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Smith: As McLaren’s crisis deepens, Alonso’s 2018 plans become hot topic

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The nature of Formula 1’s ‘silly season’ means that it never really stops. Even when the driver market appears to have settled, thoughts will already be turning to next year, the year after that, and so on.

But with Fernando Alonso, his racing plans are of particular interest. Undoubtedly one of the finest drivers to have graced Grand Prix racing, the Spaniard’s haul of just two World Championships is far smaller than he deserves.

And as things stand, a third crown has never looked further away.

McLaren entered 2017 hopeful of continuing its upward trajectory from last season. Upon rekindling its famous partnership with Honda in 2015, season one was, frankly, a disaster. The power unit was unreliable and underpowered, resigning Alonso and teammate Jenson Button to a season of strife. In fact, Alonso’s greatest achievement that year was becoming a meme.

2016 brought better things as Honda made up ground, but sixth place in the constructors’ championship is still far off the kind of result that McLaren built its name upon. With 2017 welcoming a raft of new technical regulations and an end to the power unit token system that supposedly hampered Honda, gains were there to be made.

And yet after just seven days of pre-season testing, it is clear that McLaren-Honda is in deep trouble. Today alone, Alonso has stopped twice on-track; teammate Stoffel Vandoorne also ground to a halt on two occasions yesterday. The issues are not being fixed as expected.

Alonso’s exasperation at the situation was clear during his press briefing on Wednesday. He sounded tired as he summed up the situation when talking to reporters.

“With the chassis, everything feels good, everything feels under control. The car is responding well to changes and everything is working fine,” he said. “I’m happy with the balance, I’m happy with how I attack the corner. I’m enjoying driving this car, so I don’t think that we are too far back in terms of chassis side.

“We have only one problem: that is the power unit. There is no reliability and there is no power. I think we are 30 km/h down on every straight. When you are 30 km/h down on every straight, it is difficult also to have a feeling on the car. Everything feels good, but when you arrive to normal speed you don’t know what is going to happen.”

When asked if McLaren was running out of time to make up the lost ground before the start of the season in Australia on March 26, Alonso knocked the ball back to Honda.

“It’s more a question for Honda. I have a lot of time,” Alonso said. “As I said, I am enjoying [it], I am preparing myself better than ever. I’m feeling very strong, I’m feeling the strongest here, but I don’t have the power. I have a lot of time.”

So, 2017 already feels like a write-off for McLaren and Alonso. It may be early days, but it’s not looking promising.

So the inevitable question that follows is what will 2018 bring for the Spaniard? His contract will be up and as one of the finest racers on this planet, there will surely be a queue of possible suitors – but where will he land?

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

A MOVE TO MERCEDES?

A Mercedes seat is perhaps the most coveted prize for any F1 driver right now. Nico Rosberg’s retirement providing a shock opening for 2017, with Valtteri Bottas moving up from Williams, but Alonso confirmed that he was contacted over the winter about the drive. It was a short conversation, with Alonso making his commitment – or perhaps his apparently water-tight contract – clear to Mercedes, but you have to imagine he now feels a twinge of regret.

Bottas was deliberately handed a one-year deal as Mercedes knows both Alonso and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel are free agents for 2018. The idea of Alonso and Lewis Hamilton being teammates once again seems illogical to many given their hostile season together at McLaren in 2007 and the desire of both to be a clear number one, yet the chance to capture Alonso may prove too inviting to Mercedes.

If Mercedes shows the kind of dominance we’ve seen over the past three years in 2017, expect Alonso to be chasing a Silver Arrow drive next year. It’ll then be up to Mercedes to decide whether pairing two of F1’s finest drivers is worth the hassle of having two roosters in the same coop…

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MAY 12: Fernando Alonso of Spain and Ferrari celebrates on the podium after winning the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 12, 2013 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

A RETURN TO FERRARI?

“Really, Luke?” – yes, really. Hear me out.

Most thought that Fernando Alonso could never return to McLaren, particularly with Ron Dennis at the helm. But he went back.

Alonso’s exit from Ferrari was acrimonious, with the regular shortcomings at Maranello and instability leaving him exasperated. Yet that was a different regime. Luca di Montezemolo is no longer president; Marco Mattiacci is no longer team principal. And if pre-season is anything to go by, Ferrari is looking strong.

Having two big-name drivers is something Ferrari has history of, Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen being the most recent example in 2014. If Mercedes were to lure Vettel out of his ‘dream’ Ferrari deal or the German decided on taking a year out of F1, Alonso could be a good replacement. Failing that, why not put Alonso and Vettel together, leaving Kimi to retire? It would surely require Vettel’s blessing, which could be a stumbling block, but it would be a true test and comparison of two of this generation’s finest racers.

All of this hinges on just how fractured the relationship was between Alonso and Ferrari. If Alonso’s ill-feeling was towards individuals who are no longer at Maranello, then a comeback isn’t as crazy as it seems.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – OCTOBER 22: Fernando Alonso of Spain and Renault celebrates winning the world championship with his team after the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix at Interlagos Circuit on October 22, 2006 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

HOW ABOUT RENAULT?

This move is perhaps the least likely, but one of the most romantic. Alonso enjoyed great success with Renault in the early part of his F1 career, winning both of his titles with the French manufacturer in 2005 and 2006.

While it is a very different team nowadays, Renault would surely be interested in a star driver of Alonso’s quality to head up its F1 rebuild since returning to the sport as a constructor last year. Nico Hulkenberg would be a good partner for 2018, leaving Jolyon Palmer on the sidelines, but Alonso would need assurances on the project in place at Enstone and Viry. He wouldn’t want to commit to another project filled with untapped potential and frustration.

Again, it depends on Alonso’s emotional attachment to his former glories. A move to Renault would surely be a step down in many ways, yet it may offer a faster route to title success than sticking it out at McLaren.

© Scuderia Ferrari

A SWITCH TO WEC WITH PORSCHE?

Alonso plans to move to sports cars one day. The question, inevitably, is when.

He has spoken time and time again of his desire to race at Le Mans one day, even being the starter for the 2014 event, and reportedly was in talks to race for Porsche the following year, only for Honda to veto the deal.

Whether Alonso would do anything beyond F1 would come only if he leaves it, and properly prepares for the experience. He’s said this about any possible Indianapolis 500 attempt and has more or less said the same for Le Mans in the past.

Even if his engine isn’t up to it, Alonso seems to relish the challenge of driving the new-style F1 cars: “I feel really strong driving this year with these cars,” Alonso said Wednesday. “I can do my driving style, my quick input on the steering wheel on entry in the old days, so I’m really enjoying it.” The more aggressive, faster cars make it unlikely that Alonso would want to turn his back on that just yet.

Might he move to the FIA World Endurance Championship? It depends if there’s even room at the inn, or if it’s a type of car he’d be keen to drive.

Porsche has altered its LMP1 lineup with Andre Lotterer, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber joining anyway for this year, and Toyota’s contract with the championship runs through 2017 without news yet of an extension. Does Peugeot consider a comeback, as they’ve teased if costs came down? Then there’s privateer LMP1 cars, which appear poised to make a big comeback in 2018, notably from Ginetta and SMP Racing. Would Alonso even consider a GTE-spec car with four manufacturers confirmed and a fifth, BMW, set to join next year?

The ball would be in Alonso’s court for any such move, but it’d require him giving up on his F1 career first. And if this season with McLaren isn’t as good as he might hope, would he want to leave F1 on those terms? Perhaps not.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

STICKING IT OUT AT McLAREN?

Right now, it seems unlikely that Alonso would want to commit to another stint at McLaren. Three years into the project with Honda, and still the gains and glory that were hoped for back in 2015 seem a million miles away. Even with a regulation change, McLaren-Honda is scrambling. The regime has just changed, but will take time to make a real difference at Woking.

For Alonso, staying with McLaren would depend on a number of things. Firstly, the team would have to show some sign of potential this year – I’m talking 2016 level as a bare minimum, which right now seems a way off – to convince him that brighter days are to come; that a title may be possible in the next two to three years.

Even then, it’s another waiting game for Alonso. Over 10 years have passed since his last title success, despite a number of near misses in the meantime. If McLaren doesn’t look capable of bringing him a third title in the near future, then what will be the point of staying? Alonso isn’t the kind of driver to quietly enjoy his twilight years in F1. He’ll be fighting for every position and every point until his final lap in grand prix racing.

Alonso’s future at McLaren surely depends on its 2017 form. If pre-season is anything to by, then he surely won’t be willing to stick around unless the new chiefs at the team can persuade him it’s the best thing to do.

© Fernando Alonso Relevans

RETIREMENT FROM RACING?

Don’t be silly. Even if Alonso wanted to bail on F1 for a year or permanently, he wouldn’t quit racing altogether. He’d inevitably pop up in places racing all kinds of cars. That’s the kind of guy he is. His comments when asked about Nico Rosberg’s retirement said as much.

“I cannot stop, [racing] is like a drug,” Alonso said at McLaren’s launch. “For Rosberg he was very brave to step away, I wish him the best.

“I will be 80 years old and I will be in a go-kart on a circuit racing and pushing the kids off the track in front of me.”

So be assured: Fernando Alonso will be on-track in 2018 somewhere. Quite where remains a mystery, but that’s the guessing game we’re all ready to play this year…

Raikkonen grabs Monaco GP pole as Hamilton tanks in Q2

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Kimi Raikkonen will start a Formula 1 race from pole position for the first time in almost nine years on Sunday after topping qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Raikkonen lasted started a grand prix from pole in France in 2008, but managed to edge out Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel at the end of Q3, finishing 0.043 seconds clear in the final stage of Q3.

Raikkonen’s time of 1:12.178 came at the end of a surprising qualifying session that saw two-time Monaco winner and 2017 F1 title contender Lewis Hamilton drop out in Q2, finishing 14th-fastest.

Complaining that he could not get any grip into his tires, Hamilton abandoned his first run in Q2 entirely before pitting.

The Briton was sent out for a second run late on with the chance for three timed laps, the first two of which were compromised. When Hamilton finally found some space to charge, he was greeted by yellow flags for Vandoorne, forcing him to back off, abandon his lap, and be resigned to a lowly P14 finish in qualifying.

Valtteri Bottas was left to lead Mercedes’ charge in Q3, finishing third, just 0.002 seconds behind second-placed Vettel. Red Bull took fourth and fifth on the grid through Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo respectively.

Carlos Sainz Jr. had an impressive run to sixth for Toro Rosso ahead of Sergio Perez, while Haas’ Romain Grosjean made it through to Q3, finishing eighth.

McLaren enjoyed its best qualifying of the season as both Vandoorne and Jenson Button made it through to Q3, but it was not without its troubles. Vandoorne crashed at the end of Q2, forcing a number of drivers to back off on their final lap – including Hamilton – and will drop back three places from P10 due to a penalty overspilling from Spain.

Button charged to ninth on his one-off return to F1, but will fall back to last place for the start on Sunday after receiving a 15-place grid drop due to a power unit issue.

Daniil Kvyat was left 11th for Toro Rosso ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen, with Hamilton following in P14. Felipe Massa rounded out the top 15, having failed to post a quick lap time through the whole of Q2.

Esteban Ocon’s qualifying was something of a rollercoaster as he was eliminated in Q1 after Force India completed a rapid repair job on his VJM10 car following his practice smash. A late lap from Grosjean bumped Ocon down to 16th, dumping him out of qualifying at the first hurdle.

Jolyon Palmer and Lance Stroll’s difficult run of form continued as both dropped out in Q1, finishing 17th and 18th respectively. Palmer’s first run was hindered by a puncture, with the Briton late reporting large amounts of understeer on his car.

Sauber’s practice struggles carried over to qualifying as it propped up the running order in Q1. Pascal Wehrlein finished 19th, while teammate Marcus Ericsson was P20 after clipping the barrier on his final lap, forcing him to park up.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app at 7am ET.

Spain points a ‘massive’ morale boost for Sauber after tough start

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Sauber Formula 1 techincal chief Jörg Zander feels that Pascal Wehrlein’s run to eighth place in the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago acted as a “massive” morale boost to the team after a tough start to the season.

After years of uncertainty, Sauber’s long-term future was secured last summer when the team was taken over by Longbow Finance, allowing it to go on a recruitment drive and bolster its staffing levels.

The team opted to stick with 2016-spec Ferrari power units for the 2017 season ahead of a new deal with Honda for next year, putting it on the back foot compared to its rivals.

Sauber endured a bumpy start to the year when Wehrlein was injured through the off-season and forced to miss the first two races, as well as struggling to battle for points early in the year when the 2017-spec power units would not be so far ahead.

Wehrlein managed to bounce back in Spain two weeks ago after the team perfected a one-stop strategy to finish eighth, giving the team its best result in two years.

“There was obviously a massive boost for the morale and motivation of the team. We actually didn’t expect us to be there in Barcelona,” Zander said.

“The upgrade package which we planned for Barcelona, we moved to this event. So somehow things seem to have been turned upside down. As you know, we didn’t have Pascal for the first two races, so we had to go with [Antonio] Giovinazzi and, of course, that introduced quite a bit of a change to the operational side.

“So we had a very young, new driver into the car, which we needed to get adapted. But obviously from a development point of view, we do understand that the car is behind, compared to our defined competition, which is the midfield, primarily because we started pretty early in the season to develop that car.

“So we have to try and catch-up. But the parameter we fight here, of course, is time and it’s difficult to gain time over the competition. They have a certain time available as we have, so there’s not any difference.”

Despite finding stability, Sauber is still a significantly smaller operation compared to many of the teams in F1, with Zander appreciating the challenge this creates.

“The thing is, of course, about resources, and these resources, we’re just about to configure and to adapt,” Zander said.

“We have made plenty of recruitments but these are all new people so there is a human factor involved, with regards to getting more out of this operation.

“These are the kind of difficulties that we are fighting at the moment.”

Ferrari has burning ambition to win 1st Monaco GP since 2001

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MONACO (AP) Having closed the gap to dominant Mercedes in an incredibly close-fought Formula One season, Ferrari has another burning ambition: Winning the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.

The Italian manufacturer’s barren spell in Monaco dates to Michael Schumacher’s win in 2001, and four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel is determined to put that right.

“I would say it is about time that Ferrari wins again here,” said Vettel, who has 44 career wins.

“If you could have the freedom to choose any race on the calendar that you would want to win, it would without doubt be Monaco. Ask up and down the paddock and you would get the same answer.”

Schumacher, who won a record seven world titles and 91 races, also won at Monaco driving for Ferrari in 1997 and ’99.

Vettel’s Monaco win was in 2011, when driving for Red Bull. He was fourth here for Ferrari last year while teammate Kimi Raikkonen did not finish the race. In 2015, the year he joined Ferrari, Vettel was second and Raikkonen was sixth.

Ferrari has stepped up the pace this year and, with increased reliability, is matching Mercedes, which has won the last three drivers’ and constructors’ titles.

After five races, Vettel leads the championship by six points from Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton; while Mercedes is eight ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ race.

But Ferrari may be a bit quicker than Mercedes this year, and the increased pressure has forced some uncharacteristic errors.

During the second practice on Thursday, Mercedes made a sloppy mistake when misjudging a tire switch onto the quicker ultra-soft compound. That allowed Ferrari to top the charts in P2, with Vettel fastest and Raikkonen third.

“It is important to start from the front of the grid, here more than anywhere else,” Vettel said. “I am not counting out Mercedes. I am sure they will be back to full force on Saturday (for qualifying).”

Ferrari’s vastly improved reliability suits Vettel perfectly. The German driver is remarkably consistent if the car allows him to be – like it was when he won four straight titles with Red Bull. But he is also quickly irritated when the car lets him down, as it often did last year.

There have been no Vettel tirades over the race radio. He has placed in the top two in all five races, winning in Australia and Bahrain.

“The single-lap pace is very promising,” Vettel said. “The aim is to get faster.”

Vettel’s confidence has definitely returned, along with some of his old panache.

At the Spanish GP two weeks ago, he was being held up by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and could not find a way past. So he tried a move from his karting days; a dummy move from right to left and then swiftly back right again to pass Bottas on the inside.

It is highly unlikely there will be a repeat of that on Sunday, given that the narrow and sinewy Monaco street circuit is arguably the hardest track in F1 to overtake on. Drivers are often brushing the barriers anyway, and this year’s wider cars make that an even more perilous possibility.

“Here you are not entirely the master of your own fate, as many things can happen in a long race,” said Vettel, who has twice been forced to retire during the Monaco GP. “Let’s keep the fingers crossed.”

Esteban Ocon making a name for himself as a rising F1 star

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MONACO (AP) Esteban Ocon is described by one member of his Force India team as a “sponge” because of his capacity to absorb information.

The 20-year-old Frenchman is one of the rising stars of Formula One. Although he has not made the same impact as 19-year-old Max Verstappen – a once-in-a-generation driver – Ocon is making a name for himself with his consistency and some audacious overtaking.

He has scored points in all five races so far, placing a career-best fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago. Prior to that he was seventh in Russia, and overall he sits in eighth place, one spot behind Force India teammate Sergio Perez.

That would be good enough for most drivers early in their careers, but Ocon is in a hurry.

“It is my personal target to get a podium and I want to have it as soon as possible,” Ocon said prior to this weekend’s Monaco GP. “It makes me confident to have a great start like this, progressing all the time, fitting very well into the team. I think we can achieve great things.”

Ocon broke into F1 last year, making his debut for the now defunct Manor team a month before his 20th birthday at the Belgian GP in late August. He has only competed in 14 career races but has managed to make an impression several times.

None more so than at the season-opening Australian GP, where he overtook Fernando Alonso with a passing move down the right that the two-time F1 champion himself would have been proud of. The timing of the attack, where he patiently prodded behind Alonso before swooping around him in a flash, bore the hallmarks of a future great.

“I loved the move against Fernando,” said Ocon, the youngest French driver to score points in F1. “That was pretty solid.”

After getting past Alonso, he then held him off while also repelling an attack from the experienced Nico Hulkenberg. That was only his 10th F1 race, yet he defied two drivers with 400 between them.

Verstappen, the youngest F1 driver to win a race when he clinched the Spanish GP last year, has a similar instinct for overtaking and also possesses the acute concentration and calmness required to properly defend a position under extreme pressure.

That Ocon beat Verstappen to the European Formula 3 title in 2014 – winning it with a round to spare and earning himself a spot on the prestigious Mercedes F1 junior program – hints at untapped potential.

“He’s quick. He proved that in junior categories,” said Daniel Ricciardo, Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate. “You know Esteban got that (F3 title), so he’s obviously talented.”

Moreover, Ocon is incredibly committed to understanding the intricacies of the Force India car, which runs on Mercedes engines.

“I don’t believe too much in the concept of luck. Behind results there is always hard work,” Ocon said. “I always go to the factory between the races to have intense debriefs with my engineers and do simulator work, for hours and hours.”

His propensity for learning astounds senior team members.

“He’s like a sponge and he just absorbs information as fast as you can give it to him. His want and his desire are unquestionable,” said Andrew Green, the team’s technical director. “He absolutely wants this and he has the talent to do great things, but he is going about it the right way. I have no doubts that he is going to get to where he wants to be in a few years’ time.”

Green further describes Ocon’s intuitive understanding of how far he can push the car.

“I watched him for quite a long time in the simulator last week, pounding around the (Monaco circuit), and his car control was incredible,” Green said. “He’s an amazing talent. Can he get a podium? Well, we need to give him the car to do that. But he has an uncanny ability to finish races.”