Why is the Alonso leaving Ferrari rumor refusing to die down?

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Fernando Alonso celebrated his 32nd birthday a few days after last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix. In the paddock, many people gave him good wishes ahead of the day, and some were even kind enough to ask him: “What do you want for your birthday?”

When the Spaniard turned around and said: “Someone else’s car,” the rumor mill went into overdrive. Could Alonso – the man who was intended to revive Ferrari’s fortunes from 2010 – really be looking to leave?

Since then, the story has refused to lie down. Speculation linking him to McLaren emerged when it was revealed that Sergio Perez was under pressure (and ultimately dropped), but Alonso remained defiant. In fact, he was getting a bit irritated towards the end of the season when, in every press conference, he was asked the same question. “Will you be leaving Ferrari?”

Come 2014, little has changed. The same rumors linger, and after another poor start to the season and another title concession, it’s not surprising. You cannot blame Alonso for being frustrated. This glorious partnership that was intended to take both driver and team back to the top has not gone entirely to plan. Three championship runner-up trophies will mean little to either Alonso or Ferrari.

As per 2013, the main place that the rumor mill continues to spit out is McLaren. Jenson Button is 33 and nearing the end of his career; McLaren will be getting Honda engines for 2015, and could return to form. Although Alonso’s tenure with the team ended in the worst possible fashion – him walking away when relations with Lewis Hamilton soured – there are suggestions he could be angling for a move back. After all, he is one of the most naturally talented drivers on the grid, and ultimately wants a third world title before he retires. If Ferrari can’t give him that, someone else might.

The big problem with this story for me is that McLaren already has a succession plan in place. Namely, Stoffel Vandoorne is the man who puts a spanner in the works.

Vandoorne has consistently impressed throughout his junior career, much like Kevin Magnussen. He won on his GP2 debut in Bahrain last month, and is thought of very highly within the McLaren setup. Should Button opt to call it quits at the end of the 2016 season, having enjoyed one year with Honda power, Vandoorne appears to be the perfect driver to complement Magnussen. If McLaren did draft in Alonso as a replacement for Button, it would put Vandoorne’s F1 aspirations on the back burner.

Over the Spanish Grand Prix weekend, an even stranger rumor emerged: Alonso was angling for a move to Mercedes, the team that will most probably win both championships in 2014.

It must be hastened that, unlike the Newey to Ferrari rumor, this came out of nowhere. However, some corners of the paddock suggested that Alonso could come in as a replacement for Nico Rosberg, and re-join Lewis Hamilton.

Toto Wolff was asked about this rumor, and he looked perplexed, telling broadcasters “I wouldn’t change my line-up for the world.” Indeed, the Hamilton-Rosberg partnership looks to be very fruitful, having scored 197/215 possible points in 2014.

Alonso was then asked whether he’d be moving to Mercedes, but he just said: “No.”

Back to our original question. Why won’t the Alonso leaving Ferrari rumors go away? Because Ferrari still isn’t winning. Just one podium finish in the first five races is a very poor yield. The Spaniard continues to pull the car through the order and make it do things that it simply shouldn’t, but until he’s got the fastest car, it’s unlikely the rumor mill will give this one up.

I can appreciate why he would want to leave Ferrari, but where can he go? McLaren has the afore-mentioned succession plan, Mercedes has a perfect line-up, and so does Red Bull. A move to Lotus? Force India? Williams? Unlikely.

This story does split opinion in the paddock, but I for one cannot see him walking away from Ferrari at the end of 2014 because – disregarding everything else – he has few places to go.

He is still the unofficial number one driver, as suggested by Kimi Raikkonen’s odd strategy in Spain, and technical director James Allison is yet to design a car. His first will be in 2015. And who knows? Maybe that will be the year that the Alonso-Ferrari partnership finally lives up to the lofty expectations.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.