spain awaits, and expectsâ€¦