Fernando Alonso joined Ferrari in 2010, fulfilling a lifetime dream in the process. To celebrate, he went out and ordered a white 458 Italia. “Montezemolo [Luca Cordero, the then-president of the company] showed me many different tones of red and yellow. He had a hard time understanding that I wanted a white one,” said the Spanish racing driver at the time. The story may be a minor anecdote, but it nevertheless reflects key aspects of Alonso’s character: he knows his own mind, and is not easily swayed. You could say he has a strong personality, and it’s not one that necessarily appeals to everybody.
For some reason, the expectations surrounding Alonso are higher than those on Spain’s other leading sportsmen, such as tennis ace Rafael Nadal, basketball players the Gasol brothers, soccer stars Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Iker Casillas, and motorcycling champion Marc Márquez. All of them are members of Spain’s golden generation of athletes, but none has garnered the same interest as the 34-year-old from the northern city of Oviedo.
Personality Media is a consultancy that carries out a twice-yearly popularity survey of around 2,300 figures from Spanish public life, based on a sample of around 40,000 people and a minimum of 600 interviews for each personality. The conclusions are used by brands looking to associate their product with a particular celebrity, keen to assess their likely impact or influence on their corporate identity.
The most recent report, released last month, confirmed that Alonso remains a powerful figure: he is the best-known sportsman in Spain with a 99-percent recognition rating. In second place come Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rafa Nadal, with 98-percent recognition, followed by Andrés Iniesta in third place on 97 percent.
Alonso is the best-known sportsman in Spain with a 99-percent recognition rating, the survey found
So far, so good. The paradox emerges when this data is crossed with the overall feeling of goodwill and trust that each of these athletes inspires. In this area, Nadal comes top of the list, with a mark of 7.9 out of ten, followed by Pau Gasol with 7.8, Marc Márquez with 7.5, Iniesta on 7.3, and Xavi Hernández on 6.9. Alonso sits way down in 20th place with a score of 6.3, indicating that while being famous is one thing, being admired is quite another. “Toward the end of 2012, when he was driving for Ferrari, consumers gave him 6.3 in terms of trust, while in May of this year, the figure was down to 5.8,” says Santiago Mollinedo of Personality Media.
Antonio Monerris is what is known in advertising circles as a brand planner, an expert in positioning and branding strategies. In simple terms, it’s his job to establish the route a company should follow if it wants the public to see it in a particular way. “The difference between the two tables shows very clearly that one thing is Alonso’s level of recognition in the collective memory, and another is that this has nothing to do with the emotional response to him,” says the communication guru.
Most of Alonso’s fellow Formula 1 drivers would agree that he cares little about what anybody outside his small circle of friends and family thinks of him. Asked at this year’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone – where he finished 10th, earning his first point of the season with McLaren – whether he understood why some of his fans were beginning to feel disappointed at his performance this year, he had little to say: “Anybody who is bored or frustrated should just turn their TV off and leave it off until Japan or Mexico, or next year,” he said.
“That defiant aspect to his character influences how people see him,” says Antonio Monerris. It is important to remember that how the general public views Alonso is not necessarily how Formula 1 fans do. The most recent survey carried out by the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association places him as the second-most popular personality on the starting grid after Finland’s Kimi Räikkönen.
This explains why McLaren went to such great lengths to lure Alonso away from Ferrari and make him its lead driver in its new project with Honda. “We still don’t have a main sponsor because Ron [Dennis, the owner of McLaren] hasn’t wanted to lower our cachet as others have done,” says Matt Bishop, the company’s head of communications. “Why should we lower our price if in theory we are on the way up and in the near future we could sign a deal for more money? That is when we hope that Fernando’s prestige will come in handy,” he adds, convinced that not even Alonso can explain why he has joined McLaren.