Expert opinion and analysis
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