Spanish GP Preview: El Conquistador

Conquistador, Spanish for conqueror, refers to any one of the leaders in the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of America and Asia. They were responsible for some of the greatest land explorations in history and the discovery of a new world, a world which they conquered and returned to Spain from with gold and silver.

Carlos Sainz Jr  Photo: Willtron

Carlos Sainz Jr Photo: Willtron

This weekend three Spanish drivers will compete in their home race. Alongside the veteran Fernando Alonso will be the two rookies, 24 year old Roberto Merhi and 20 year old Carlos Sainz Jr. As Alonso enters the final third of his career, Spanish fans will be looking for a new hero to cheer and for the first time, they have two genuinely convincing prospects. Both Merhi and Sainz have shown enough talent and speed in their junior careers to be taken seriously as F1 drivers and the future of F1 in Spain looks to be in safe hands.

This is the first evidence of the work accomplished by Alonso, F1’s Conquistador. Alonso truly was the first, and so far only Spaniard to conquer F1. Every national record belongs to him (except for that of youngest Spanish points scorer, which belongs to Jaime Alguersuari), and has done for some time. By the time he arrived in Barcelona for his second Spanish Grand Prix in 2003 he had already become the first Spanish pole sitter, the leading Spanish points scorer and had the most podiums for a Spanish driver. By the end of that year he had also become the first Spanish grand prix winner and two years later was also his nation’s first world champion and its most prolific race starter. That he did it quickly was as much a reflection of how little success Spain had enjoyed in F1’s (then) fifty year history as it was of his talent.

If the conquistadors of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries discovered a new world for Spain then Alonso has done the same for the country in motorsport. Before him there was little Spanish tradition in circuit racing. Aside from the two Group C2 World Sportscar Championships of Fermín Vélez – one of a small generation of Spanish circuit racers in the mid-to-late eighties – there was no major success to generate interest. In Spain motorsport meant motorbikes and in Alonso’s home region, the rural and green Asturias, it was all about rallying. Indeed, five of his early karting rivals became regional and national rally drivers, a stark contrast to the assortment of future champions Jenson Button raced in Britain at the same time. Formula One was a minority sport in Spain even as Alonso made his debut in 2001. As well as minimal newspaper reportage and little specialist coverage, there was no television coverage of the championship that season and his parents had to watch his races on Italian TV.

Alonsomania in evidence Photo: Salva Mendez

Alonsomania in evidence Photo: Salva Mendez

F1 is now huge in Spain. According to James Allen’s coverage of the sports analysis company, Repucom, over 98% of people in Spain know who Alonso is. There are hours of TV coverage, pages and pages in newspapers and in the four years after Alonso’s first victory, more than 10 new specialist magazines were launched to meet demand for the sport. In 2003 250,000 people came to watch Alonso finish second in Barcelona. That number went up every year until 2007 and although the economy has seen crowd sizes dwindle in recent years, they are strong when compared with the pre-Alonso years.

The exposure Alonso’s success has brought to the sport has created a new motorsports culture in Spain. That is most evident in the karting world where in recent years, Spanish drivers have been increasing in number and quality. Young drivers are achieving success on the international scene, with Spaniards winning recent KF3 titles in WSK and CIK championships. It’s no surprise that a number of good karters are emerging from Spain as the national karting scene continues to grow. A great amount of investment went into the sport in the 2000s, and a number of new tracks were constructed including the CIK/FIA approved venues Circuito Campillos (opened 2005) and Zuera (2007). That and the increased number of competitors, and therefore larger talent pool, led Vroom Magazine to label Spain ‘the new karting El Dorado’ in 2008.

It is all in great contrast to the state of Spanish karting thirty years ago, when there were just a handful of purpose built kart circuits. When Alonso first began karting in regional children’s championships, most races took place on makeshift circuits in carparks and town squares with the track laid out with hay bales. The few proper circuits at the time were badly maintained, with no kerbs and crumbling tarmac. Alonso, his father Jose Luis, and other karting dads actually helped to construct a small karting circuit in Asturias just to give the kids somewhere to race.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Spain is producing more quality drivers now. When Alonso was growing up his nation’s motorsport heroes all plied their trade on two wheels. Ricardo Tormo had won his second 50cc motorcycle championship the year Alonso was born. When he was three, Angel Nieto – widely considered to be amongst the greatest grand prix riders of all time – won the last of his “12+1” world championships, and when he was seven Jorge ‘Aspar’ Martinez won his third 80cc title as well as the 125cc title. There wasn’t much to inspire a young Spaniard to venture into four wheeled racing, whereas the most recent generation have had the means – great circuits and teams – and motive – a Spanish hero to emulate – to do it.

It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen before. Prior to Emerson Fittipaldi there was no Brazilian tradition in F1, and German drivers weren’t always as common as they have been since Michael Schumacher’s reign. Ten years after Michael Schumacher’s first world championship win, the number of German drivers went up from 1-3 per season to 4-7 between 2004 and 2013. In 2010 there were seven Germans on the grid, while in the decade before Schumacher’s 1991 debut there were just seven German drivers in total. That was Schumacher’s legacy. When a country has a great sportsman in a discipline in which it has never before excelled, there is always increased interest in that sport. That leads to more participation and a larger talent pool from which more stars can emerge.

Roberto Merhi  Photo: Morio

Roberto Merhi Photo: Morio

In Spain there have been comparisons drawn between Alonso and golfer Severiano Ballesteros and the aforementioned Angel Nieto. There is an emerging Alonso-mania line, a point in time after which any Spanish racing driver born is almost guaranteed to have been inspired by Alonso’s F1 career. A driver who was around nine to twelve years old when Alonso brought F1 to the Spanish masses would have been born in 1991 or after, and no doubt inspired by his achievements. Both Merhi and Sainz fit that profile. Indeed, Sainz, who is the son of a two-time World Rally champion, has said himself that it was Alonso who inspired him to choose the open-wheel path that took him to F1. We should expect more post Alonso-mania line drivers to come out of Spain and make it to F1.

Alongside Merhi and Sainz, Spanish hopes rest with the promising Alex Palou who begins his debut GP3 campaign this weekend. He fits the profile of the post Alonso-mania driver. He was born in 1997, he comes from a non-motorsport family (unlike 90% of Spanish F1 drivers so far), began karting when Alonso was at the height of his success in 2006, and has enjoyed a career that shares parallels with Alonso’s. He won four Spanish karting championships and captured a couple of titles in international competition. In 2013 he received a Banco Santander Scholarship – something else he can thank Alonso’s career for – which helped him move into car racing last year with Campos, the team Alonso made his own debut with in 1999. He won three races on his way to third place in last year’s EuroFormula Open Championship and has been strong in GP3 testing. It remains to be seen if his recovery from a broken collarbone he suffered three weeks ago will slow him down, but all signs suggest he is a future Spanish star.

With three excellent drivers already promising much and likely more to come, maybe Alonso won’t be the only Spanish world champion for long.

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