Paul Stoddart was team boss of Minardi for Fernando Alonso’s maiden F1 season and, more than 20 years later, believes the Spaniard is as sharp as ever.
Alonso made his debut with Paul Stoddart’s Minardi outfit in 2001, with the highly-rated Spaniard being given to the Faenza-based squad as a loaner from manager and Benetton/Renault team boss Flavio Briatore.
Despite the difficulty of racing with an underpowered and uncooperative Minardi PS01, Alonso caught the eyes of the world by frequently achieving the maximum the car was capable of – including a (then point-less) 10th-place finish at the German Grand Prix.
Appearing on the Beyond the Grid podcast, Stoddart revealed how impressed he had been by Alonso’s performances, pointing out the weekend at Suzuka as being particularly eye-catching to him.
But, with Alonso merely being on loan, Stoddart knew he wasn’t going to be able to hold onto the prodigious talent behind the wheel of his car – he lost Alonso when Renault decided to position him as their test driver, a situation that neither Stoddart or Alonso were particularly happy with.
“I knew I was gonna lose him. Flavio had the contract,” he told Tom Clarkson, when asked about how early on in 2001 he knew he would struggle to keep Alonso in a Minardi.
“He was only on loan, lease – whatever you want to call it – but he was only with us for 2001.
“Now, Fernando was not happy about that. He certainly wasn’t happy about doing a year of testing with Renault the next year. He wanted to stay in the race seat and I was happy to keep him in the race seat but they wanted him as test driver. My dream team was Mark Webber (who joined Minardi for 2002) and Fernando in the same car.”
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Over the intervening two-and-a-bit decades since Alonso’s rookie season with Minardi, the Spaniard has become a two-time World Champion and was a regular race winner during his spells with Renault and Ferrari.
But a move to McLaren for 2015 marked the beginning of a long barren spell, leading to him opting to leave F1 for two years to pursue other motorsport pursuits. Rejoining in 2021, Alonso put in two years with Alpine before jumping ship to Aston Martin – perhaps Alonso’s first well-timed team switch in 16 years as the Silverstone-based squad have leapt the ranks to become podium contenders.
Having seen Alonso find his feet in the sport in his early 20s, and now racing and chasing the same goals in his 40s, Stoddart said he isn’t surprised to see his former charge still competing in F1 despite the disappointments and challenges of the last 10 years.
“No, I’m not really surprised,” he said.
“Because if you’re good enough – and Fernando is good enough – if you are determined enough and you have still got that fire in your belly to want to go out there and, if you can’t win the race but do the best possible thing you can do, then he’s certainly no slouch.
“So he’s still up there with them – the race craft, the ability, the natural talent, the hunger, it’s all still there. None of it has gone away. Now, age is going to catch up with him, but it hasn’t yet. I reckon he’s got a few years left.”
Paul Stoddart: Let Fernando Alonso lead, and you’ll have a happy team
Alonso’s move for 2023 is a particularly interesting one, given that the two-time World Champion has signed a deal to race alongside Lance Stroll – the son of team owner Lawrence Stroll – with a seemingly unshakeably secure position as a driver.
It has the potential to be incendiary, should the pair fail to get along, although the early signs of 2023 suggest both drivers are doing their utmost to ensure such a scenario doesn’t evolve.
Stoddart believes that, provided Aston Martin treat Alonso as the leader, all will be well in terms of the team dynamic.
“I think he’ll be a massive asset to Aston Martin, provided there’s no politics in the team,” he said.
“If Fernando’s left to do what Fernando can do, which is be a team leader, drag Lance Stroll up the ladder a little bit, and gets the backing from what is a fantastic team… I think if you get Fernando leading that team, and being able to influence that team, you’re gonna have a happy Fernando and a happy Lance Stroll because, at the end of the day, that team will go forward.”
But, with Alonso known for being a somewhat polarising character within teams if things don’t fall in his favour, Stoddart warned Aston Martin to take heed of that fact.
“He does [need to be the main man], and that’s the only caveat I put on this move,” he said.
“If they don’t recognise what a champion they’ve got, it’s to their detriment. Because, if you work with Fernando, you get everything. If you work against him, we all know the results…”