Alonsomania: The rise and rise of Fernando Alonso
He is the youngest Formula One champion of the world. But Fernando Alonso is not quite the champagne-guzzling playboy we might expect from winners in the 'sport of kings'. Graham Keeley profiles 'Magic Alonso'.
His nickname comes from his prowess on the cards table, not behind the wheel.
Fernando Alonso celebrates victory in traditional style
If all goes well, he will claim his crown on Sunday at the Brazilian Grand Prix becoming, at 24, the youngest ever champion of 'the sport of kings'. Brazil's own racing hero Emerson Fittipaldi claimed the title at the age of 25.
For Alonso it will be the pinnacle of a life devoted to speed.
But though we have come to think of Formula One drivers as playboys, surrounded by models and living the high-life, the reality is very different.
Alonso leads a quiet life dedicated to becoming number 1 in F1 and is perhaps a symbol of how — at least some — modern sportsmen have cleaned up their acts.
If you thought Alonso would be a champagne-quaffing modern day James Hunt, then think again.
But it would have been all too easy to slip into that mould.
Since it became clear that he is the first Spanish driver to have a chance of winning the F1 title, 'alonsomania' has taken off in his own country.
Now he is just relieved to return to his home in Oxford, UK, near the HQ of Renault, for whom he drives, because few people recognise him there.
"I prefer it. It's like going to paradise," he said. "I can live my life. It's much more relaxed and perfect between races."
*quote1*Wherever he goes in Spain, he is pursued by the paparazzi.
"If I want to go out to dinner in Spain I have to choose a restaurant where I know the owner, so that he can find me a table out of the way," he explained.
"Then I have to come in by the back door or go through the kitchen. It is all too much, so I only go for one or two days a month."
Indeed, in a recent interview with Vogue magazine, Alonso's world seemed an impossible series of demands on his time.
The interview was conducted at the Billionaire Club, home to the rich and famous on the island of Sardinia owned by Renault team managing director Flavio Briatore.
Briatore is a real-life playboy with luxury homes in Kenya and London, and a series of models for girlfriends.
Alonso's army of fans go wild
Born in Oviedo, in northern Spain, he won his first competition at the age of seven behind the wheel of a go-kart which was a present from his father José Luis.
From there he competed in regional competitions and, eight years later, he went on to win the karting world championship in Italy.
Six years later, at the age of 20, he was signed by Renault which was preparing to return to F1.
In 2002, he was a test driver but took over when Jenson Button was shown the door.
The next year, he came second in the Spanish Grand Prix after Michael Schumacher. Was he about to take the crown of the all-conquering German?
In August 2003, he accomplished his dream by winning the Hungarian Grand Prix – the youngest driver ever to do so.
He has been compared with the late Jim Clark.
Clark, a quiet Scottish farmer, who stamped his mark on Formula One for almost a decade during the 1960s, exerted similar mastery over his frustrated rivals.
*quote2*For many this coolness under extreme pressure marks him out as a true champion.
"I think Alonso has demonstrated his ability to take on the best of the championship contenders," said the three-time former world champion, Jackie Stewart.
Alonso shrugs it off, saying: "It's my character. I have always been very calm on the outside. I'm not too stressed now just because I'm in formula one. For me, tomorrow will be another day whether I finish first or last. I have to do the maximum and I cannot ask any more from myself.