F1:Alonso riding wave of enthusiasm for long-denied win ‘No. 33’ at Spanish GP

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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) — Back when Fernando Alonso was king of Formula One nearly two decades ago, Spaniards flocked to see their idol at their home race.

With Alonso now back near the top of the standings, his supporters are expected to cram the stands and grassy knolls of the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit this weekend with some 120,000 people estimated to turn out for the Spanish Grand Prix.

Alonso was greeted by several hundred fans chanting “33! 33! 33!” in reference to a long-denied 33rd race victory as he emerged from his team’s garage to soak up their adulation on Thursday following his arrival. Alonso’s fan club from his native Asturias region organized buses to make the 8-hour trip from his hometown of Oviedo and other cities in Spain’s north to come to the race.

The 41-year-old Alonso took his 32nd victory right here in Montmelo a full decade ago back in May 2013 with Ferrari. After that came years of frustration and a stint away from F1 driving in other competitions, including the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. But after finishing on the podium in five of six races this season with the new Aston Martin team, hopes are high among his faithful that Alonso can end the long wait for a win.

After finishing second both in qualifying and the race to defending champion Max Verstappen at Monaco last weekend, Alonso knows it it impossible to curb the enthusiasm of his faithful.

“It would be like trying to build a wall in the sea: at the end you will be overwhelmed,” Alonso said about the euphoria he has unleashed.

Alonso, one of Spain’s top sports figures right up there with tennis great Rafael Nadal and its best soccer players, is more than used to handling the attention. Back in his winning days he happily picked up a full leg of cured Spanish ham that a supporter had hurled over a barbed-wire fence to celebrate a win.

“My fans are pushing this forward on their own and you can only embrace it,” he said. “The number 33 is being talked about a lot, but I am keeping calm. We have a good car that will give us chances this year. Red Bull is dominating with an iron fist, but we have seen in previous seasons that even when there is a dominant car…there will be opportunities at some point.”

Emerald green shirts and caps of Alonso’s Aston Martin team were everywhere on Friday when practice started.

“We hope he can pull it off, but something will have to happen to Red Bull and Verstappen. Alonso will be right there, and even if he doesn’t win, it doesn’t matter,” said 59-year-old Carmen Fita, who drove seven hours with her husband from southern Spain to see Alonso again. The couple witnessed Alonso win in Valencia in 2012, when he came from 11th on the grid in an awesome driving display, and had saved up recently to see him again on their vacation.

PREPARATIONS FOR ALONSO-MANIA

Track officials estimate the turnout to be as good as last year, when 121,000 sold out the first race to be free of coronavirus restrictions. That will still be below the all-time track record from 2007 when 140,000 people came following Alonso’s titles in 2005 and 2006 with Renault. The track’s capacity has been reduced since that heyday of F1 in Spain.

Transport authorities have boosted the commuter train services for the entire three-day event after a last year’s higher-than-expected turnout led to lines of several hours at the Montmelo commuter rail station. In 2022, some 277,000 people filled the track over the three days.

Spain’s train authorities have boosted rail service to transport an extra 40,000 people, for a total of 180,000 seats, to help ease congestion at the track that is located 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Barcelona.

SAINZ ALSO

Spain also has Carlos Sainz Jr. to cheer for. The Ferrari driver is seeking his first podium of the season after scoring a season-best fourth in the opening race in Bahrain.

“I am just in a better mood when I race at home,” he said. “You just know that the fans are there cheering for you. I don’t know how much that is worth, but being in Spain must mean something because it where I have gotten the most points in my career.”

Sainz Jr. will have his fan club concentrated in the stands at Turn 2 as usual.

VERSTAPPEN TOPS PRACTICE

Verstappen topped the first practice session on Friday ahead of teammate Sergio Pérez. The two drivers have swept all six races so far this season.

Verstappen also has fond memories of the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit where in 2016 he became F1’s youngest winner at age 18.

He won again here last season and is on course for a third straight title: Verstappen leads teammate Sergio Pérez by 39 points and Alonso by 51.

Many teams, including Mercedes and Ferrari, are delivering upgrades on their cars at this track, which is well known for the Spanish GP and preseason testing from previous years.

RAIN FORECAST

Some much needed rain for drought-stricken Spain is forecast for Montmelo on both Saturday and Sunday, so qualifying and the race could be wet.

The Italian GP was cancelled two weeks ago due to deadly flooding, while the showers over Monaco led to some drivers sliding with the wrong tires.

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