Alonso won’t rule out a sabbatical
The double champion might take a year out if McLaren’s 2016 car isn’t up to scratch – according to his own boss
McLaren chairman Ron Dennis has raised the prospect of Fernando Alonso taking a year away from Formula 1 in 2016. Dennis made the comments during a news conference at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, when asked whether there was any possibility Alonso might not race next year if Honda’s engine remains seriously uncompetitive.
The question arose from the events of the Japanese GP, after which Alonso said he “didn’t know” if he would race for McLaren next season, but later put out a series of Tweets, ending with: “Nobody should be under any doubt I have three years with McLaren and will end my career with this team, hopefully winning everything.”
The fact that Alonso did not specify which three years left open the possibility of a year off. This was pointed out to Dennis, who replied: “He will definitely finish his career in a McLaren. I have an open mind to anything.
“Some of the ideas have involved those sorts of considerations, sabbatical years, etc, but at this moment in time I would say we believe we know where we’ll be and we navigated a difficult weekend in respect of our drivers.
“I took a high level of flak out of that weekend. It was a challenge to navigate through it.
“We have a number of driver options. We have two of the best drivers in the world in our cars. When we have to take the decision, we will take it together and at this moment our drivers next year are Fernando and Jenson Button.”
The mention of a year off, and the equivocal tone, caused an inevitable storm – and huge consternation within McLaren, where senior team members wondered what on earth Dennis was playing at. The way Alonso responded to the issue being raised hardly dampened down speculation either. He described Dennis’s comments as “weird”, and said it was his “intention” to race in 2016. But he also admitted that he and Dennis had discussed what he described as a “crazy” idea “three or four months ago” and when invited to completely rule out the idea of a year off, he refused.
Confusing the matter further, the following day Alonso absolutely ruled it out, saying: “I will be racing, that is 100 per cent. It’s very clear.”
Dennis, meanwhile, also engaged reverse gear. On Sunday in Abu Dhabi, he gave a BBC TV interview in which he blamed the media for “spinning” his comments, and claimed he had said things in the news conference that he had not – namely that other drivers had taken sabbaticals, and that he had finished his answer by saying “there is no question that Fernando and Jenson are our drivers for next year”.
So what was going on? By character, the McLaren chairman is no strategist, but rather a tactical opportunist. He must have seen a chance to put the idea out there, and the only reason to do that could be that he thinks it is a possibility, however distant. Plus Dennis never likes to appear as if he is not in control. So the most likely explanation is that Alonso and Dennis did discuss the idea of a sabbatical given that Alonso admitted it when asked directly.
So when did this take place? In Abu Dhabi, Alonso said: “All our intention and our minds are into next year and we feel now much more positive than three or four months ago with the recent pace of the car. So it is something we didn’t discuss for four or five months already.”
That suggests mid-summer – an awfully long time ago for Dennis to be bringing it up now. So they must have discussed it more recently than that. And the suspicion has to be that was at the Japanese Grand Prix.
For a start, that was the last race Dennis attended before Abu Dhabi. Furthermore, it was a weekend when there was speculation swirling about Alonso’s future – which the driver himself only heightened with his post-race comments.
Could Alonso have raised the idea with Dennis, then said something along the lines of: “I’m still committed to the McLaren-Honda project, but I can’t face another year of this. If the car’s still uncompetitive in 2016, why don’t we delay the final two years of my contract until 2017 and 2018 instead?”
That may never come out, of course. But if nothing else, McLaren’s pre-season testing programme is now guaranteed even more attention than it would already have received.
Alonso: “Nobody should be under any doubt I have three years with McLaren and will end my career with this team”
Ron Dennis: “We have a number of driver options… When we take the decision we will take it together”