Ask team bosses to name their preferred driver pairing and Alonso is invariably on the list. A couple of years ago, the grid was asked to vote on the driver they most feared and Alonso overwhelmingly got the nod (by 18 to four, with suspicions that the quartet listed themselves). Hang about during FIA autograph sessions and the longest queues form at McLaren’s stand.
Yet Sebastian Vettel, with four, boasts twice the number of world titles, while Lewis Hamilton has three and has every chance of at least equalling Vettel. Given that 12 more points – just three eighth places – over the 2007, 2010 and 2011 seasons would have lifted Alonso’s title tally to five, alongside Juan-Manuel Fangio and behind only Michael Schumacher on F1’s all-time list, does Alonso believe he underachieved or has been badly served by statistics?
“I think it’s far more than I ever dreamed,” he replies earnestly after brief introspection, those famous brows furrowed and dark eyes aglint. “My father worked in a factory, my mother [sold perfume] in a shopping mall. I became a Formula 1 driver after winning the world championship in go-karts.
“I’m here after 15, 16 years in Formula 1 with a good career, with two world championships, with some grand prix victories driving for the best teams in the world. So many things came into my life that 25 years ago [were] impossible to dream, and having now a good future hopefully with some good economic situation, I’d say, because Formula 1 is well paid.”
McLaren racing director Eric Boullier, who guided Kimi Räikkönen’s winning return at Lotus, believes an innate ability to focus on the tasks in hand is Alonso’s biggest asset. “Maybe what impresses me most about Fernando is he has no distraction in life – nothing,” says Boullier. “Just racing and winning. Nothing else.
"Even today, he’s 34, and even if he starts to think about his future, he’s still focused on just winning. On track, it is funny, because this is his only life goal. And as soon as he starts to be competitive on track, the animal is coming out. He doesn’t give up anything – anything. It’s unbelievable.”
This relentlessness only allows Alonso to home in on priorities, to push McLaren just when the entire team desperately needs internal pressure as it regroups for the future.
Boullier says: “He’s the guy who tells you: ‘We need that, we need this, we need that’ until he gets what he wants, because he knows it’s better for the team, for the car and for himself. He is a complete driver: driving the team, never be second, never get it wrong.
“You [can] have 20, 30, 40 different topics which you have to fix, but he has the capacity to select the top five. Immediately. Then he will tell you: ‘Fix this first’. Out of 40 topics, this would fix 60% of the problem.”
Still, after 16 years, 262 grand prix starts, 32 grand prix victories and two world titles, Fernando Alonso Díaz is far from done with F1 – or, for that matter, winning – believing his best is still to come.
“While you’re waiting for the moment to be competitive and to win, you keep learning,” he says. “You put everything on the hard disk, all the lessons, all the things you are doing, because [when] arrives the opportunity, you will be more prepared and ready. I’m waiting for that opportunity to show everyone that I’m not the same as two or three years ago; I’m much better.”