x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Alonso's footprints in Spain can be blueprint for UAE

The Ferrari driver captured the attention of a nation when he first took to the track back in 2001, observes Gary Meenaghan.

Sebastian Vettel leads the way at the street circuit in Valencia yesterday, with Fernando Alonso in third place.
Sebastian Vettel leads the way at the street circuit in Valencia yesterday, with Fernando Alonso in third place.

If the UAE wants to become a true Formula One nation, it need look no further than Spain for a blueprint.

At the end of the 20th century, Formula One was virtually unknown to Spaniards and yet now, with the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona and the European Grand Prix here in Valencia, the country appears on the year-long calendar more than any other.

And the reason for such exponential growth is simple: Spain produced a champion.

"He changed the sport in this country," said Mark Webber when asked about the effect of 29-year-old Fernando Alonso. "What he did, no [man on] four wheels before him had managed; he did a good job."

Spain has always enjoyed more of a motorbike culture with drivers such as Alex Criville and Dani Pedrosa dominating their respective racing series.

However, when Alonso joined Formula One's Minardi racing team in 2001, slowly the balance began to shift.

"When I was a kid, Formula One was not a sport we followed," Alonso said.

"I never saw a race on TV in my life until I was 17 or 18.

"I was already in Formula Nissan, so when I was racing in go-karts I never saw a Formula One race; some news at the end of the year, who was world champion, who was not world champion, but obviously we didn't know any of the names that were racing."

Jaime Alguersuari, Toro Rosso's 21-year-old Spanish driver, was racing go-karts when Alonso won his first of two world championship titles in 2005.

While he admitted he "never thought about joining Formula One", his compatriot's achievement convinced him reaching the pinnacle of motorsport was not impossible.

"When Fernando came and he won both titles, it changed TV coverage and now there are more drivers coming up and developing," he said.

Not only does Spain have two drivers in the field, but as of 2010 it also boasts a team in the form of Hispania Racing.

Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan, the Hispania drivers, may not be Spanish - Liuzzi is Italian, while Karthikeyan was the sport's first Indian driver - but they understand the importance of promoting the sport, as well as their fledgling team, in their adopted country.

This week in Valencia, they have been interacting with supporters through several initiatives, including a paella cooking class and a jet ski race.

"Here is our home race, so it is important that we socialise with our guests and fans," Liuzzi said. "With the boss being from Madrid, at both races we get lots of good support."

Karthikeyan said: "Obviously we are a small team, but the Spanish are pretty well educated on Formula One because of Fernando, so we have decent support and once we start to perform better the fan base will become bigger too."

Valencia, since joining the calendar in 2008 - largely off the back of Alonso's popularity - has struggled to fill the temporary stands surrounding the city's street circuit.

More promotional work was undertaken this year and yesterday's attendance appeared to have improved.

As Alonso passed the chequered flag in second place behind Sebastian Vettel, securing his first podium in the city, a throng of Ferrari-red Tifosi proudly performed a standing ovation.

"There's a lot of passion for Formula One in Spain," said Alonso, who signed his initial contract with Ferrari in Valencia and signed an extension until 2016 earlier this year in Barcelona.

"Every time I go out to a restaurant or the cinema, there are crazy people around me, but it's nice to have all of that support.

"I raced for a Valencian team in Formula Nissan, so I have quite a close relationship with this town. It has always been a nice feeling here.

"This is a circuit where the attendance is not great in past years and there has been a lot of effort from everybody to get maximum fans this weekend.

"Now, I think [Formula One] is quite popular in Spain. People love this sport.

"Generally, I think in go-karts and in different categories now there are many drivers, so I'm sure that from now on the future will be much better for Spain and I'm happy because it's obviously my sport and something that I love. I'm happy that the country shares this love as well."