With Ferrari and Red Bull Racing's doors closed, here are McLaren's Fernando Alonso's options for 2018
Fernando Alonso's best bet to Formula 1 success might still remain with McLaren-Honda, or if he could broker himself into a one-year only deal with either a Williams or Force India.
The 2017 silly season has arrived earlier than expected! It was Haas who unofficially started it by confirming both their drivers for the next season. McLaren followed suit by confirming Stoffel Vandoorne — but one could argue that these announcements were more or less expected.
Ferrari’s announcements of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were the two big-ticket announcements last week — one was expected (Vettel’s), but the other wasn’t (Raikkonen’s). We expect Mercedes to confirm Valtteri Bottas for a year at least, while Red Bull Racing certainly aren’t open for external vacancies next year either — Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo are both locked-in till the end of 2018.
So where does this leave Fernando Alonso? We’ve labeled him as the ‘sport’s unluckiest double World Champion’ in the past, and at the moment, with the top three teams deciding to continue with an unchanged line-up, it seems likely that his bad luck with finding himself a competitive drive in Formula 1 might continue next season. Here’s our view of the options that Alonso could have for 2018:
— McLaren-Honda: In 2015, Alonso switched from Ferrari to McLaren-Honda because he believed in their project and the partnership. Three seasons in however, the project has failed to take-off, literally speaking. The only Alonso parameter that McLaren-Honda truly have tested is his patience, so will the Spaniard be willing to wait for one more year and see if the now Ilmor-supported Honda can finally deliver?
To us, this option seems out of the window and while Alonso is willing to continue with McLaren, it is Honda he seems to have a problem with, understandably so.
— McLaren-Renault: There’s been rumours that McLaren are in talks with Renault for an engine supply deal, after Ferrari and Mercedes refused supply to the Woking-based team. In the past, Renault too have cast their operational doubts to be able to supply to a fourth team in the Paddock, but should this supply deal go through, McLaren could be powered by the third-best engine on the grid — a definite step-up from Honda, which was dead last and the worst engine.
But if Red Bull Racing, currently the best-placed Renault customer on the grid, is unable to target frequent podiums, will McLaren-Renault be a good option for Alonso? In the Red Bull Racing-Renault partnership, it is public knowledge that Red Bull’s progress is hampered by the power deficit of the Renault engine.
— Renault F1 Team: If Alonso’s okay with racing a team powered by a Renault engine, then even the Renault works team could be an option. He’s won 15 races and two World Championships with this team, although it was with a different set of people and management back then. Renault has made significant progress this season with their engine and chassis (remember Nico Hulkenberg’s series of sixth place finishes in Spain, Silverstone and Belgium?) but are still behind on pace to the Mercedes customer teams, Force India and Williams.
Whether the team will be able to make much progress in 2018 is the punt that Alonso should be willing to take. It would be important to note that Renault might also be lining up Robert Kubica for a possible and heroic comeback to Formula 1.
— Williams: At the Belgian Grand Prix, there were rumours in the paddock that former multiple World Championship-winning team, Williams F1, had shown interest in hiring Alonso. There are two things that work in Williams’ favour; first, they have a Mercedes engine and second, they are as iconic a team as McLaren, if ‘heritage’ is what Alonso could be seeking. However, Williams’ progress has been limited in the last few seasons when they’ve been beaten by relative newcomers and fellow-privateer team, Force India.
— Force India: A move to the current ‘best of the rest’ team, Force India, would be pretty maverick for Alonso. It would also be a move that almost no one would say ‘we saw it coming’ — not even Force India themselves, perhaps. However, like Williams, Force India is a Mercedes customer and they’ve actually made better of the Mercedes power by developing a consistent and fast car — one that’s scored nine double-point finishes, including a fourth and fifth in Spain. The Indian-owned team is comfortably placed fourth in the Constructors’ Championship and maybe the Alonso factor could drive them onto the podium far more regularly than their current driver pair. However, there are serious issues facing the shareholders of the team — ones that might deter Alonso from considering them seriously for next season.
For any driver, decisions to move aren’t made on current form alone, because there’s a good chance that a team that’s doing well this season might get it wrong altogether next season. This is where drivers prefer to be with works or manufacturer teams (or highly-funded privateer teams like Red Bull Racing or maybe even McLaren) who would be willing to invest more money to get their Formula 1 program back on track. If this is a consideration for Alonso for next season, Renault might be the team of choice, leading him to his third stint with the team from Enstone.
Given that there’s a relatively lesser chance of winning in Formula 1 with most of the currently available options, there’s a high chance that Alonso’s contract will include clauses that would allow him to skip Formula 1 races to race other series such as the Indy Car or even the World Endurance Championship or 24 Hours of Le Mans. Or could Alonso’s competitive options be only outside of Formula 1?
Unless a McLaren-Renault option opens up, his best bet to Formula 1 success might still remain with McLaren-Honda, or if Alonso could broker himself into a one-year only deal with either a Williams or Force India, with the option to return to McLaren-Honda should the project start delivering a consistent and reliable fast car.
But why would Williams or Force India be open to a one-year option with Alonso? Well, that’s a punt that those teams should be willing to take on Honda not delivering, which could have Alonso staying for longer. Hiring an Alonso will definitely improve the image of the team and attract more sponsors, possibly better revenue from the sport given the better results expected. The hedge might just be worth it!
As for McLaren-Honda, would they be okay with allowing Alonso to race elsewhere with an option to return after a year should things fall in place? At this moment and after three years of waiting patiently, Alonso may just have the upper edge in the contract negotiations. Also, given their current state of speed and reliability, there’s no chance that a top-racing driver would be willing to consider signing up for McLaren-Honda for 2018.
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