WITH ONE ARM on the wheel, the cab driver raced through the narrow streets of Barcelona. He squealed the tires on his Peugeot as he cut off a Smart Car, then floored it past a trio of BMWs. "I am Alonso!" the driver yelled with a smile. "I go, go, go!"
The cabbie was pretending to be Fernando Alonso, a race driver from Oviedo, Spain, who in the past few months has become as popular as sangria in his native country. After five of this year's 19 Formula One races, Alonso has three victories, one second-place finish and one third, and holds an 18-point lead over Italy's Jarno Trulli in the championship standings. No Spanish driver has won an F/1 title, and the country's interest in the sport had sunk so low that six years ago only 40,000 people attended the Spanish Grand Prix, which is held 15 miles outside Barcelona. But the success of Alonso, a telegenic 23-year-old who grew up racing go-karts in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has triggered F/1 mania in Spain. On May 6 more than 60,000 filled the Circuit de Catalunya ... to watch Alonso practice. Two days later a record 115,900 came to the track--almost all wearing the blue-and-yellow of Renault, the team for which Alonso drives--to see Alonso take second behind Kimi R√§ikk√∂nnen in the Spanish Grand Prix.
"Five races, five podiums," said Alonso after the race. "The start of this year was something I never expected."
In 2004 Alonso finished fourth in the standings, but in '05 Renault has been the class of F/1, winning four races and leaving Ferrari and seven-time champ Michael Schumacher (who, after failing to finish in Spain, is 34 points behind Alonso) in the rearview mirror.
After the race in Barcelona, the king of Spain, Juan Carlos, stepped onto the podium to greet the young man who would be king of F/1. The two waved to the crowd, which chanted, A-lon-so! A-lon-so!
"Second place here at home," said Alonso, "is like a victory to me."
Judging by the fiesta that went deep into the night, the Spanish fans felt exactly the same way.