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Surprisingly for some, Spain doesn’t have a significant history in Formula 1. It has only produced thirteen F1 drivers, with just eight making more than ten starts. The country’s fan base was weak until the 2000’s, but that changed quickly, mainly thanks to the success of Fernando Alonso in the middle of that decade.
In this article we will examine the most significant Spanish drivers and take a look at what is coming up for the country.
The best who made it to F1
By far the most successful driver from the nation is Fernando Alonso, a Formula 1 legend in his own right. Coming from a working-class family from Oviedo, his start to racing was an odd one, as his sister gave him a kart that their father built when he was three years old, since she was not interested. From there, he progressed through the karting ranks, until the age of 17, when he graduated to single-seaters.
His junior career was very short, just two years, as he was spotted by Minardi and signed for a Formula 1 drive in 2001. Despite an uncompetitive car and no points scored, his performances attracted the interest of Flavio Briatore, who signed him at Renault first as a test driver and then as a race driver. He claimed his maiden victory in his first season for the team and by 2005 he had a championship-contending car, which he utilized to become a World Champion and a national hero. A second crown followed in 2006 and then Alonso moved to McLaren.
In 2007, a year full of confrontations with McLaren and his teammate, Lewis Hamilton, Alonso missed out on the championship by one point, but the feud had taken its toll and he returned to Renault for two seasons, which were marred by the Crashgate scandal. For 2010, he was on the move again, this time for Ferrari. His five-year stint with the team was characterised by a few wins and two title fights that came down to the wire, but in both instances it was Sebastian Vettel that came out on top.
After a frustrating 2014 season, the Spaniard gambled on the success of the McLaren-Honda partnership, but it proved catastrophic. Following a two-year hiatus, which Alonso took advantage of to claim two wins at the Le Mans 24 Hours, as well as the World Endurance Championship, he returned to F1 with Alpine for two seasons. For 2023, he moved to Aston Martin, where he has started the season in brilliant form.
The only other Spaniard to become a Grand Prix winner is Carlos Sainz. He is the son of the famous two-time World Rally Champion and Dakar Rally winner, Carlos Sainz Sr. Having the bug to follow the footsteps of his father, Sainz began karting young and when he started his single-seater career he was backed by the Red Bull Junior Team program. It was that program which gave him the opportunity to join Formula 1 when a seat opened up at Toro Rosso, next to Max Verstappen.
His rookie season was good, but not better than his teammate’s, who was promoted to Red Bull early in 2016. Sainz, however, kept performing well, which gave him the chance to join Renault in 2017. Two more good seasons there meant he was on the move to join McLaren. It was there where he claimed his first podiums in Formula 1, at Brazil in 2019 and at Italy in 2020. But then his big chance came, as he was offered a seat at Ferrari. In his first season in red, he claimed four podiums, with nine more in 2022 and -most significantly- his maiden victory at Silverstone.
Pedro de la Rosa and Marc Gene
Two Spaniards had similar careers in Formula 1, before Alonso made the sport popular in the country. Both competed in various junior championships up to 1999, when both debuted in Formula 1, Marc Gene for Minardi and Pedro de la Rosa for Arrows. Each driver scored one point, with the latter achieving the feat by finishing sixth in his debut race. Both drivers had short stints as race drivers, with Gene having his last full season in 2000 and de la Rosa lasting until 2002, having switched to Jaguar for a couple of seasons.
Then, both took test and reserve roles. Gene went to Williams and even raced three times, as he subbed in for Ralf Schumacher in 2003 and 2004. After that, he went to Ferrari, with similar duties. De la Rosa held the same position at McLaren and he also raced for the team, once in 2005 and for the second half of 2006. It was at the latter season’s Hungarian GP, when he finished second for his only podium.
As Gene’s time as a test driver came to an end, De la Rosa became a race driver again, as he signed for Sauber in 2010 and HRT in 2012. Following that, he became a test driver for Ferrari, before retiring and becoming an analyst in Spanish coverage of F1 races, as well as an Aston Martin ambassador. Gene became a sportscar driver, won Le Mans in 2009 and has gone on to become de la Rosa’s coworker in Spanish TV.
Alfonso de Portago
For this driver, we go all the way back to the 1950s. Alfonso de Portago was a Spanish aristocrat and he became a member of Ferrari at the age of 25, in 1953. Three years later he made his F1 debut and in his second race he finished second, sharing a car with Peter Collins at Silverstone. However, he only made five starts in F1, as he was killed in a crash in 1957. He was characterised a playboy and is famous for a photograph named “The Kiss of Death”. It depicts him kissing his girlfriend, mere minutes before his fatal crash.
Not a huge amount of Spanish talent is coming up through the ranks at the moment. Two drivers, Pepe Marti and Mari Boya, are competing in Formula 3, without being included in any team’s academy. Two drivers hold that distinction, Alex Palou -the 2021 IndyCar champion- is part of McLaren, while Luna Fluxa is a female driver competing in karting and is included in the Mercedes Junior Team.
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