Former Minardi team boss Paul Stoddart revealed he had earmarked Fernando Alonso as a World Championship-winning talent in Formula 1, even before he made it to the top tier of motorsport.
Stoddart had been a rival to Alonso in Formula 3000, running the European Arrows team with fellow future F1 talent Mark Webber behind the wheel, while a teenage Alonso competed for Astromega in 2000.
He pointed to a drive in Belgium in which Alonso completely wiped the floor with the competition as the moment he realised how far he may be able to go in Formula 1, dominating the race and beating team-mate Marc Goossens by 15 seconds in equal machinery at Spa.
Alonso would later debut in Formula 1 for the well-liked but ultimately backmarking Minardi squad in 2001, becoming the sport’s youngest ever driver at that time, and while that win at Spa was his only one in F3000, it was clear from Stoddart’s experience that he raised plenty of eyebrows in his junior days.
“Being a competitor to him in Formula 3000, in 2000, I saw him drive at Spa that year, which was a masterpiece of driving,” Stoddart told Formula 1’s Beyond the Grid podcast.
“He’d come to my attention throughout that year in 2000, but he was never out of my mind after that brilliant race at Spa.
“But Fernando, in those days and still even when he was with us, was very quiet and very unassuming. He just got on and did the job.
“I watched that race and what I saw in him that day was ‘this is a guy that’s destined to be World Champion’, even before he’d even got in an F1 car. And I wasn’t wrong, except he should have had four [championships] – not two.”
Alonso would go into his debut race weekend in Australia with hardly any experience behind the wheel of his Minardi, but impressed throughout the weekend and took a 12th place finish come the chequered flag – a lofty position for the team at the time.
He impressed enough to earn a test driver role with Renault for 2002 with a view to being given a full-time drive with the team a year later, and Stoddart highlighted his final weekend with Minardi – a P11 finish at Suzuka – as another moment that solidified how highly he regarded Alonso’s talent in his own mind.
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“The first race [confirmed my opinion] – Melbourne 2001. A car that has had one straight line test for 50 kilometres. That’s all it had, and he wrings its neck and brings it home in 12th place,” Stoddart said.
“Now if you want another, it’s Suzuka in 2001. In those days we still had the Sunday morning warm-up and it was a tradition that if a driver was leaving, you took all the fuel out of the car and you let them have a glory lap.
“That was all agreed with me. I was called to a team principal’s meeting while Sunday warm-up was going on and for whatever reason, Fernando and his engineer had disagreed about him having a glory run.
“They put fuel in the car. So Fernando didn’t really get his glory lap – very few times had actually Fernando complained, but that was one of them.
“He came straight to me and I didn’t even know about it. He said, ‘I didn’t get mad, but they put fuel in my car.’ I said, ‘look, I can’t do anything about it. I’m really sorry, Fernando, I did say to give you the glory lap’. But Fernando wasn’t going to leave it at that.
“If anyone looks at the history of that race in Suzuka, Fernando put in 53 qualifying laps. If ever the world needed to know how good he was, look at the tapes!”