Ahead of the start of the European season – and to mark the launch of F1.co.uk’s new and improved revised site – we take a look at just what options Fernando Alonso might have for the future as he heads into his home race off the back of McLaren Honda’s dismal start to the F1 2017 campaign. It all begs the question: just how much more misery can Alonso take?
Alonso is regarded as one of the best drivers, if not the best driver in the sport, often put in the same bracket as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel et al. Yet the Spaniard hasn’t had a podium now since leaving Ferrari back in 2014 – and he hasn’t won a race since, whisper it, the Spanish Grand Prix the year before. That’s a long drought period… by anyone’s standards.
Alonso’s dream of a third title then is fast slipping away, almost as fast – if not faster – than his rivals are slipstreaming passed him on the track.
McLaren-Honda in chaos
All is far from well at McLaren Honda and while the team seemed to make some progress in 2016, that’s not been the case this season. The finger is being pointed squarely at Honda’s power unit (again) and in year three of the relationship the cracks are not just appearing, they are deepening.
“I have never raced with less power in my life,” Alonso said over the radio in Bahrain last month, where he suffered his third retirement from three races (although he was admittedly classified, albeit 14th and last).
Alonso is under no illusions about Honda and thinks the engine manufacturer has gone backwards.
“Yeah, definitely worse,” he told reporters in Russia last time out when asked how the situation compares to 2016. “We cannot even participate, like today [where I couldn’t even start].
“Something is not going right, but there is nothing I can do, probably…”
There have been rumours McLaren might switch back to Mercedes engines, with former team boss-turned TV pundit Eddie Jordan claiming in Sochi that a deal has already been done for 2018 – although this is denied by both parties.
That was on the same weekend Honda confirmed a new deal with Sauber for next year and whether that will help or hinder the relationship with McLaren is unclear. What is very clear, however, is that Alonso can’t keep waiting.
The clock is ticking…
Not getting any younger
Alonso will turn 36 in July and while he was once the young upcoming star, that’s no longer the case.
He has been racing since 2001, when he made his debut with Minardi and his two titles came back in 2005 and 2006 with Renault – a distant memory, more than a decade ago.
His contract with McLaren-Honda expires at the end of this season and it won’t be long until he needs to make a decision about his future.
Will Alonso really want to stay with McLaren-Honda in 2018? Given the teams current form, it is hard to see why.
Granted he has got the distraction of competing in the world-famous Indianapolis 500 this month (at the cost of missing Monaco), but even if he does go well there, and say he does pull off a shock win, will he then want to come back to Formula One, where all he can hope for is to fight for scraps?
After only qualifying 13th in Australia, Alonso gave possibly one of his strongest indications yet on what he might do.
“I expect a big change in the team, a big reaction. We will not be 13th all season, or I will not be,” he told the BBC.
Honda have not been able to get it right over the last 28 months, so what chance is there of them doing it over the next four or five months?
Perhaps some, especially with help from Mercedes, and despite his obvious disappointment in Russia, Alonso says F1 remains “his life”.
“Not being able to take part in the race today [in Sochi] and not being able to finish any race so far this season is extremely tough. It’s frustrating – every weekend is the same. But Formula 1 is my life, so hopefully we can improve the situation soon.”
Even if he remains committed to F1, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean he has to stay put…
Go for pastures new?
A move to a new team might be just the trick, but what top team will want him?
Mercedes is a possibility. Valtteri Bottas was only given a one-year contract after Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to quit. But the Finn seems to be settling in well and in Russia had the better of Hamilton all weekend.
Consider also that the last time Alonso and Hamilton were paired up at McLaren, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.
Would Mercedes really take that gamble?
Is it even a risk worth taking?
Alonso could also of course head back to Ferrari, where he was runner-up three times during his five year spell at Maranello. Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen are both in the final year of their deals, but he didn’t leave on the best of terms and said recently he doesn’t regret the decision to leave – despite the form of the Scuderia this year.
Would he really go back and would they have him?
Unlikely again, especially if Vettel stays on.
That only leaves Red Bull as the other ‘big team’ and they have hotshot and young superstar Max Verstappen on a long-term deal. Daniel Ricciardo is also highly regarded and waiting in the wings there is the equally highly-rated Carlos Sainz. In short there is no room at the inn for Alonso and besides Red Bull take drivers from their own development programme – if they don’t, what’s the point of it?
Red Bull boss Christian Horner said back in 2014, when Vettel moved to Ferrari, that Alonso was never really considered. Why would they consider him now…?
The other possibility might be to return to Enstone – the Renault team is a works outfit again and clearly has potential, but just how much and how soon it can turn things around is a big unknown.
Of course, Alonso could opt for a sabbatical or end up turning his back on Formula One altogether – although retirement doesn’t look likely. He wouldn’t be doing Indy and talking about trying to win the ‘Triple Crown’ if he didn’t love competing and love racing still.
Le Mans has also been touted as a possibility – but then there is only really Porsche or Toyota that would merit the move and both of them have said no for 2018.
It’s a definite conundrum and despite his status then, and despite all his successes, and despite being put in the same bracket as the likes of Hamilton, Vettel, as well as Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, Alonso doesn’t look to have a lot of options. There’s no easy answers – although he’s definitely too good to keep trundling around making up the numbers and there’s undoubtedly only just so much misery a person can take and Alonso has taken a lot.