Back when Fernando Alonso was king of Formula 1 nearly two decades ago, Spaniards flocked to see their idol, now back near the top of the standings, his supporters are expected to cram the stands and grassy knolls of the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit this weekend.
Organisers expect 120,000 fans to turn out for the Spanish Grand Prix to support their hero in his quest for F1 victory #33, at the venue where he scored his last Grand Prix victory ten years ago.
On his arrival at the track in Barcelona, Alonso was greeted by several hundred fans chanting “33! 33! 33!” in reference to a long-denied 33rd race victory as he emerged from his team’s garage to soak up their adulation on Thursday following his arrival.
Alonso’s fan club from his native Asturias region organized buses to make the 8-hour trip from his hometown of Oviedo and other cities in Spain’s north to come to the race.
Online betting experts, Betway have Alonso third favourite to win his home race, with Max Verstappen outright favourite, with Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez also on better odds than Spain’s hero has ahead of the weekend.
Betway Odds: 2023 Spanish Grand Prix
Alonso, now 41, took his 32nd victory right here in Montmeló a full decade ago back in May 2013 with Ferrari. After that came years of frustration and a stint away from F1 driving in other competitions, including the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.
But after finishing on the podium in five of six races this season with the new Aston Martin team, hopes are high among his faithful that Alonso can end the long wait for a win.
After finishing second both in qualifying and the race to defending champion Max Verstappen at Monaco last weekend, Alonso knows it is impossible to curb the enthusiasm of his faithful.
“It would be like trying to build a wall in the sea: at the end, you will be overwhelmed,” Alonso said about the euphoria he has unleashed.
Ahead of the Grand Prix weekend, Spain is gripped in Alonso-mania again
Alonso, one of Spain’s top sports figures right up there with tennis great Rafael Nadal and its best soccer players, is more than used to handling the attention. Back in his winning days he happily picked up a full leg of cured Spanish ham that a supporter had hurled over a barbed-wire fence to celebrate a win.
“My fans are pushing this forward on their own and you can only embrace it,” he said. “The number 33 is being talked about a lot, but I am keeping calm. We have a good car that will give us chances this year. Red Bull is dominating with an iron fist, but we have seen in previous seasons that even when there is a dominant car…there will be opportunities at some point.”
Emerald green shirts and caps of Alonso’s Aston Martin team were everywhere on Friday when practice started.
“We hope he can pull it off, but something will have to happen to Red Bull and Verstappen. Alonso will be right there, and even if he doesn’t win, it doesn’t matter,” said 59-year-old Carmen Fita, who drove seven hours with her husband from southern Spain to see Alonso again. The couple witnessed Alonso win in Valencia in 2012 and in Italy in 2010 and had saved up to see him again on their vacation.
Track officials estimate the turnout to be as good as last year, when 121,000 sold out the first race to be free of coronavirus restrictions. That will still be below the all-time track record from 2007 when 140,000 people came following Alonso’s titles in 2005 and 2006 with Renault. The track’s capacity has been reduced since that heyday of F1 in Spain.
Transport authorities have boosted the commuter train services for the entire three-day event after a last year’s higher-than-expected turnout led to lines of several hours at the Montmeló commuter rail station. In 2022, some 277,000 people filled the track over the forthcoming three days.
Sainz is also well-supported at the Spanish Grand Prix
Spain’s train authorities have boosted rail service to transport an extra 40,000 people, for a total of 180,000 seats, to help ease congestion at the track that is located 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Barcelona.
And, it’s not just Alonso! Spain also has Carlos Sainz on the F1 grid to cheer for. The Ferrari driver is seeking his first podium of the season after scoring a season-best fourth in the opening race in Bahrain.
“I am just in a better mood when I race at home. You just know that the fans are there cheering for you. I don’t know how much that is worth, but being in Spain must mean something because it is where I have gotten the most points in my career,” added Sainz who will have his fan club concentrated in the stands at Turn 2 as usual.
Verstappen also has fond memories of the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit where in 2016 he became F1’s youngest winner at age 18. He also won here last season and is on course for a third straight title: Verstappen leads teammate Sergio Pérez by 39 points and Alonso by 51.
Notably, Verstappen won his first race at the venue in 2016, while Alonso’s last victory was there too, when he triumphed for Ferrari in 2103 at home. (Report by Joseph Wilson)