Many F1 enthusiasts believe Fernando Alonso will become the youngest-ever world champion before the end of the year and Flavio Briatore is eager to commit the current F1 championship leader’s foreseeable future to Renault. Could the Spaniard buckle under the weight of public expectation?

Many F1 enthusiasts believe Fernando Alonso will become the youngest-ever world champion before the end of the year and Renault team boss Flavio Briatore is eager to commit the current F1 championship leader’s foreseeable future to the Régie.


Four-time F1 world champion and former team owner Alain Prost recently said grand prix racing “needed” men like the plucky Spaniard. The Frenchman - who first won the title in 1985 as a 30-year-old – said of the Renault driver: "He is a character, he has charisma and he has the ability to be champion."


Defending F1 champion, Michael Schumacher, won his first title in 1994, aged 26. Alonso would be 24. "I see the next race or two as crucial for Schumacher," Prost added. "If he can't win very soon, it is going to become almost impossible for him."


Another former driver, Martin Brundle, said Alonso “looks ready” to become champion. The ITV commentator said: "Fernando seems to have sorted out his consistency. Now he delivers."


Such is Renault’s belief in the Spaniard that “negotiations for a contract extension have already started," Briatore told Germany's magazine. "If we're all in agreement it should be possible to announce the new contract in Monaco in May."


Rumours had linked Alonso with a switch to Ferrari as a replacement for Schumacher, but the German is contracted at the Italian team until the end of 2006.


"As long as Michael is there Fernando will not drive for Ferrari," Briatore added. "But Ferrari isn't the only team that would like to have him. The easy way for Renault to keep his services is to keep providing him with the most competitive car."


Alonso, meanwhile, kept his cards close to his chest this week. The Spaniard kept mum on his F1 future, but said he expected Ferrari to soon return to its winning ways.


"They (the Scuderia) will catch up, unfortunately. There is a very long season and they know what to do and I'm sure that they will come back," said Alonso. "(But) I know Renault is preparing good improvements to my car, developing it constantly."


Schumacher will go to next week's San Marino Grand Prix at Ferrari's home circuit, Imola, 24 points adrift of the Spaniard.


But Alonso knows he must make the most of Renault's superiority while it lasts… Or at least until the other teams have copied all the Régie’s best innovations, he suggested.


"There is room for improvement but less than the others," Alonso said. "Everybody will try to copy our best things - it's normal. When you arrive in the first races you discover new things from the other teams.


"There are a lot of pictures of our car now with the other teams so it's normal that we will be a little bit less competitive at every race compared to the others.


"We will not go down but the gap with the others will be less. We hope to keep just a little room.


"At the moment we have no worries at all. We did our job in the winter and we have a competitive, strong car," he added.


Renault will have a new aerodynamic package for Imola that Alonso described as “very promising”, as well as an engine upgrade for his home race in Spain.