By Andrew Benson
The balance of power in Formula One began to shift fundamentally on a cool grey day in northern Italy last spring.
Alonso has all the qualities of a great Grand Prix driver
Fernando Alonso, who on Sunday in Brazil was crowned F1's youngest ever champion, went into the last 12 laps of the San Marino Grand Prix with Michael Schumacher right behind him in a Ferrari that was two seconds a lap faster than his Renault.
The Spaniard, leading the championship after the first three races, had no way of knowing this would turn out to be an aberration in a season that saw Ferrari slip dramatically from their position of dominance.
For all Alonso knew, this was the start of a battle for supremacy that would run all the way to the end of the season - arguably the leading driver of the new generation against the finest of the previous 10 years.
Even on a circuit where it is as notoriously difficult to overtake as at Imola, Schumacher should have had the speed to get past.
But Alonso, showing the maturity, toughness and natural racer's instinct that has been apparent from the beginning of his career, held on.
For Pat Symonds, engineering director at Renault, it was Alonso's best drive of a year in which he has touched levels of consistent excellence few of his rivals ever achieve.
"It would have been so easy to crack, and he didn't," Symonds said, "and I think keeping Michael behind him boosted his confidence.
"He knew he had a slower car - and a significantly slower one. Fernando was slower than Michael by an amount that meant Michael should have overtaken him, but Fernando held him back, and used every trick in the book to do so. It was pretty special."
That race at Imola displayed two of the many qualities that make Alonso such an outstanding talent.
Apart from what F1 people call "race craft", it also showed that he was not someone who could be pushed around - even by a man who has made bullying his trademark over the last decade.
But it also showed his almost complete imperviousness to pressure, as well as two other qualities that - among contemporary F1 drivers - only Schumacher shares with him.
"His consistency (of lap time) at or close to the limit is quite exceptional," says Symonds, "and he's very good at adapting to the car when there is something wrong with it."
Beating Schumacher at Imola was arguably Alonso's drive of the year
The sum of these abilities makes Alonso a very formidable racing driver indeed.
And Symonds - who, having worked with both Schumacher and Ayrton Senna, is in a better position than most to judge these things - is in no doubt that his latest charge is out of the very top drawer.
"I've been lucky enough to work with some pretty good guys and a number of champions and for sure Fernando is up there," Symonds says. "He's got all those attributes."
Despite his obvious ability, some believe Alonso has been lucky this year, that he has been handed the championship because of McLaren's errors and poor reliability.
But Symonds argues that Alonso has displayed other hallmarks of a true champion - to never know when you are beaten and, by consequence, to win races when you do not have the best car.
With Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren the class car of the field from as early as Imola, that is the position Alonso has been in for much of the season. Yet a defining characteristic of the season is that he has never allowed McLaren to relax.
"I'm not a great believer in luck and would argue that you make your luck," Symonds says.
Celebrating victory in Malaysia with team boss Flavio Briatore
"If you take Nurburgring. If Fernando hadn't pushed Kimi hard, Kimi could have backed off and might not have had the suspension failure.
"You've got to do the risk assessment of not pushing things too hard for a hopeless cause, but you've got to be close enough to capitalise on what may happen, and Fernando was."
If there is one area in which it could be argued Alonso has shown a weakness in the past, it is in qualifying.
While this year he has annihilated team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, he struggled for much of the first half of 2004 against the Italian's predecessor, Jarno Trulli, now at Toyota.
Trulli is renowned as possibly the quickest driver in F1 over one lap, and the margins were never very big. But even so it is enough to raise doubts.
Symonds, though, is not so sure.
"Funnily enough, I'd almost turn that round," he says.
"If you'd spoken to me this time last year and said: 'Does Fernando have a weakness?' I think I might have said: 'Well, yeah, single-lap qualifying, there's still a bit to go.'
"I don't see that this year. It's a little bit of a struggle to find a weakness right now."