F1 Star Fernando Alonso On His Championship Career And Being A ‘Drive To Survive’ Villain

The “Spanish Samurai” reflects on his inaugural season with Aston Martin, his long career in motorsports, and the roots of his famously dark humor.

(Aston Martin)

In the apex motorsport of Formula One, only the best drivers in the world stalk the grid. But even among these zenith racers, there are those who rise above even the cream to legendary status. And even though there’s plenty of tread still left in his Pirellis, the air that one Fernando Alonso breathes is rarefied.

Consider the Spanish driver created new world records like the youngest pole-sitter, youngest Grand Prix winner, and youngest World Champion ever when he stole the crown from one Michael Schumacher in 2005.

The following year he went on to win the World Drivers’ Championship again, making him the youngest two-time Champion in the sport’s history. Mere inches cost Alonso additional World Championships in 2010, 2012, and 2013.

Outside of Formula One, the Spanish driver crushed the even more strenuous endurance circuit, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, in 2018 and 2019, the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2019, and claiming the FIA World Endurance Championship that same year—making him the only driver in history to win both F1 and WEC World Championships.

At 42, Alonso is the oldest driver on the grid—and also possibly the wisest. In 2023 he recognized that despite its 7th-place showing the newly-revived Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant F1 team had serious potential, and soon jumped ship from Alpine—a move thought insane by many followers of the sport. Then he promptly racked up six podiums in the first eight races, delighting F1 fans worldwide with one of the most shocking starts to any recent season.

(Aston Martin)

“Can I predict more podium finishes? No.” Mike Krack, Aston Martin Armco Cognizant’s F1 Team Principal, told us after the 2023 season opener in Bahrain. “In a highly competitive environment such as F1 you cannot and should not make such predictions, but we always take things one race at a time.”

Little did he imagine then that Alonso and his team would go on to score eight more podiums overall, moving within several points of third- place Lewis Hamilton, to write one of the most unexpected headlines of the 2023 season.

Alonso placed an impressive fourth for the 2023 season, earning more podiums than Lewis Hamilton who squeezed into third place with just 28 points more than Alonso, alas.

We sat down with the legendarily fearless driver—who has a large samurai tattoo on his back—to discuss his inaugural season with Aston Martin, his 20-plus year career in motorsports, and the roots of his famously dark humor.

Surely in your prolific career you’ve started seasons bemoaning that you had an underperforming car. How exciting was it to start 2023 knowing your Aston Martin Cognizant AMR23 would be competitive?

It’s very important because the season is very long. There are ten months ahead of you, where it changes completely if you fight for the top 5, top 10 or if you’re at the back of the gates. So when we realized we had a fast car that was a game-changer for everyone as a team. Just the mentality, the spirit, the atmosphere in the team, the energy, it was incredible. That was something that we really maximized in the first couple of races with a lot of podiums. And I think this is something that we want to do next year, as well.

(Aston Martin)

You started the season off brilliantly, then fell off a bit. At some point do you have to shift your thinking to how you can maximize performance and compete even better next year?

Yeah we lost a bit of competitiveness, and we need to always understand the development throughout the season has not been as good as some of our main rivals’. So I think this is an opportunity, it will help us to raise our level for next year in terms of bringing new parts to the car.

We understood this year it was good to start with a good package, but also we have to work hard during the season to keep up the pace. If you want to fight at the front in Formula One, you obviously need to be bringing new parts to every single race because the environment is super competitive. And yeah even if we knew, it was a hard lesson this year to understand. And we may get stronger, so I’m optimistic for next year.

You ran a very tight race for third place against Lewis Hamilton, somebody you’ve had an incredible career battling against. As competitor, friend, colleague, how critical is it to end in the top three?

Not critical but it would [have been] nice [laughs]. Because there is always this competition between all of us. Always you try to look at the numbers and at the stats, at the names that you have in front and behind, and obviously when you have Lewis Hamilton, Verstappen, Vettel in the past, you know these legends of the sport, there is an extra motivation to finish in the front of them because that adds a little value to your championship. So yeah, not critical but we will do our best. It’s extra motivation when you have a fight with Lewis Hamilton.

You’ve enjoyed a remarkable career. Not only two World Drivers’ Championships, but mere inches away from three more. You could easily be five-time champ. You’ve battled and beat legends like Schumacher, Vettel, Hamilton, and now Verstappen. Do you feel like you’ve still got a lot of racing left?

Well let’s say I’m at the final part of my career. I understand the situation, age is not something that you can underestimate in this sport. But in the end I’m mostly happy; I’m proud of my career. As you said, I could have been five-time champion if some races could have been a little bit different. But anyway, to be at the top level in a very competitive sport, and not only in F1, for 20 years is something that I’m proud of. [I] feel very lucky, and very privileged to live the journey that was given to me.

I cannot ask for anything more, even if it feels strange to think about sometimes that I could have had more opportunities. If you see the glass half full, there are many talented drivers that do not even have the opportunity to drive in F1. And then some of my colleagues here in the paddock that drive in F1, you know 90% of them will never be F1 Champions. So I cannot be disappointed in my career, that’s for sure.

(Aston Martin)

Racing is an extremely expensive sport, many drivers come from money, are sons of drivers, etc. Yet you come from humble beginnings, from a remote part of Spain. Are you proud of that?

Absolutely. You are right, F1 is a very small world, a very elite sport, only a few drivers can drive these cars. Historically, it has been always a very great sport where only people with a lot of money could eventually get to drive F1 cars.

And then, as you said, if your father is a very important person, or an ex-F1 driver or whatever, I think the doors are a bit more open than for an unknown driver. But this is something that you can never plan, to become an F1 driver. It’s not something you can plan when you’re in karting or anything like that. In the end, I’m lucky to be here.

Last year they installed a revolutionary suite of new rules and spending caps to create more parity in F1, as you might see in the NFL, NBA, etc. So far the results haven’t been quite as successful as they might like. Would you like to see more parity?

F1 is brutal because you depend so much on the equipment….I don’t know, I think it is true that Red Bull are ahead of everyone else, and behind Red Bull I think is very tight, and the regulations are working quite fine. Because it’s a little bit unpredictable who is gonna be 2nd, who is gonna be 4th, who’s gonna be in the top 10 this weekend. So the regulation in a way is working.

The cap is working, as well. There are not any more teams overspending like Ferrari in the past, with unlimited tests, and unlimited possibilities. I think now everything is much more balanced. So yeah, we just need to fix the Red Bull domination, and this is up to the other teams to do a better job. You can not penalize the success. You need to make sure the other teams are as good as the best one.

You’ve said on Netflix’s Drive to Survive that you like being the villain. What aspect of playing the villain do you enjoy?

Well I think because you need to be different sometimes. And I think at in this moment in Formula One, everyone is just taking so much care of his image, his words, being always correct. And they have all these teams of marketing behind them: media, photos, videos.

I mean there are a lot of things going on behind a racing driver now, which I think [means] you are a little bit less authentic and a little bit less yourself. And they’re all the same. So it is good to be a part of that, even if you are not politically correct and you are the bad guy sometimes. As I said on Netflix: all the good movies, they have a good guy and bad guy. So you always need a bad guy.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Maxim magazine.

Follow Deputy Editor Nicolas Stecher on Instagram at @nickstecher and @boozeoftheday.