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Alonso — breaking the hegemony

Imola (Italy): Fernando Alonso has rescued Formula One from five years of dominance by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.

The Spaniard captured his third straight victory in last weekend's San Marino GP here by holding off Schumacher in a wheel-to-wheel duel over the final 12 laps.

The victory — in what was hailed as the greatest Formula One race in more than a decade — gave the Spaniard twice as many points as any other driver this season, and kept Schumacher winless after the opening four races for the first time in eight seasons.

Alonso won his first two races this season — in Malaysia and Bahrain — in attacking fashion. His latest win showed he can defend just as well as he attacks, a rare trait for a 23-year-old driver.

Schumacher started 13th and passed 11 other drivers — including a splendid pass on third-place finisher Jenson Button — with the fastest car in the field.

But Alonso would not move over for the seven-time world champion on Ferrari's home track.

Giancarlo Minardi, who first hired Alonso five years ago, was one of the few on hand, who believed Alonso was up to the task.

"When Schumacher caught up to the leaders, everyone around me said, `That's it, the race is his,"' Minardi said. "But I was certain he wouldn't pull it off. I know Fernando well. He had a tough time with his speed, but he's always been great at braking. He never makes an error or has a moment of weakness."

Failed attempts

Schumacher constantly moved his Ferrari around the track trying to set up a pass. Each time, Alonso responded with a block. Schumacher got half his car alongside Alonso on the final lap, but Alonso would not budge and closed again.

"Michael was much quicker than me," said Alonso, whose engine was on its second full race. "I knew that my only possibility was, first, not to catch the people in front of me and, second, in the corners where he had the opportunity (to pass) to brake a little bit more in the corner before and have better traction than him. I was playing this game at every corner."

It was an epic battle of the type Formula One hadn't seen since Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell went wheel-to-wheel at Monaco in 1992.

"It was one of the best races I can remember, and I've been in Formula One for 16 years," said Renault director Flavio Briatore. "(Schumacher) had a much faster car than ours, but Fernando was great, he used a great defensive tactic."

Alonso already has an 18-point lead atop the standings, and the next race is in his home — Spanish GP in Barcelona on May 8.

Alonso became the youngest winner of the old F3000 series by winning in Belgium at 19. He was also the youngest driver to take pole position at a Formula One race in Malaysia in 2003 at 21, then won the Hungarian GP later the same season, 26 days after his 22nd birthday.

"Age is a wheel that turns round, and now it's his turn. He's the heir to Schumacher," Minardi said.

Yellow cross

Alonso comes from Oviedo in the heart of the stunning Asturias region north of Madrid. It is the same working-class area that gave birth 13 centuries ago to the Christian `Reconquista' that resulted in the expulsion of the Moors who had ruled most of Spain for 800 years.

On his helmet, Alonso wears the region's yellow cross that Pelayo used when he defeated the Moors around 718 in Asturias.

Legions of Alonso fans follow their new hero from one race to another across the globe, waving their light blue Asturian flags with the yellow cross.

Yellow and blue are also the colours of Alonso's Renault team, and they clash starkly with Ferrari's red.

While rumours are circulating that Alonso will succeed Schumacher at Ferrari, the two drivers already share a common thread in Briatore, who guided Schumacher to his first two titles with Benetton in 1994 and 1995.

"Having had Michael at more or less the same age, I already know the routine and I haven't made certain errors again," Briatore said.

Relative obscurity

Alonso's fame forces him to live in relative obscurity in Oxford, England. "Alonso is very attached to his family, but he can't ever go to Oviedo because there would be a thousand people waiting in front of his house," Briatore said. "When he goes to watch Real Madrid, he goes in disguise after the game has already started."

Asturias used to have two first-division soccer teams. Now, without any, Alonso is seen as a saviour in his home region.

Crown Prince Felipe is heir to the Spanish throne and also has the title Prince of Asturias. Yet it is King Juan Carlos who calls Alonso after each of his victories.

The start of Sunday's all-Spanish tennis final in Barcelona between Rafael Nadal and Juan Carlos Ferrero was delayed 15 minutes because of the interest in Alonso's latest breathtaking victory.

Like Schumacher, Alonso cut his racing teeth in a go-kart his father built for him when he was three. Alonso's mother is a worker at a Spanish superstore chain, his father an underground explosives expert.

Alonso speaks quietly and comes across as shy. He keeps his girlfriend, Carolina, away from races to avoid celebrity photographers. — AP

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