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Exclusive: The days rookie Alonso became destined for greatness

Fernando Alonso's first Formula 1 team boss Paul Stoddart has revealed just when he realised the young Spaniard was destined for greatness.

If you were a Formula 1 fan in the late 1980s to early 2000s, chances are you had a soft spot for the Minardi team. The small Italian squad which today calls itself AlphaTauri after the 2005 buyout from Red Bull never had a great deal of success, only scoring the odd point - 21 in the entire 1990s - but they endeared themselves for the underdog spirit which was starting to seep out of Grand Prix racing as the new millennium approached. After the turn of the century, owner Giancarlo Minardi realised he could no longer run the team, and looked to sell. Just weeks before the 2001 season began, an Australian businessman by the name of Paul Stoddart stepped in and managed to just about get two cars shipped off to Melbourne for the opener. In one car would be Brazilian Tarso Marques, in the other, a rookie Spanish teenager from Oviedo: Fernando Alonso. Fast forward 22 years, 357 starts, 32 wins and two world titles later, Alonso scored his 100th Grand Prix podium in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Stoddart - who is RacingNews365's expert columnist - sat down to reflect on that rookie campaign for Alonso, which yielded no points and even had him officially 'beaten' by Marques (who also scored zero points) in the standings. But it was the 19-year-old who stole the show, including on his Grand Prix debut in Melbourne, as Stoddart exclusively recalls.

Stoddart wowed by Alonso

"When we had our first race in Melbourne in 2001, we had no time to build the car, but literally, we were building the second car for Tarso Marques, actually in the garage in Melbourne," Stoddart (below) reflects. "All we managed to do with Fernando's car was to do a straight-line shakedown before we had to pack it up and put it in the truck. "Fernando in that first race in Melbourne 2001 brought that car home in 12th place - and honestly, that drive showed what was to come. "It was just so solid, he was so mindful of the car and treated it with respect, because it was very fragile, and he managed to bring it home."

2001 Japanese Grand Prix

Alonso only spent a single campaign with Minardi before being promoted to the Renault team - initially as a test driver for 2002. Traditionally, when a driver was leaving a team, he'd get a glory run in the Sunday morning warm-up with low fuel and full power from the engine. Only Alonso didn't get that opportunity, but more than made amends for it... "But if you ever needed a signal of what was to come, his last race for us was Suzuka in 2001," Stoddart continues. "I was in a Team Principal's meeting and for one reason or another, they didn't do [the low-fuel run]. The engineers fuelled him and he was pretty annoyed by it all. "We had words afterwards and I said: 'Fernando it is your last race, go out and enjoy it.' "What he did was he went out and drove 53 laps of Suzuka in full qualifying mode, every lap was just different by tyre degradation and fuel load. "That just showed you what was to come; the technical brilliance, the ability and the determination. "As he comes up to 100 podiums, he's earned every one of those podiums and been very unlucky to only be a two-time World Champion. "He should have been a four-time World Champion at least. "He is one of the greatest drivers of all time, and it shows even now because of his technical ability and determination. If you give Fernando a sniff of something, he will deliver. "That Aston Martin at the start of the year is: a) very drivable and b) has good pace, so I'm not surprised at all to see Fernando where he is."

Stoddart's dream team

After Alonso left for Renault, he was replaced by Mark Webber, a fellow Australian to Stoddart. Webber memorably came home in fifth place on his Minardi debut in Melbourne 2002 and went up onto the podium after the official ceremony. Stoddart believes the two, who would go onto become great friends and rivals later in their careers, would be an ideal line-up. "My dream team as a team owner was to have Mark and Fernando in the same car at the same time," he says. "But there's no doubt at all that Fernando has the edge and if you go back to the [Michael] Schumacher era, the [Ayrton] Senna era, there's always drivers who stand out. "Fernando would be up there with the best of the best, no question."

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