DC: Basically we've picked you guys as the success story of the year... Pat Symonds: Thank you!
DC: ...because the success you've had this year has been phenomenal, especially compared to where you were a few years ago - two years ago you were effectively fighting off Minardis, and now you're getting poles and taking wins.
Symonds: Yeah, I think you need to actually ... history is a great thing because you can choose history to fit your arguments, and politicians do it all the time - engineers do it too often as well! You're absolutely correct in what you say, but equally if you look back to 2000 we finished fourth in the championship, and I'd prefer to think of 2001/2 as being a little blip if you like.
Now again I'm using history to suit my arguments a little bit because 1999 was a bad year for us, but you can go back fifteen years and typically we've been a fourth placed team - we've had a couple of years winning the championship, we've had three years of being below fourth place. So I'm very pleased to hear you say that we are the success story of 2003 but I prefer to think that we've moved back to our correct equilibrium, and it's from here that we've got to push on.
Now when I say that of course that is if you like the sort of gloss of it, the statistics of it, but I think our fourth place in the championship this year is a much more commendable one than, for example, our fourth place of 2000 where I think we got fourth place by one point or something. Some reasonable results along the way but not really exciting ones, whereas this year we're a strong fourth place with a fair bit of the season in third place, a race win, some pole positions which of course are not quite what they used to be, but I would agree it's been a strong year, and it's been our strongest year probably since 1997 or so.
DC: I think it absolutely has been, and I think you're right that the paddock is full of politicians so we can all pick our own arguments! But when you say that you've come back to your rightful position does that mean that you don't aspire to more?
Symonds: No, no, no - I said our equilibrium position actually! No, absolutely not, we aspire to a lot more than that! This business is pretty hard work - it's a lot of fun, but it's pretty hard work - and I think most people, I would hope all people in it, aspire to win - that is the be all and end all, and I'm absolutely not satisfied with fourth place. I know that corporately we set a target of fourth place and podium positions etcetera this year, but to be honest I set my targets higher than that because I think it's my position to set targets higher, and I'm disappointed not to be third - earlier in the season I thought we were looking pretty good for a third place but it wasn't to be.
DC: Williams came back.
Symonds: Williams have just done a fantastic job this year and, while I'm very flattered that you call us the success story of the season, I think Williams's progress through the year is astounding because that's a very, very difficult thing to do.
DC: It is quite amazing because they have progressed throughout the year, although yours was perhaps a little more unexpected because Williams have always been a top two or three team, so in a way you expect them to be there, whereas you have sort of come more from nowhere.
Symonds: Yes, quite right, and I think when we were Benetton we were a team not quite in decline but we were struggling - we were quite a small budget team, and I've said to many people that we were a small budget team trying to give the impression of a big budget team because it was important for us to get hooked up with a manufacturer, and therefore a lot of our objective at the time was to be as professional as we could, but we didn't really have the money to spend on the cars that we would have liked.
When Renault came in that released an amount of money to the team, and I think that not having to pay for an engine anymore is quite a significant boost to a team. Our budget did go up, we got personnel coming in from Renault and things like this, but it takes a while for it to work - I think a classic example of this has been BAR, who came in with all the money in the world, well, not all the money in the world but a good budget, but they had to form a team from scratch and I think that they'd underestimated how bloody difficult it is to get a good group of people together and to get them working together.
We had a slight advantage that we had a good group of people - it wasn't big enough, but it was basically not a bad group of people. But we've expanded massively in the last few years, both at Enstone and at Viry (Chatillion), and it's been important to get those people working together. I would say that last year that started really happening properly but you don't really see the results still for a year later, and I think that's what we're starting to see now. And I think we've now got a very, very solid base to move forward in our next step to move off our equilibrium position.
DC: What would you say is the principal difference between Benetton and Renault? It's effectively the same team, but you're not using the Benetton records, you're using the old Renault ones.
Symonds: You're right that it's essentially the same team, and by that I mean that the majority of the people at Renault now were at Benetton, but it is considerably larger. For example we were very successful at Benetton in 1994/5 and really with the proceeds of that success if you like we were able to build a damn good wind tunnel, and that was our investment, our reward for winning the championship.
But having built it we then struggled to use it - we needed the people, we needed the money - they are very expensive things to run in terms of model building and everything. So we needed that bit more - we had this great facility but we weren't using it properly, and Renault came along and we had a bit more money, and we are now using that wind tunnel three shifts a day, six days a week; that wind tunnel is really working now.
And it's working at a rate that any business that invests ten million pounds in a facility, it's working at a rate it should be - you don't get a guy in business going out and spending ten million pounds on a piece of capital equipment and then running it sort of five hours a day or something. So it's those kind of things that make a difference, and to my mind on the chassis side of the complete bits that the team can work on the aerodynamics is the one that gives the laptime, so that's where the big push has been.
DC: There's two questions from that - how do you end up with a wind tunnel and not use it? Was it just budgetary constraints?
Symonds: That's probably overstating the case to say that we couldn't use it, but these things take quite a while to do, and we started that project on the wind tunnel I think at the end of 1995 when we said let's do it, let's go ahead and see what it takes. The planning and construction of it was about two and a half years, and in that time circumstances had changed - you build it full of optimism, you're just about to win your first World Championship and you imagine you're going to win them all for the next ten years and you're going to be sort of rolling in money and everything, and then reality comes home and you realise you're not going to have the sort of money you thought you were going to have, and you then have to go back to it. I think that's the fundamentals of it - we built it on a huge wave of optimism and by the time it was completed we were not as rich a team as we thought we were.
DC: So it's just a case of you just didn't have resources to get the right people in there.
Symonds: Exactly. You've sort of made me think now, and I'm going to take a look when I get home as to how many people we employed in aerodynamics then and how many we do now - I think I'd get quite a fright when I look at the figures!
DC: It must be a hell of a lot now - all the teams have got so many more people nowadays. Actually with the wind tunnel it must be quite old compared to most of the other teams - is it still ...
Symonds: No, far from it - ourselves and Ferrari built tunnels actually to the same design and by the same people at that time - I think ours opened just a little bit before theirs but it's virtually nothing. To my knowledge the only one that's been built since then is Sauber's, which isn't yet complete, so I think it's fair to say that ourselves and Ferrari still have the most modern wind tunnels I think. Our sort of brief was to build a wind tunnel that would suffice until the day when CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) took over from wind tunnel testing - we said that's a nice catchy sort of phrase, I wonder how long that will be, and we sort of said maybe twenty or thirty years, we don't know, but that's how future proof we've tried to make the tunnel.
DC: Can CFD ever take over?
Symonds: I'll never say that something can't happen, so the simple answer's yes. But I think it's a hell of a long way away - a hell of a long way.
DC: I ask about the wind tunnel because obviously Sauber are in the process of building their wind tunnel and they're trying to push it forward as much as they can because effectively they've said that their existing one is useless - that it isn't accurate enough to do what they need it for and they are using one in the UK now...
Symonds: Yes, I think they're using Southampton now.
DC: Which is why I asked if yours can still be used.
Symonds: I think so - I think we futureproofed it as much as we can. Some of the tunnels in use now in aerospace are twenty, thirty years old and they're still doing a good job. I think if you get the fundamentals right you know what you want it for ... one of the problems automotive people have had for a while is I think they have basically taken wind tunnels that were designed for aircraft use and tried to make them into wind tunnels that are good for automotive use, and there are a few subtle differences in the way you lay out a tunnel that make that difference.
DC: This year has been fantastic for you - why do you think it's suddenly all come together?
Symonds: I've always thought we've got a great team - I think our racing team is a very, very professional team with a huge attention to detail - it's been there to exploit whatever we're given. What have we been given? Well we've been given if you like a really great car this year, with fantastic aerodynamics for all the reasons we've been talking about, a damn good chassis, fantastic control systems and some of it's quite obvious - our launch control I think everyone realises is damn good, and I'd have to say the other control systems are equally good but they're not put on public display quite so much!
Without a doubt we're on the best tyres - without a doubt - and I think that's made a huge difference to our year. Our engine has come on leaps and bounds over the year - it's still I would say the weak point of our package but it's getting there, and now gives me a hell of a lot of hope for the future that it will definitely get there. We've got a couple of damn good drivers - Jarno is a known quantity, and while he may not be Michael Schumacher he's a damn good second division if you like driver, and Fernando to those who didn't really know him would say he was the surprise of the year, but he's not surprise to us as we knew him. Two drivers who get on really well so don't have to fight rivalry in the team and all those disruptive influences that do occur in some teams.
So you know, just getting all those things together. I sort of feel you take the things that make up winning races - the chassis, the aerodynamics, the tyres, the engine, the drivers, the team - and they're your six basic factors. And I always feel that if you've got five of those six there you can win races, if you've four of those six things there you can be competitive and you can have you're odd day where you look quite good, if you've got less than four you're not going to make it, and if you've got all six you're going to win the world championship.
DC: And you think you've got five now?
Symonds: I think we've got five, yeah.
DC: How similar in set up are the drivers?
Symonds: They're quite similar - they're similar to the extent that we can apply what we learn on one car to the other car, and that's really what we're looking for. In terms of their setup Fernando will generally carry a bit more front wing and a bit more front roll stiffness but it's irrelevant - we know it, we allow for it, but if we do a test to say alter the weight distribution on one car we know that the other driver will respond in the same way to it, things like that. And that's a big asset to the team - it's not necessarily something you can plan for, because you employ your driver to be quick, you don't know that much about how he likes his car set up, you don't find out that sort of information - but when you do have two drivers that are similar it's a big help. I would say it happens more often than not to be honest, but you do occasionally get a driver whose set up is a little bit out from the norm and then it's just that added complication - it's not that difficult but it's just an added complication.
DC: Sam Michael told me that Ralf and Juan Pablo have effectively identical set ups, and it means that anything one driver finds can be applied straight to the other, and it saves so much time.
Symonds: It does, and the other thing it's good for is if a guy gets lost, and it happens occasionally with the best team and the best drivers, you can sort of say hang on, where is this going, put the other set up on the car and let's just see what happens, and that's helpful too. As I say it's not important but all the time you're limited in what you can do, the amount of experiments that you can do, so if you've got two guys who are doing experiments to a common goal arguably you can get twice as much done. That's maybe a slightly simplistic view of it, but it helps.
DC: How important has the Friday testing been to you guys?
Symonds: It's been fantastic - I think when you look at the Friday practice there are a number quite interesting things. I think the first thing is very few teams evaluated it for what it was - one can image a team like Minardi said it's great and it's the only thing we can afford to do, QED. But I really suspect that some of the other teams, I'm thinking of McLaren and people like that, Sauber, BAR, they didn't really evaluate it properly, and I think part of the problem was there was this perception, amplified a little by the press, that this was the second division, this was for the poor teams.
Now one thing we have at Renault, we were talking earlier about the assets we have, but one thing I think we have is we're broadminded and we encourage lateral thinking. So when we saw this coming along we said okay, let's evaluate it, and we did, we really evaluated it and we spent ages on it and looked at all pros and cons, and we came to the conclusion that it was a better thing for us, and if we applied ourselves to it it could be a lot better thing for us. By that I'm not saying that it's a better thing to do than free testing, what I'm saying is that for our team in those circumstances at that time it was a better thing for us.
And when I say we applied ourselves to it we did it properly - we employed Alan (McNish), not a cheap thing to do to employ a current very good driver rather than a sort of rent-a-driver - we put a huge effort into running three cars properly, and running three cars at once is a remarkably difficult thing to do, you really need to be on top of it. But we went for it, and it's worked fantastically for us. I had a view at the time, I knew that last year Ferrari and Williams and therefore I assume McLaren did over sixty thousand kilometres of testing - I knew perfectly well that we couldn't do that, I knew that we weren't in a position to have enough engines to do sixty thousand kilometres of testing, and possibly we didn't have enough on the chassis side either to have enough parts and whatever to do that, but I knew for a fact we didn't have enough engines.
I had a view that to beat someone you either do what they do but do it better or you do something different, and that was quite instrumental to our decision to do Friday testing as well - if we can't beat them at their own game, if we can't go out and do eight thousand kilometres of useful testing we'll do the Friday stuff and our twenty days, and I really got everyone focused on it - sometimes you need a kick to focus people, and the productivity of our testing, even our twenty days, our productivity has been so much higher than it was in the past.
DC: What do you think is the best thing about Friday testing?
Symonds: I think the best thing about Friday testing is you're doing near real time testing, but that doesn't mean you can act on it - for example we might bring five tyres to an event that we test on Friday, and we've got our two that we've nominated and maybe one of the other ones we'll say shit I wish we'd nominated that! It hasn't really happened yet this year, with one exception when we brought a tyre and we said we wish we could have that as well.
While you can't exploit everything about it the fact is you're doing near real time testing, and therefore you flow your experiments throughout the year. Some circuits that's really worth a hell of a lot, places like Magny Cours, Barcelona, where they change so much - you can test there two weeks before and come back for the race and it's like being at a different circuit. Of course circuits where we can't test, which is now thirteen of the sixteen tracks, we gain six car hours of testing that the other guys aren't getting, and coupled with the fact that official practice is now less than it used to be it's really worthwhile.
DC: And the testing is specific to the track.
Symonds: Yeah, not all of our testing is specific to the track - we do have to balance our race specific testing along with our development testing - we do have to get that balance right. Again not easy, but with some thought it can be done.
DC: How do you go about that - do you assign certain drivers to certain tasks?
Symonds: Yeah - basically it varies a little bit but generally Jarno and Fernando drive their race cars for that practice session and therefore we keep the experimental work off them a little bit. Allan drove a pure test car, a car that's not necessarily even legal because when you're running a test car you don't actually have to comply with all the rules - you can have extra instrumentation and things like that which according to the rules you may not be able to. So the development work was done by Allan, but also Allan did a lot of the tyre work because he's so damn good at it. So yeah we split it all up, but in essence the race drivers concentrate a little bit more on the real time testing to prepare for the weekend.
DC: How much of a difference is Franck (Montagny) going to make next year then?
Symonds: Franck's been bloody good actually - I said that we employed Allan as a part of our strategy at doing the Friday testing - at this point we have to assume that we're going to follow a similar pattern next year, and to be honest we don't know at the moment, certainly if the option is there we will take it because it still fits in with the profile of our team very well - it may not be the case the next year or the year after, but it does at the moment.
Allan we wanted for his experience and his testing ability, but Franck we ran at Magny Cours and boy we gave him a hard time there, we had an engine problem which meant he had to switch cars and then it started to rain, and he handled himself really well. And it impressed me so much that I said let's keep a good eye on this guy, and we ran him in Barcelona (in private testing) sort of as a final sign off, but it's on merit - nothing else. He is good already, and I think he'll get better.
DC: So is that done with an eye on the future?
Symonds: It's a lot of things - yes of course it's an eye on the future, and the whole Renault driver development programme is about an eye to the future. It's also about cost effectiveness and things - Allan's done a great job, but Allan's more expensive than Franck - I'm not saying that in a bad way; Allan's worth every penny that we paid him - but with Franck it releases some money for development in other areas. Everything has to be part of a complete overall picture.
DC: And of course he's a Frenchman, so Renault will like that.
Symonds: They did like it, but I have to say they didn't pressure us at all. At the beginning of this season I was adamant that I wanted Allan as a test driver and no one else, and at no point did I get any pressure saying it had to be this person or that person for political reasons. There's no doubt they are pleased it's a Frenchman, of course, but it wasn't a fundamental. In fact we evaluated a few drivers last winter - actually I think three of them were French, which kind of destroys my argument! Three were French, one was Portuguese - I'm destroying my argument so I'll shut up!
DC: Sebastien Bourdais?
Symonds: Bourdais, Montagny, Monteiro and one other I can't remember.
DC: We'll scrub that idea then! You've been with the team forever, or it probably feels that way anyway, and of course you've been there when you were winning championships with Michael. What's the feeling in the team now compared to back then?
Symonds: That's quite an interesting question because it similarly different (laughs). It's similar in terms of ambition and belief and wanting to move on, but it's different because there's more confidence in the team. And what I mean by that, you can go back ten years to Benetton in 93 compared to Renault in 03. Benetton 93: great team of people, enthusiasm, getting on and saying 'we're going to do it' but not quite believing it, and then 94 was wow - how did we do that? (laughs) The difference now is, and as I said an awful lot of people have stayed and now we know we can do it - we've done it before, why shouldn't we do it again? And equally looking at what we're surrounded with, what our team is now, gives us even more belief that we can do it. So that's what I mean by a similar difference.
DC: I guess the win in Hungary must have been a bit of a load off, though.
Symonds: It wasn't a load off - I wouldn't describe it like that - I think what you're implying is that it released external pressure, and I wouldn't say we've had external pressure to win a race this year or anything like that - Patrick Faure set our objectives, and he didn't expect a race win. As I said earlier when you said fourth place in the championship are we satisfied with it, I'm never satisfied with what we've got, and I would say that the pressure that you have to perform is certainly an internal pressure - it's not a corporate pressure or anything like that - and yeah it made me feel good, it made me feel we'd achieved something I didn't feel we'd achieve last winter. It didn't take the pressure off because as we won in Hungary I knew damn well that we'd struggle in Monza - in fact we performed much better in Monza than I'd hoped for. It didn't take the pressure off - we didn't finish first and second, so it wasn't a great result!
DC: No, what I mean is that there is, as you say, a great feeling in the team and they think they can do it, but all of a sudden they actually did do it...
Symonds: Yeah, yeah - I don't think that was the case so much inside the team as outside the team. I think that there were people that I'd spoken to, not those who are directly connected to the team but those to who I said yes, we might be able to get a win - it might take a little bit of luck but we can do it. I think maybe a number of them didn't quite believe it because they didn't see the internal workings of the team - the potential was there. Certainly for those people it was oh shit yeah - now we take you seriously. So from that perspective yes it was true.
DC: A lot of the media is trying to portray Alonso as the new Schumacher - of course you worked with the 'old' Schumacher ...
Symonds: He was new when I worked with him!
DC: ... what sort of similarities, if any, do you see between the two?
Symonds: Similarities - I'm sort of stating the obvious, but the similarities are the ability to drive a car quickly - it's a very trite statement isn't it, but it's where you have to start. I see a mental capacity in Fernando that reminds me of Michael, the ability to talk to his race engineer so that he does fully understand the race. Even down to the little things like some drivers, when they use the radio, lose laptime because they can't rub their stomachs and pat their heads (laughs) - Fernando in Canada was chatting all the way round while he set the fastest lap. What I don't see is the attention to detail, and the hard work when it comes to it, that I want to see - Michael pushed those around him, whereas I would say those around Fernando push him a little bit - I would like to see a little more attention to detail and a bit harder work.
DC: Is that a factor of him being young?
Symonds: I don't know - how old was Michael when he started working with us? I don't know how old he is now actually.
DC: He's 34 now.
Symonds: 34, so he was 22 when he started driving for us, so it's not that different is it? No, age is a funny thing - being a very old person myself (laughs) age is a mental state isn't it, and kids like Fernando, like Jenson, they've been in the business so bloody long, they're just so different to the 21 or 22 year old you meet in the street.
DC: That is something that amazes me - these kids have been doing it since they were three or something.
Symonds: Yeah - it's just unreal, isn't it?
DC: What does that actually do to them? Do they ever have anything remotely like a life, or is it just race and test?
Symonds: Well I'd say it's a pretty good life actually!
DC: Sure - I know a lot of people who'd like the opportunity!
Symonds: It's a different life, certainly - they grow up learning the corporate way of things - I think they just mature earlier. I think if you spoke to anyone who's been racing since they were in cadet karts up to Formula One I don't think any of them would say they regret it and say oh no, I didn't see much of my Mum!
DC: I only ask because sometimes talking to the drivers it can be a bit ... dull. Maybe it's just that I'm getting old!
Symonds: Yeah, but do you have many fantastically intellectual conversations with any other 21 year olds?
DC: No - that's fair.
Symonds: I think they're okay guys. One of the things about them is that they're very focused, very single-minded - I wouldn't think there are many drivers you could discuss politics with, because I'm imagining they don't read the newspapers or watch the news, because all they're thinking about is racing. I'm sure they're not the most rounded individuals in the world, but it's what they choose to do, and any professional person - I'm not just saying sportsman, but person - has to be reasonably single-minded, and a professional sportsman has to be very single-minded.
DC: I guess that's true, and I guess you don't want them to be too well rounded, because you want them to focus more on racing.
Symonds: Absolutely - we're paying them a hell of a lot of money to do their job!
DC: I was going to ask you to say something nice about Jarno, but I think Bradley (Lord, Renault PR) is giving us the wind up.
Symonds: (laughs) Well I will do - Jarno is doing a fantastic job for the team - Fernando happens to have got the win, and he got more points this year - but Jarno's had some really, really tough luck. Even in Monza - what a great weekend he was having - and I've got absolutely no doubt that he could have had a really excellent result there, bearing in mind it's not our best circuit there. But Jesus, how can that happen to him again? We let him down. And I think the fundamental thing is would I want another two drivers? You might say maybe you might have Michael or something, but I'm bloody happy with what we've got. They're two really good guys, and as I said earlier they're team players and that's fantastic.
DC: I love Jarno, but I can't believe the bad luck that guy has! And he's been awesome in the second half of the year.
Symonds: Well you know before I worked with him I used to get on at people who spoke about luck because I'm just not a believer in it - you make your own luck - someone once said luck comes with practice, and I think that's true. But I have to admit that since I've known Jarno I've actually been wondering if I should change my mind!
DC: He's the unluckiest guy since Johnny Herbert!
DC: Looking forward you've got a very solid fourth in the championship this year, but there's still a gap points wise between you and the top three - what are you going to do to bridge that?
Symonds: I mentioned earlier that I thought the weak point of our six point package is the engine, and so the focus is on that, but the important thing is to not drop the ball in any other area - it's easy to say right, we've cracked that, let's leave it aside and work on the engine, but that's the easiest way to screw it all up - you've got to say right, you guys work on that engine, just get on with it, and we're going to really work hard to make sure that everything else is really perfect, and that's basically how we're going to do it.
DC: They say that aerodynamics are the most important component of a car these days, and you've clearly got an amazing aero package this year - is there ever a stage where effectively you are hitting the wall, where you are getting such minute fractions...
Symonds: You're never going to hit the wall, but it gets harder and harder and harder, and it's getting harder for everyone. I used to do a lot of aero work in the mid eighties, and I used to be looking for maybe a five percent increase before we'd bother making parts - well now we look at five percent as being good for a new model! So now we're seeing increases of half a percent - well, less than half a percent actually - but so is everybody else, and if we didn't do it we'd fall behind. So we haven't hit a wall - it's just that much harder to get the bits. But the increments you can realistically make are just as important for your position, and ultimately performance, as they ever have been.
DC: Are you going to run OCP next year?
Symonds: Not at the moment, I don't think so, no.
DC: Is there a reason why?
DC: And you're not going to tell me?
DC: One last thing - I heard that you got a doctorate recently.
Symonds: Yep - I'm Doctor Pat!
DC: What was it in?
Symonds: It was from Oxford Brooks University - they gave me an honourary doctorate for work I'd done, basically.
DC: And for being an all round good egg!
Symonds: Yeah - that's it!
They say he's the next great one, the next one to come in and shake up the sport, the one that will carry us into the next generation of drivers. They say he's the new Schumacher, and you can see why: he drives for the team that brought the German to the fore in its previous incarnation; he came into the sport around the same age and with the backing of a large manufacturer; he started with a small team before moving towards the front; he's bringing the team in around him, wrapping himself in the blanket of them; and he's the key to the viewing public in a European country that has so far been resistant to Formula One's charms. Fernando Alonso wears this crown lightly. Quiet and self effacing, in person he comes across as someone who is intrinsically shy but has spent years trying to put this malady behind him. His walk is all in the shoulders, and he rolls on the sides of his feet as though on egg shells, and when he shakes your hand he immediately looks down before looking back up again, looking you in the eye as thought taught to do so.
Pat Symonds worked with both drivers, as race engineer to Schumacher and in his current position as Director of Engineering at Renault. He's heard the comparison before, of course, but thinks the difference is that Schumacher possibly concentrates on things more, concentrates on numbers and degrees and angles. "Maybe, maybe - I concentrate on the things that I feel are important!" Alonso laughs at the idea, "the other ones are for the engineers, not for me! (Michael and I) are different, like all people."
But like Schumacher before him, Alonso has made the Formula One paddock sit up and pay attention in only his second year on the grid. After a learning year at Minardi and another as test driver for Renault, Alonso stepped up to the plate, becoming the youngest pole sitter and race winner in the history of the World Championship. Alonso's year was, quite simply, a cut above anything anyone thought it would be, himself included. "Yes - of course! But I think we worked very well, the car is working well, and everything was perfect this season."
It seems a lot longer, but it was only two years ago that Alonso was propping up the rear of the field at Minardi. It's clear that the move to Renault was a huge jump forward, but what are the main differences between the teams? "A lot; everything!" Alonso blurts out, spreading his hands wide on the table in front of him. "Basically the results and the confidence you have in yourself. When you are at Minardi you have no results, and you sometimes have doubts about yourself when you are 18th or 19th and you see the pole position maybe five seconds in front of you.
"You think these people are fantastic, they are very quick and very good. But when you are at Renault you don't think that; you have enough confidence, and if one guy does the pole you think that you can do that too. You have more confidence in yourself, because the car is fantastic."
DC: At the start of the year what were you hoping for? When you knew you were driving for Renault, what was it that you wanted to achieve?
Alonso: "I was not really thinking anything, I was just concentrating to improve the car during the winter and to have the best possible car in the races. I knew that it was difficult to fight with the top teams - Williams, Ferrari, McLaren - but maybe we were thinking to be around seventh, eighth position for the races, and for me to have maybe ten points, fifteen points at the end of the year."
DC: When you first got into the new car did you just sit there and think 'wow - this is much better than I thought'?
Alonso: "Not really, not really. It was quite similar to last year's car, but then with the new engine and new pieces in the car in the first race in Australia when we put everything in the car it was a big change, and even from the first race we knew that the car was competitive basically everywhere."
DC: You said it was similar to last year's car, and you put a lot of miles into last year's car, but what was the difference? The results are a lot different.
Alonso: "Yeah probably the aero package that we put in, in Australia - and another step in Silverstone - was the biggest difference. In terms of the chassis, when we test the new car we test basically the chassis with all of the aerodynamics, and it was similar to that."
The one weakness the team had was clear to all. "I think the engine is the biggest one, because we are a little bit down on power. But we have a very light engine, a very low centre of gravity, so in the end the engine is a good compromise on some circuits. And a little bit more in the chassis side, to have a little more downforce - I think we are not too far away compared with the top teams."
The engine has been a problem for the team, and a lot of work has been done over the year to bring step improvements, but the radical wide angled engine Renault believed would push them up the grid hasn't lived up to expectations. With the new one engine per weekend rule coming into play next year the team may have an opportunity to make up that lost ground.
DC: What are you expecting from the new rules next year?
Alonso: "Yeah, we don't know. We are working on a new concept of engine, more traditional V angle, and we are quite confident to have a good engine. We don't know because Formula One is always difficult, but I think it will be a good year for Renault - maybe it's the next step, and maybe we are more regularly fighting for victories next year."
And then there's Alonso's teammate, Jarno Trulli.
Trulli is the mystery man of Formula One - on his day he seems to be untouchable, and yet other days he looks in need of a nap. But how hard is it for Alonso to beat Trulli? "Very hard!" Alonso laughs, his hands waving in front of him as if in surrender. "Yeah he's very quick, and it's very hard. But you know, I was lucky this year to have a good car and to beat him in some places and to have more points than him. But anyway it was a difficult year and I learnt a lot of things from him as well, because like you say he's very quick and you have to really push to the limit in some places to beat him."
DC: You and Jarno seem to get on fantastically - I've seen you together and you look almost like brothers.
Alonso: "Yeah, it's good because basically we spend most of the year together with the testing, the races, and the physical training. At the end of the year you have your teammate in the truck who is also your competitor, your first competitor, because he has the same car and you have to beat him first. But outside of the car it's not a problem to be normal friends, to play football together, to go to the hotel in the same car - you know, it's a normal relationship."
DC: You always seemed to have all the good luck and he always seemed to have all the bad luck - I don't know what that is.
Alonso: "Yeah, it was a little bit of bad luck in some places when … (laughs) … these things happen."
Alonso's year has been so impressive that it's sometimes hard to remember that he is only 22. Young drivers have a tendency to be wayward, to make rookie mistakes, but with the Spaniard these have been few and far between this year - speeding under yellow to get back to the pits in Brazil which lead to his big crash and the dice with David Coulthard notwithstanding. Renault made a good decision in pairing him with Trulli, who now has over one hundred Grand Prix appearances to his name.
So what has Alonso learnt from Trulli? "I don't know really - to be quick, I guess, because, you know, he is really quick on all the tracks, in all the conditions, and there is not any time to breathe! You have to always be on the maximum in order to be competitive and near his time and lap. The first thing that I learnt from him, and the first surprise that I had this year, was the level of competition that he has in himself - it's very powerful.
DC: What about the other way around? Has Trulli learned anything from you?
Alonso laughs. "I don't know - I don't think so! But I learnt many things this year - to save the car a little bit in important moments like in tyres, engine, gearbox, etc, etc, and then to push to the limit - I said before with Jarno I have to push really hard in some places to beat him. And to be at this level always, in all the circuits and in all the test sessions and in all the free practice - this was new to me, to be at this level."
DC: I don't know how you evaluate your own driving - do you look at it and say 'maybe I could do this a little better, maybe I could try that'?
Alonso: "Yeah, always we look at the telemetry and compare to Jarno basically, and see that we can do different things in the corner and change a little bit, brake a little bit later or brake with less pressure to keep more speed into the corner - you always change your driving style like this."
DC: And when you're not with the team? Do you sit and think about things that you do when you're driving?
DC: No? Why not?
Alonso: "When I am with the team, I work with the car and with the team. When I am not with the team, I have other things to do!"
DC: So what would you say is your strongest point?
Alonso: "Consistency! I am very, very constant. Basically it doesn't matter if it's raining, not raining, could be a high speed track, slow track, I think I am still competitive in all the places. I am not a driver for qualifying, I am not a driver for the race, I am not a driver for wet conditions - I think I am quite constant in all these places."
DC: How about your weakness?
Alonso: "Oh, experience. I am twenty two, so maybe I need more experience, and I need to fight with the top guys more wheel to wheel - probably that I'm not at 100% now."
Alonso smiles bashfully when he says that he's not at his one hundred per cent, but he probably knows just as well as the rest of the paddock that it won't be long before he dominates the sport, perhaps even in similar fashion to the German six times World Champion that Alonso is so often compared to. And just like Schumacher, Alonso too won his first race in only his second season in Formula One.
The win at the Hungarian Grand Prix, however, did not come to Alonso from luck or clever strategy. He was simply the man of the weekend, with the perfect package and untouchable pace throughout the race. Yet Alonso doesn't seem to put much importance on that win.
"I was very happy to win," he says, "but for me it was another race - it doesn't matter what the result you achieved. Maybe in ten years you remember that race, but now (every) fifteen days there is the next one! Then you start testing for the following year, so there's no time to think."
Indeed, with winter testing underway, a fitness camp in Kenya, Africa, this month and the launch next month, Alonso has little time to reminisce. But looking ahead, he is confident the only way for him and the team is up.
"I hope to fight for more victories next year," he concludes. "The team is fighting very hard, the new chassis is in the wind tunnel with a good result, and the new engine should be better. Also the team will be basically the same, so we know perfectly the way to work with the engineers, with the team.
"So I think we will close the gap with the top teams again, and we can beat them in some of the circuits. I'm really looking forward to next year; it should be good."