Honda Insights - Racing Spirit

It’s a familiar sight: The piercing eyes of Fernando Alonso staring straight down the front of the cockpit before he closes the visor on his helmet and pulls away. Crop the image closely enough and it could be on any Grand Prix grid, anywhere in the world.

But on this occasion, Fernando has no other cars around him. He’s at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, about to start his first run in an IndyCar, in preparation for his Indy 500 debut on 28 May. Competing in a racing car is what the 35-year-old does best. And it’s that spirit of competition that drives him to improve each time he gets behind the steering wheel, whether it’s of his McLaren-Honda MCL32, the McLaren-Honda-Andretti Dallara IR-12 he’ll race at Indianapolis or one of his own go-karts.

“We are all competitive,” Alonso says. “We are born like that, to be competitive and any sportsman I think wants to have new challenges and keep fulfilling your dreams."

"You have different targets at different times of your career but there is not a single driver that when they close the visor prefers to lose than to win. It’s happening to me every single race I do, every single race I compete. “It’s not only Formula 1, if I play a tennis match this afternoon I play like it’s the world championship finals. I want to win in everything I do, so that’s the biggest motivation I find every day.”

The history between Fernando and Honda runs deep. His first go-kart was in McLaren-Honda colours, and it’s a period that is much more significant in his life than you might think.

“My time when I was in a go-kart provided me with my most memorable moments in racing before Formula 1. I spent so many years go-karting and they were my best years. You grow as a kid with your friends, competing in different circuits in different countries. I won the World Championship in go-karts in 1996 so that probably was the best part of my career before I reached Formula 1.”

A different approach is what attracted Alonso to the current McLaren-Honda partnership, joining a collaboration of true racers committed to returning to winning ways. Challenging the status quo is something the Spaniard has done from the beginning of his career, becoming the first - and to date only - Spaniard to win in Formula 1.

“I didn’t really have any heroes in racing when I was growing up. The sport was not very important or popular in Spain at that time when I was a kid. So I had more idols in cycling or in football than in motorsport. But when I approached my final part of my go-kart career, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher were the names who were winning at the time, so you have them as your icons of the sport.”

Of course, Fernando is now one of those icons himself, inspiring new generations of racers to try and reach the pinnacle of motorsport. The impact of that is even seen in Formula 1, where he competes against Carlos Sainz Jr, one such driver who names Alonso as his racing hero. Undoubtedly even more youngsters will be inspired by Alonso’s Indianapolis challenge, but it takes more than just inspiration to be successful.

The first step for a young driver tends to be go-karts, and Fernando’s own karting school helps prepare them for higher levels of motorsport.

“I think it’s always important to give something back to the sport. I have achieved so much in Formula 1 and in my career, I have been lucky enough to enjoy the sport, to have a career and become a professional driver.

“With my experience now, my knowledge, if I can help, if I can provide the facilities - with my go-kart circuit, my museum and my karting school in Spain - to the kids who maybe have the talent to succeed in motorsport but maybe don’t know how, where to go or how to do it. We will be there and providing them with the facilities and everything that is needed to perform at the maximum level in go-karts. If they have the talent they can reach the top a little bit easier.”

While Fernando seeks to unearth the hidden gems at entry level, Honda provides the opportunity to get on the next rungs of the ladder through its Young Driver program. However much racing spirit a driver has in their veins, a helping hand along the way helps them to realise their dreams of competing at the top.

Today the Honda talent pool stretches from FIA European F3 with Tadasuke Makino, to GP3 with Nirei Fukuzumi and F2 with Nobuharu Matsushita. The latter two will also be racing in Spain this weekend, and Matsushita has become the most senior member of the McLaren Young Driver Program, with his simulator work helping to develop the MCL32 that Alonso races.

Soichiro Honda famously said: “If Honda doesn’t race, there is no Honda.” Racing provides a regular benchmark to gauge improvement, to see where you stack up against the best, and to push your limits. It’s an ethos that is clearly shared by the double World Champion, and his latest test is the perfect example of that.

“I think the biggest challenge and what is more attractive is how different are the cars in IndyCar? How different are the circuits with the ovals? How different will the technique be to drive those cars? So I think that difficulty and that challenge that is in front of me is very attractive because I’m normally a driver who adapts to conditions quite quickly and to different eras in Formula 1 - from V10 to V8 to V6, from Michelin to Bridgestone to Pirelli - and I always perform quite competitively.

“It’s a challenge for me to see also how I could do in a completely different series and in a completely different environment. So it’s some kind of self-proof that I need to go there.”

Whilst the challenge of Indianapolis awaits, this weekend Fernando gets to race in front of his home fans at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Is it special? Of course, but once the lights go out, each and every position is just as valuable as the last, and fought for with the same tenacity on any circuit, in any car, in any race.

That’s true racing spirit.