Fernando Alonso started his 200th Formula One race in Bahrain last weekend.
Now in his 12th season as an F1 driver, Alonso has amassed 31 grand prix wins and is a two-times world champion.
But while Sebastian Vettel has since exceeded his haul of titles, Alonso is the driver his rivals respect most. His 2012 campaign brought him to the verge of winning a third title despite the disadvantage of a less competitive car.
It was Alonso who broke Michael Schumacher’s five-year stranglehold on the world championship in 2005. The following season he bested Schumacher in a year-long duel to retain his crown.
Although his 2007 season is mostly remembered for the fall-out with McLaren, he also won four races and came within a point of scoring a world championship hat-trick.
He was faced with little option other than return to Renault in 2008. But his victory in that year’s Singapore Grand Prix plunged him into fresh controversy when it emerged 12 months later his team mate Nelson Piquet Jnr and been ordered to crash and bring out the safety car at a useful moment for Alonso.
Throughout a joyless 2009 with Renault, Alonso was repeatedly rumoured to be heading to Ferrari. So it proved at the end of the season, and Alonso won first time out for them the following year.
He seized the initiative in the championship late in the season, but in the finale his and the team’s preoccupation with beating closest rival Mark Webber left them vulnerable to the threat posed by Vettel, who claimed the title in a stunning upset.
Vettel has not relinquished the crown since, despite Alonso’s best efforts last year. As Vettel assembles a run of success to rival Schumacher’s, Alonso looks the likeliest candidate to bring it to an end again.
Here’s a look back on his career so far in pictures.
Early days: Minardi and Renault 2001-2004
Alonso showed promise during his first F1 season for Minardi. In his final start for the team in Suzuka he brought his uncompetitive PS01 chassis home in front of front of better-equipped rivals including Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Prost), Olivier Panis (BAR) and both Arrows drivers.
Following a year as Renault’s test driver in 2002 he was promoted to the race team the following year. In Malaysia he became the youngest driver to start a race from pole position and victory in Hungary made him the youngest grand prix winner – though both records have since fallen to Vettel.
World champion: Renault 2005-2006
In 2005 the Renault R25’s blend of performance and reliability helped Alonso beat Kimi Raikkonen in the fast-but-fragile McLaren MP4-20 to the world championship. Despite that he was sufficiently impressed by his rivals that he agreed a deal with Ron Dennis at the end of 2005 to drive for them after the next season.
The 2006 campaign saw Alonso seal back-to-back titles after a hard-fought battle with Michael Schumacher. It was a highly-charged competition between the two – following a particularly contentious penalty during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix Alonso memorably declared he ‘no longer considered F1 a sport’.
Troubled times: McLaren and Renault 2007-2009
To say Alonso’s switch to McLaren did not go according to plan would be a massive understatement. The car was competitive but he reckoned without the threat of rookie team mate Lewis Hamilton, who took the championship lead off Alonso in the sixth race and held it until the final round.
The rivalry between the two got out of control in Hungary. Following a row between the pair in qualifying, which led to Alonso blocking Hamilton in the pits and being penalised for it, Alonso threatened to reveal details of the team’s use of confidential Ferrari information to the FIA.
The ruined relationship was severed at the end of the year. Alonso and Hamilton each came within a point of winning the drivers’ title, which went to Raikkonen, and Alonso returned to Renault.
Languishing in an uncompetitive car, Alonso nonetheless scored a brilliant win in Fuji. He had also won in Singapore two weeks previously, though the subsequent revelations about that race changed perceptions of it. Alonso endured 2009 in a hopelessly uncompetitive car which he nonetheless dragged onto the podium at Singapore, this time without any foul play, before making his long-awaited move to Ferrari.
In Ferrari Alonso has found his second home after Renault. But they are yet to cement the partnership with a world championship triumph.
He has come very close, though. After missing the 2007 title by one point Vettel beat him to the 2010 crown by four (under a new points system) and last year there was just three in it. His latest near-miss came after the team began the season with a very uncompetitive car.
Although he has suffered two setbacks in the first four races of this year, Alonso has proved many times in his 200 starts so far that he is never to be discounted.
Mark Webber also reached 200 race starts last weekend – look out for a similar feature on him next week.
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Images ?é?® Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo, Renault/LAT, McLaren/Hoch Zwei, Daimler/Hoch Zwei, Pirelli/LAT, Red Bull/Getty, Boris 1964, Simon Watkinson
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