Sport in Spain is dominated by football. Real Madrid and Barcelona's grudge match – known as El Classico – captivates millions, while the all-conquering Spanish national team are the reigning World and European champions. Rafael Nadal's domination of the pro-tennis tour, having won eleven Grand Slam singles titles already at the tender age of 26, could well see him become the most successful player of all time, while motorcycle racing success also features highly on Spain's repertoire. 2010 Moto GP champion Jorge Lorenzo currently leads the points ahead of his fellow countryman Dani Pedrosa, who is himself well on his way to joining the sport's legendary names, which include the reigning World Superbike champion Carlos Checa, still going strong at 39 years of age.
And so we come to Formula 1. Spain's interest in Formula 1 had been fairly limited, with Pedro de la Rosa and Marc Gene failing to inspire en-mass support in the early 2000s. Most racing circuits, such as Jerez, Valencia and Jarama were configured for bike racing, and there was little motor racing infrastructure to speak of. But this all changed when Fernando Alonso burst onto the scene. In 2003, Alonso was presented with a competitive Renault, an opportunity he grasped with both hands to take a historic win in Hungary. Of course, this was only the beginning. In 2005, Alonso won seven times to beat Kimi Raikkonen to the championship, and backed this up with a second title in 2006 after a titanic battle against Michael Schumacher. Alonso, who currently leads the points in 2012, may not have won a title since – falling at the last hurdle in 2007 and 2010, but still continues to inspire his countrymen.
Daniel Juncadella is a case in point. The 21 year old from Barcelona is one of Spain's brightest young talents and is one of only four to have ever won in F3 at Macau and Zandvoort within the same 12 month period, following in the footsteps of David Coulthard in 1991, Takuma Sato in 2001 and Alexandre Premat in 2004. Juncadella is the first to admit that his interest in motorsport only began when Alonso's career started to take off.
“Think it's a lot due to him,” Juncadella says. “Even I have to say myself that I am sitting here because of Alonso. I started racing in go-karts because of Alonso, I saw him in 2003 when he jumped to Renault, the year he won his first race. So since then I said I wanted to be Fernando Alonso!
“Seeing many good drivers when I was young, it gave me the motivation to do one sport,” he continues. “You see Rafa Nadal playing – you say I want to play tennis. I just saw Alonso. I had already seen Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, the winner guys, whereas de la Rosa was not winning, he was not in a competitive car.
“But then when I saw one Spanish guy in a competitive car winning a race and I thought maybe I can do the same. Before I was seeing Schumacher and Hakkinen winning, and because they are German and Finnish it was not the same. But when I saw a Spanish guy, I thought lets go for it!”
Alonso's success has made motorsport a big hit in Spain. The national motorsport scene, while still not at the level of Great Britain or Germany, is slowly but surely building momentum, helped no end by the circuit building boom which has set in, with Guadix, Motorland Aragaon, Navarra and the Valencia street circuit all springing up in recent years. As a result, Spain is the only country in the world which can boast having two grand prix per year, which is not lost on Juncadella.
“There's a bit of controversy because we have two tracks,” he says. “With regards to Valencia, I don't think they are really happy with it – drivers don't really like it. I drove it myself and it's nothing really, really special you know. They say it's a street track but it's really too wide. If you want to race a street track then go to Macau!
“But for sure having as many tracks, people involved and whatsoever is great for us.”
Juncadella quite rightly notes that he was not the only one Alonso inspired. The likes of RamÃ³n PiÃ±eiro, Albert Costa, Miki MonrÃ¡s and the Red Bull backed Carlos Sainz Jr. have all been launched onto the single-seater ladder in recent years in the wake of Alonso's success, although for Costa and PiÃ±eiro the backing simply wasn't there to make it to the top.
“Of course, I think when Alonso was in Formula 1 with a competitive car, many Spanish people wanted to do the same,” Juncadella notes. “And now, it's only two Spanish guys in F1 [Alonso and de la Rosa,] but last year it was three with Jaime Alguersuari. You have Dani Clos as a reserve driver as well, we are some other young drivers who are coming towards F1, and this is great.”
“I hope I can get to Formula 1 and also to help Spain for the future because now karting in Spain is on the downside because there is not the boost anymore: there was the boost from Alonso, which is probably my generation from me to Sainz, but now it's a bit empty so we need another push.
“Moto GP and motorbikes are quite different. I think Spain has a really good situation at the moment, there are really young riders, they have really good preparation when they are really young, a strong national championship. With the motorbikes, Spain has done a really good job, the best ever.”
On the other hand, the creation of a Spanish F1 team – HRT – has not had the desired impact on Spanish motorsport. Since its entry into Formula 1 in 2010, originally meant to coincide with the propsed 40 million budget cap, the team has changed hands several times and made little inroads into the outright pace. With limited funding at its disposal and a far smaller entourage of staff than enjoyed by the top teams, HRT has more often than not occupied the back row of the grid, while its miraculous 11th place finishes in the last two years – ahead of Marussia Virgin – have been largely due to superior reliability in races of attrition.
Juncadella's uncle Luis PÃ©rez Sala, a former F1 racer in his own right with Minardi, is the current team principle of HRT, but Juncadella quashes the theory that his way into F1 lies there.
“It's not my aim [to join HRT],” Juncadella says. “For sure, many people think I should be in Dani Clos' place [as reserve driver] because he never won a championship in GP2 or F3, but it's hard to say. Having my uncle there shouldn't be a help for me: it shouldn't be about your family or your name. That's not a good sign: everyone would take bullshit about it! My aim is to get there because of my results, maybe the money of my sponsors, but not in HRT.”
“For sure it's great for Spain to have a team, but some people see it the other way around: they think that they are they worst team and they are embarrassing. But I don't think it's like this, they are working hard for sure. If have a better budget for next year then maybe they can keep growing. I think it's really hard for them.”
While economic times are still hard for Spain, their sporting golden age looks set to continue, with the Olympic Games set to commence this week and Alonso looking for his fourth win of the season in Hungary. As for Juncadella, on course to sweep F3, a bright future looms ahead.
To find out more about Daniel Juncadella, read an exclusive interview with the Checkered Flag from earlier this year: On The Path To Greatness.