Ex­pert opin­ion and anal­y­sis

01

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

He is 15th in the cham­pi­onship, has not won a race for four and a half years and it’s hard to see when or even if he might win again. But there Fer­nando Alonso was on the Thurs­day be­fore the Ital­ian Grand Prix, un­der­lin­ing his sta­tus as one of For­mula 1’s big­gest box-of­fice draws.

In the Mclaren mo­torhome for his reg­u­lar me­dia brief­ing, Alonso was swamped by jour­nal­ists want­ing to know the lat­est twists in a saga that leaves the ca­reer of ar­guably the great­est For­mula 1 driver of the past decade hang­ing in the bal­ance. Had he ‘parked’ the car four days be­fore in Bel­gium? Had he told Mclaren that if Honda stayed as their en­gine sup­plier, he would leave? Would he go to Re­nault? For a man who is fun­da­men­tally a bit part in the un­rav­el­ling drama of the 2017 F1 sea­son, there was an aw­ful lot to find out, and an aw­ful lot of in­ter­est.

This is how it has been with Alonso for years now. The man is a walk­ing story gen­er­a­tor, the po­tent mix of his ta­lent, charisma and sta­tus in the sport de­mand­ing at­ten­tion, forc­ing peo­ple to take no­tice. And, by ex­ten­sion, giv­ing Mclaren and Honda a much big­ger role in the nar­ra­tive than they would oth­er­wise de­serve.

Wrapped up in that cock­tail is the rea­son the team are des­per­ate to keep him for 2018, de­spite the bag­gage he brings. It seems very likely, for ex­am­ple, that he uni­lat­er­ally took the de­ci­sion to re­tire his car from the Bel­gian Grand Prix. Ly­ing 12th, hav­ing been passed on the straights as if he were stand­ing still af­ter a trade­mark bril­liant start put him sev­enth on the first lap, he asked

“MCLAREN ARE TRY­ING TO GET OUT OF THEIR HONDA CON­TRACT, THE PLAN BE­ING TO PALM OFF THE HONDAS ON TORO ROSSO AND TAKE THEIR RE­NAULT SUP­PLY

whether any rain was fore­cast. He was told no. A lap later, Alonso said: “En­gine prob­lem.” And pulled into the pits.

In Monza, he did not even bother to deny it, of­fer­ing in­stead what is called in the trade ‘a non-de­nial de­nial’: a state­ment that sounds like a de­nial, but ac­tu­ally is not. He merely said he was “sur­prised” to read re­ports that he might have ‘parked’ the car – nor­mally a car­di­nal sin in F1. “It seems that peo­ple for­got that I am rac­ing here for three years fight­ing for Q1s,” he said, “giv­ing my max­i­mum at the starts, push­ing the car in Hun­gary in Q1 up­hill just to get an­other chance in Q2, try­ing to race with a bro­ken rib in Bahrain. When I read that, I think peo­ple are not very con­cen­trated on the real things that hap­pen.”

Bad as it looks for Mclaren-honda at the mo­ment, pon­der how much worse their per­for­mance would look with­out Alonso. Yes, he moans on the ra­dio. Yes, he uses news con­fer­ences to make po­lit­i­cal points. Yes, he can be high-main­te­nance. But no one else avail­able to them can of­fer them any­thing like the same per­for­mance in the car.

So will he stay at Mclaren next year? He does not have many op­tions. Wil­liams are in­ter­ested, but why jump out of the fry­ing pan into the fire of a team strug­gling for car per­for­mance, even with the Mercedes en­gine Alonso has cov­eted for so long? Indy­car might be a pos­si­bil­ity, but while he would love to race again at the Indy 500 and win it, how much en­thu­si­asm does he re­ally have for a full sea­son in the States? Re­nault and a re­turn to the place he won his two ti­tles? That is the one thing on which he has given a clear an­swer. “No,” he said in Monza. “Re­nault will al­ways be in my heart. But in terms of rac­ing, so far right now I am ex­tremely happy here and I be­lieve here we could have the pack­age to win the cham­pi­onship. Re­nault have al­ready said this week they think next year they will not be ready yet so they are hon­est as well.”

Re­nault, though, could be cru­cial in mak­ing the de­ci­sion for him. Mclaren are try­ing des­per­ately to get out of their Honda con­tract, the plan be­ing to palm off the Hondas on Toro Rosso and take their Re­nault sup­ply. As F1 Rac­ing went to press it seemed on the verge of hap­pen­ing. Both Red Bull and Re­nault are keen – and so is Alonso – but Honda have been the stick­ing point even if, on the face of it, a switch to a team where there is less pres­sure, giv­ing them the time they need to turn things around with­out the bru­tal fo­cus that comes of be­ing with Mclaren and Alonso, looks like a win-win sit­u­a­tion.

Meet­ings were held over the Ital­ian GP week­end be­tween se­nior Honda ex­ec­u­tives at their Ja­panese HQ and Mclaren COO Jonathan Neale. In Monza, mean­while, Mclaren bosses met with their Re­nault op­po­site num­bers. At the time of writ­ing, noth­ing had been fi­nalised and time was run­ning out. All par­ties need a de­ci­sion im­mi­nently, and it ap­pears to be on its way.

If the switch hap­pens, would it se­cure Alonso’s fu­ture in F1? He says he has “ab­so­lutely not de­cided”. He has de­nied that if Honda stayed with Mclaren he would walk, say­ing that “you never know” whether they could make a big step over the win­ter, and point­ing out that Fer­rari did just that in 2014-15.

Af­ter the past three years, though, and at the age of 36, com­mit­ting him­self to even just one more year of po­ten­tial pain and an­guish with Honda would re­quire a lot of faith on Alonso’s part. And given Honda’s poor per­for­mance since 2015, that is now in very short sup­ply. Take the en­gine out of the equa­tion and, in re­al­ity, Mclaren still re­main his best op­tion. That is where he will earn the best salary and prob­a­bly get the best car. The en­gine in the back of it will be a crit­i­cal de­cid­ing fac­tor, but it looks like it’s head­ing the way Alonso wants.

Three years into his woe­ful stint at Mclaren, Fer­nando Alonso, now 36, is look­ing else­where as he con­sid­ers his fu­ture

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