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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…

MRTI Preview: Mid-Ohio

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The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires faces possibly its busiest weekend of the year this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Yet another double header awaits the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires tackles it’s lone triple header of the year.

What’s more, the season is rapidly winding down for all three series. Indy Lights and Pro Mazda only have three race weekends remaining (Mid-Ohio, Gateway Motorsports Park, and Watkins Glen International), while USF2000 has only two (Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen), meaning time is running out for anyone who wants to challenge the championship leaders.

In Indy Lights, the title picture centers around one driver, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 are up for grabs between two pairs of young hard chargers. All told, the final weekends of the year have the makings for intense battles to claim not only the championships in each respective series, but also the Mazda scholarships that enable the drivers to move up.

Below are quick previews for all three series.

INDY LIGHTS

  • Top 5 in points: 1. Kyle Kaiser, 279, 2. Matheus Leist, 228, 3. Colton Herta, 214, 4. Zachary Claman De Melo, 207, 5. Aaron Telitz, 203

    Kyle Kaiser dominated the most recent Indy Lights outing in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Kyle Kaiser swept the weekend at Toronto, dominating Race 1 on Saturday and surviving a crash-filled Race 2 on Sunday. His weekend sweep gives him three victories for the year, and combined with struggles from the likes of Matheus Leist and Colton Herta to give him a sizeable championship lead of 51 points.
  • Zachary Claman de Melo and Aaron Telitz are quietly riding waves of momentum. Claman de Melo’s last four finishes are 1-6-2-3, while Telitz has gone 5-9-5-2 in the same stretch.
  • Though Kaiser has a sizeable championship lead, 39 points separate second from seventh (Leist, Herta, Claman de Melo, Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Nico Jamin).
  • Santi Urrutia swept both Indy Lights races at Mid-Ohio last year.
  • Ryan Norman’s No. 48 entry for Andretti Autosport gets a different look this weekend, with rock band Journey featured on the car.

 

PRO MAZDA

The Pro Mazda championship has been a see-saw battle between Franzoni and Martin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Top 5 in points: 1. Victor Franzoni, 174, 2. Anthony Martin, 167, 3. TJ Fischer, 115, 4. Nikita Lastochkin, 110, 5. Carlos Cunha, 103
  • Through six races, only Franzoni and Martin have won races (three apiece); with Fischer 59 points out of the lead in third, it appears Franzoni and Martin will decide the 2017 Pro Mazda championship.
  • Mid-Ohio represents the lone triple-header of the year for Pro Mazda, with races on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
  • Last year, in a triple-header for USF2000, Anthony Martin swept the weekend, winning all three races.
  • Nico Jamin swept the Pro Mazda weekend at Mid-Ohio last year, winning both races in what was then a double-header.

USF2000

  • Top 5 in points: 1. Oliver Askew, 283, 2. Rinus Veekay, 265, 3. Parker Thompson, 206, 4. Kaylen Frederick, 185, 5. Calvin Ming, 151

    Oliver Askew has struggled lately, allowing Rinus Veekay to close the championship gap. Parker Thompson now sits third. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Askew’s points lead has been trimmed to 18, with finishes of 17th (Road America Race 1, due to suspension problems) and 12th (Toronto Race 2, due to a crash) blighting an otherwise impressive season.
  • To contrast some of Askew’s recent struggles, Veekay has finishes of 1-1-2-3-2 in his last five races, allowing him to dramatically close the gap to Askew.
  • Parker Thompson’s weekend sweep at Toronto vaulted him to third in the championship. At 77 points back of the lead, it will be difficult to mount a title push, but his presence can be a spoiler for Askew and Veekay.
  • Of note: each of USF2000’s Mid-Ohio visits the last two years have seen weekend sweeps. As previously mentioned, Anthony Martin accomplished the feat in 2016, with Nico Jamin doing so in 2015. Conversely, the 2014 outing saw different winners in each race. RC Enerson, Jake Eidson, and Florian Latorre all won in a triple-header weekend that year.

Racing begins on Friday with USF2000 and Pro Mazda running their first races of the weekend. Indy Lights holds its first race of the weekend on Saturday.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

 

Foyt, Coyne optimistic about Mid-Ohio after testing

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Along with Felix Rosenqvist and Chip Ganassi Racing, two other teams visited the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for testing ahead of this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (Sunday July 30, 3:00 p.m., CNBC). A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Dale Coyne Racing sent their drivers and teams to Mid-Ohio in hopes of getting a leg up on things and building optimism ahead of this weekend.

For Foyt’s team in particular, the optimism is needed. Combined, drivers Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly have only three top tens (two for Munoz, one for Daly) across a total of 24 starts, making them desperate for strong results to come their way.

Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz are hopeful that they can turn their seasons around at Mid-Ohio. Photo: IndyCar

Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity for Foyt’s duo to right the ship. Munoz has finishes of fourth, ninth, and third in three starts at the Lexington, Ohio road course, while Daly led late in last year’s race and finished an impressive sixth.

And a productive test last week has both feeling hopeful. “We needed this test to try big steps and different options and I think we gained a lot from where we started to where we finished,” said Munoz, whose best 2017 finish of seventh came at Barber Motorsports Park in April.

Munoz added that, while they are still playing catch up a little, the team gained valuable information that should help them this weekend. “The car was much more competitive from where we started so we closed the gap but we need a little bit more to compete with the top guys. But the information that we gathered will help us to show up stronger than we did at the test so I’m looking forward to going back,” he asserted.

Daly echoed Munoz’s sentiments and added that his near-win last year makes him upbeat ahead of the weekend. “It was a really productive (test) for us. Every day with this car and aero package we are learning more. I feel like I came quite close to winning the race last year so I’m hoping to have another strong result this year,” Daly expressed.

Technical Director Will Phillips added that the knowledge they gained should help them at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway at the end of the season, particularly in terms of maximizing the grip from the tires.

“We certainly believe that the area we made an improvement in will help us at all the road courses to come – we have been slow to extract performance from the tires at times and it was in this area that some changes we made had a very positive response,” Phillips described. “We will keep our feet on the ground but are optimistic that we can carry the gains through for the remainder of the year, not just for Mid-Ohio.”

On the other side, Dale Coyne Racing has been a giant-killer in 2017, winning at St. Petersburg with Sebastien Bourdais and finishing third at the Indianapolis 500 with Ed Jones. James Davison, Tristan Vautier, and Esteban Gutierrez have also impressed in fill-in roles for the injured Bourdais.

Dale Coyne Racing has shown a lot of speed in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

And while the team has also incurred more than it’s fair share of crash damage, they have consistently showcased speed at nearly every event, and the team’s drivers are confident Mid-Ohio will yield more of the same.

“We had a really good test last week at Mid-Ohio. It was very positive and we worked on a lot of things,” said Ed Jones, who has four starts at Mid-Ohio from his days in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, with a best finish of sixth. “The car seemed pretty fast compared to others that were there. As we saw at Road America, it’s beneficial to be able to test somewhere before we race there. It can give you an advantage early on and hopefully we can produce another good result because of it.”

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez, making his sixth start for the team this weekend, is more modest of his expectations, but did reveal that a top ten finish could be realistic.

“In terms of objectives for the weekend, I want to keep on learning and it would be nice to reach the top ten. We know that it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for me in IndyCar but we’ve made some progress and hopefully we can make our way into the top ten pretty soon,” Gutierrez detailed.

Of the drivers mentioned here, Jones ranks the highest in the championship standings, currently sitting 12th. Munoz sits 15th, Daly 19th, and Gutierrez 25th in his fill-in role.

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Lando Norris also gets confirmed for Hungary test with McLaren

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McLaren Honda young driver Lando Norris has joined the list of those confirmed for the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test as well.

He’ll run on the second day, Wednesday, of the two-day test with Stoffel Vandoorne running on day one, Tuesday.

The teenaged Brit races for Carlin in the FIA F3 European Championship this season and is one of the most talented prospects in the pipeline, following his karting career and early years in formula cars. This will mark his test debut in an F1 car.

He was announced as part of McLaren’s development program in February.

Norris was confirmed a little more than a week ago for next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona in a United Autosports Ligier JS P217 LMP2 car but this gives him his first go in a proper F1 rocketship.

 

Pirelli review says Raikkonen tire not faulty at Silverstone

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Formula One tiremaker Pirelli has concluded that Kimi Raikkonen’s tire damage late in the British Grand Prix was likely caused by external contact.

Raikkonen was set for second place in the July 16 race but his tire problem allowed Valtteri Bottas to complete a Mercedes one-two with Lewis Hamilton. The Finnish driver even looked set to lose his podium spot to his own teammate Sebastian Vettel, but in a bizarre twist he ended up third after Vettel’s own tire shredded.

The sight of two Ferraris capitulating within moments of each other led Pirelli to conduct extensive post-race tests on both cars. Raikkonen’s problem, Pirelli said in a statement Wednesday, did not come from the tire itself.

“The possible initial cause of this damage is consistent with contact against an external body, leading to a partial separation of the belt from the carcass in the two affected areas,” Pirelli said. “On no occasion was there any sign of fatigue, detachment or laceration -or even the beginning of such problems – that affected the structure of the tire. In conclusion, Pirelli can confirm that no issues have emerged connected with the tire itself.”

Last week, Pirelli said that Vettel’s shredded tire at Silverstone was caused by a slow puncture.

Vettel appeared to be heading for third place at Silverstone until his front left tire suddenly blew apart two laps from the finish. The four-time F1 champion managed to steer his Ferrari back to the pits for a tire change, and secured seventh place to cling onto his championship lead. Raikkonen’s pit stop to change his tire came just before Vettel’s.

Hamilton won to cut Vettel’s championship lead to one point. Raikkonen, who has three podium finishes this season, is fifth overall.

The championship continues at the Hungarian GP this weekend before a month-long summer break.