Fernando Alonso is regarded as one of the greatest racing drivers of all-time. Having earned fame in Formula One, he’s subsequently turned his eye to the Indy 500, the World Endurance Championship and the Le Mans 24 Hours race.
Fernando Alonso is a Spanish racing driver and two-time Formula One World Champion. He has contested 17 seasons of Formula One. He also won the 2018/19 FIA World Endurance Championship, the 2018 and 2019 and 24 Hours of Le Mans. He also contested the 2017 Indianapolis 500.
In Formula One and WEC you have a pit crew that will change your tyre if you get a flat. Have you needed to change the tyre on the Hilux yet?
We have not had to change a tyre yet but my navigator, Marc Coma, has won Dakar five times and in order to do that he needed to know how to rebuild his bike, so Marc knows his way around some spanners. But it is something we are working on, such as learning how to fix the most common problems on the car. We have a manual on the car, which is 78 pages that we need to study.
How does it feel to drive with a navigator on whom you need to rely to find the correct route?
It hasn’t been too much of an issue, it was better than I thought. I am used to hearing a lot of things on the radio in Formula One and WEC, those are normally instructions about changing things on the steering wheel and recommendations on tyre and brake wear so there is always someone talking to you. Now it is different because it is where you have to go, it is slightly more intense, especially in the dunes. Marc has more experience and knowledge about reading the dunes so he is not only navigating but also helping with how to drive the car.
This is the biggest jump in terms of a new environment in your career, out of your comfort zone. How exciting is it to move into a new discipline?
It is very challenging, I am not doing these things purely for fun. You need to learn everything from scratch and it is not fun yet as you are not yet in control of everything. These unknowns can make things stressful in the car. However, one of the biggest strengths in my career has been the ability to adapt quickly to the rules, the cars, V8, V6, Pirelli, Michelin, I have always managed to adapt quickly and I exploited this to oval track, Indy Car, endurance races and now to other motorsport series. It remains challenging and I am proud of what I have achieved in events like Daytona, Le Mans, which were events that I hadn’t thought about four years ago and hopefully I can achieve results to be proud of in off-road events, too.
What was it like driving in the dunes of Namibia for the first time?
It was a good experience in Namibia. There is still a lot to learn but we are improving every time we get in the car. Marc is very experienced so he is not just reading the roadbook, but has also been guiding me on what he sees.
How do the physical and mental demands vary from other disciplines like Formula One?
They are two different sports. Physically I don’t get as tired, to the point that I can no longer drive at 100% anymore because the length of the stages has not yet been as long as it will be in the Dakar. Mentally, I found it really stressful and demanding. On a closed-circuit you only need to adapt to your car’s behaviour, adapt to the tyres and fuel consumption and the braking point might change by two to five metres. The lap time might change with five-tenths of a second across a stint. Here you need to concentrate at 100% for 1 980km, for example. There is always something unexpected behind that tree or that rock. That level of concentration is new to me and requires a different approach.
What is the off-road driving experience like?
I feel bad for the car because it takes such a hammering and now I feel bad for the co-driver, too. Sometimes Marc is reading and there is something approaching and I am thinking I must say ‘hey, watch out’. When driving you have the steering wheel in your hands and you can prepare for some of the landings. The co-driver is not always ready for what is coming.
You’re used to racing at the best tracks in the world but here you are roughing it out in places like Lichtenburg and Namibia. How has that been?
It is different, it is wilder here. I raced go-karts as a kid, which has a similar environment to this. So half of my life has been in this type of environment and this is part of motorsport. Here in South Africa, I think you have good places and it has been great to test here.
What is your favourite aspect of off-road racing?
The sense of adventure, going by yourself with the co-driver down a new road, this level of the unknown gets the adrenaline pumping. When you need to find waypoints, or here in South Africa, the orange stickers that are on the trees, every time you see one it confirms you are in the right place and you are relieved because you’re not lost. Having a teammate or co-driver in the car has also been great because I never did anything like rally before. Whatever Marc is telling me sounds right, he reads the roadbook and whatever he tells me I believe. Sometimes Marc asks me how I would like to receive instructions and I am happy with how he does it because I have no frame of reference about how it is done.
What has the Toyota Gazoo racing Hilux been like to drive?
It is different to anything I have ever driven, it goes places you would never think were possible. You see some of the jumps and the dunes and you would never think a car can climb to those places. It has different characteristics to what I have driven before and it is down on power, braking ability and grip but the package works well. It is a different type of racing, but the most impressive thing is how much punishment the car can take from the jumps and obstacles, it is almost unstoppable.
You have limited experience in an off-road car and this is also a smaller team than what you’re used to. How have you found this environment?
Marc has not co-driven in a car, so we have brought two complete unknowns together. When Glyn suggested Marc to me, I immediately said it can work. He is very experienced at Dakar and has five victories to his name. And that is nice, we want to be able to make decisions and live with them. Up to this point, every opportunity in the car is a test and a learning experience and we are trying to do as much as possible to ensure we are ready for Dakar. We are trying to adapt things and discuss between us what is needed. It is a journey we are doing together.
Do you miss Formula One?
Formula One is a series I enjoy the most, it is so professional but it is also really demanding. You need total dedication all year long, you don’t have one day that you cannot do something Formula One-related. After 18 years it was easier to stop and try different things. It is a good challenge to try and win across different disciplines
Text: Reuben van Niekerk