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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…

What Drivers Said after the finish of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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Here’s What Drivers Said after the rain-delayed conclusion of the INDYCAR Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) – WINNER: “That was more eventful than I would have liked. But everybody did a great job. How about Team Chevy today – they gave us a great engine, good fuel mileage and good reliability, and that’s what we needed to win this race. It’s great having Hitachi – we got Verizon a victory, now we got Hitachi a victory, so thank you guys. Everyone at Team Penske did a great job, but like I said, that was more eventful than I wanted it. It would seem like smooth sailing for the most part, we didn’t have any yellows, which we were hoping no yellows today, but then the rain crept in. I couldn’t believe how long everyone stayed out. It was really risky what they were doing, but I understand why there were doing it. I’m glad we made the call to come in so soon.”

RYAN HUNTER (No. 28 DHL Honda) – finished 2nd: “It was a good race, it was tough getting the fuel number and trying to keep the pace up, but it was a lot of fun when it started raining, trying to find the grip again and searching around. I was almost worried that I was going to burn the front (tires) off. We came in early for the wet (tires). I stayed out there as long as I could, but on the slicks, I was a lot quicker and it was that inconsistent snap that you have. When you have one of those (snaps) with the slicks you can absolutely lose it completely, so we thought that was the best time to come in and grab the Firestone wets. It was good from there. I just needed a little bit more time to cut in on (Josef) Newgarden’s lead. Congratulations to Team Penske and (Josef) Newgarden. Great job by the DHL guys this weekend. We rolled off the truck, we weren’t that happy with the car and we kept working on it methodically, chipping into it and everybody just executed it – so a good weekend overall.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda) – finished 3rd: “I feel bad for the fans as much as anything. We were driving around out there, and it’s like, ‘Right guys its getting wetter, it’s getting wetter….’ ‘Wet enough for rains?’ ‘Nah, not wet enough for rains…’ ‘Wet enough for rains?’ ‘Nah…’ ‘Pit for rains.’ ‘Are you guys sure?’ It was the right call for sure, so big props to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports guys; solid weekend for us in the end. As I said before, not a great test here, but two cars in the top 10 after qualifying and then two cars in the top five in the race, so pretty proud of these boys and everyone on the Arrow Electronics car. It’s good to get a couple of Hondas up there, maybe not on the top step of the podium, but we took the rest of it.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda) – finished 4th: “I was having to save a lot of fuel in that second stint, so once (Scott) Dixon started getting close to me, I was thinking I might have to give this position up. Then the rain came, so the fuel mileage kind of happened naturally. The rain saved us a bit, but overall great job by the Lucas Oil guys. I was a little gutted that we came out into a big bunch of traffic, but it made the race fun. It was also a little bit frustrating as we lost a bit of track position there, and I think we could have both been fighting for higher steps on the podium today.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda) – finished 5th: “It was just a tough day for the SealMaster Honda No. 18 team. It was looking perfect. We executed the plan to perfection. I started on scuffed Firestone red (alternate) tires, so we had a lot of tire degradation, but were still able to save more fuel than almost everyone. Josef (Newgarden) went for the push and it looked like we were still going to beat him because he pitted the second time and we got ahead. I had enough fuel to finish, but unfortunately, Mother Nature decided to open the skies and there wasn’t anything we could do about that. We tried to stay out and it bit us. On top of that, when we put on the wet tires, I don’t know what happened but the car was diabolical. I couldn’t do anything. I barely kept Scott (Dixon) behind me. I gave it my best shot, the guys did a good job, but it wasn’t enough. Everyone is executing perfectly. Unfortunately, you can’t predict what the weather is going to do, so you have to make a call one way or the other and we were on the wrong side of the fence today. The good news is we finished fifth and keep putting ourselves in position. Our pace is good and we are in the championship mix.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) – finished 6th: “I think I was one of the drivers on the fence in regards to if we should restart or not yesterday. I guess overall, it was the same for everyone. I literally couldn’t see a thing from the PNC Bank car and was just trying to hold it straight. Cars were just going by me, and there was nothing you could do because I couldn’t see anything out of my visor. It’s a shame we couldn’t get in the full distance Sunday because Barber is an amazing track with an incredible crowd. I think the one-stop strategy was the one to have today and it would have put us third, but the rain took care of that, unfortunately. The car was fast and really good on fuel mileage, but it is what it is. Hopefully we can get a break to go our way in a few weeks.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda) – finished 7th: “In the dry, we were able to make some moves and get by some guys, and turn in some good laps when we needed to before the pit stops and cycle out to a pretty good spot. Overall, it was a decent day. I can’t say too much bad about it. I’ll take seventh. We lost some ground to a few of the guys ahead, but overall it’s good to be third in points.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda) – finished 8th: “We tried a one-stop strategy, and basically everyone else was on two-stoppers, so we looked like we lacked pace, but we had to save a massive amount of fuel. It looked good until the middle. My teammate came on charge and was on a hard two-stopper, so I let him go and lost some positions a couple of times, but then it looked good. If the yellow came, we would have been in a very positive position. Even not, a lot of people had to come into the pits. However, unfortunately the rain came and I had to stop again for rain tires, which meant my second stint was basically just a slow pace. It’s a big shame. The rain helped me a lot yesterday to get to eighth and today, in the end, the rain didn’t help my strategy. I will take it after a difficult qualifying.  We need to make the car fast at the (INDYCAR) Grand Prix because we have a lot of work to be done.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet) – finished 9th: “We had a pretty good race going and I think we potentially could have been a top five (finisher). So, I was very frustrated with Gabby (Chavez). He was two laps down. And I just got stuck behind him, which gave an opportunity to (Scott) Dixon as I was trying everything I could to make it happen. But, it’s a real shame because when it’s not your day, it’s just not your day. You’ll have better days later, but you won’t have everybody on your side when you have a good day. And at the moment, he doesn’t have me on his side, let me tell you. But, it’s a real shame. I think the Menards No. 22 was really from where we started. The strategy to go on rain (tires) when we went on rain was a good choice and I thought it was a really good pace. We just started from too far back.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda) – finished 10th: “It was a lot of fun out there, but I think finishing 10th is the worst we should’ve finished. I think myself and the guys earned a third-place finish. We beat (James Hinchcliffe) out in the end – so we had third locked up until the rain made all the one-stoppers work. We were looking really good for a podium; the Kerauno team was way better than what the race results showed, but we know we have the pace, so we’ll keep digging and move on to Indy.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda) – finished 11th: “It definitely wasn’t our best day. We initially went into the race with the plan of doing a two-stopper, then we switched to a one-stop strategy once the race started because of the extra formation laps. Once the race got going, we were on the wrong tire for the one-stop plan, and couldn’t make the fuel work, so we switched back to a two-stop strategy. It was looking OK, but we tried to survive the rain probably one lap too long and we lost time to guys that had already switched to rain tires. We ended up 11th. It wasn’t a great day from a performance or strategy standpoint. It’s a day that we’ll certainly be putting behind us as soon as possible and look forward to (the INDYCAR Grand Prix) where we had a really strong test a couple weeks ago.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) – finished 12th: “We made some great progress from where we started the weekend, so I’m pretty happy with that. The car was good with the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the race, so I think we had good pace. We were running with (Simon) Pagenaud, and when (Scott) Dixon came in front of me he was not that much faster, which means we made some progress from practice. Unfortunately in the rain, the car wasn’t as good, we were struggling with understeer, so I couldn’t push as I wanted. If we look at where we started and where we finished, it was a good weekend. I’m happy for the ABC Supply team and myself. Onto Indianapolis.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda) – finished 13th: “The weekend overall was good for us, confidence-wise – advancing to the top 12 in qualifying and getting up to position sixth yesterday for the first part of the race. Today, I think we definitely had the pace to finish inside the top 10, but we had a few mechanical issues during the race. I lost all of my adjustments inside of the car, so once that happened I was a sitting duck. Extremely thankful for my Group One Thousand One crew for the job they did this weekend. We held on the best we could to come home 13th. Hopefully we can improve for the (INDYCAR Grand Prix) and of course build on everything in time for the Indianapolis 500.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet) – finished 14th: “I had a really good restart. I did exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to dispatch a couple of cars quite quickly. I managed to get past both Ed (Jones) and Scott (Dixon) before Turn 2, so that was really good actually. That gave me good track position, we were then in the top five. Unfortunately, the rain yesterday may have caused an electrical problem that took quite a while to clear. Once we got going, it was then alright. Our strategy was then compromised with the rain and we were caught out. Overall slightly annoying, we really would have been fine for a top-five finish quite comfortably, I think.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet) – finished 15th: “It was definitely a difficult race out there. We thought we were making up some ground by pitting early and running hard, which seemed to be working a bit. We tried to gamble at the end to stay on slicks. We were hoping for a yellow that the race would end under and we could stay up where we were. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and I just tried to keep it on the road the best I could. Eventually, it just got too wet and we had to come in at the end. There are some positives to take away from this weekend, we’re going to take those into the INDYCAR Grand Prix and hopefully be back up front.”

RENE BINDER – finished 16th: No comments

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet) – finished 17th: “Today’s conditions were not ideal for us to start. Our strategy we used yesterday to hope for a yellow to get our lap back obviously never came. We just did more to learn, try to gauge our pace and try to keep improving. I thought we really improved on our pace compared to everyone else and we did well to pick up a few positions at the end of the day and brought the car home. Now we get to work on our most important month of the year.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) – finished 18th: “We had a very difficult weekend and I’m glad it’s over. Looking forward to Indianapolis.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda) – finished 19th: “Yesterday was tough with all the rain, and I think it was a good call to postpone the race to today. With the two-lap penalty that we received yesterday, we knew we were already at a disadvantage. So, the main goal today was to show my race craft aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car, show that my pace was there and to show that if we would have been on the lead lap that we could have definitely fought for a top 10 position. I think we did that with how I was able to pass other cars on a track that is known to be difficult for passing. We had good pace, and the fastest race lap, so it was a positive weekend overall even if it didn’t go our way.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) – finished 20th: “Yesterday at the start, I was trying to attack, but it was very difficult. I just couldn’t see anything. Especially on the restarts. Maybe I could have been more aggressive or kept my foot down, but I didn’t think it was worth the risk in the NTT DATA car. Conditions were just very, very tough. You couldn’t see a thing. Today we got restarted and we were making progress, but we had mechanical issues and had to pit way before it was over. The guys will have to take a look at the car to see what happened I think. Hopefully we can move on and have a good start to the month of May in Indy.”

WILL POWER – finished 21st: No comments

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet) – finished 22nd: “That was a really unfortunate way for us to end the weekend. We were happy with the qualifying effort of the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet and felt like we were making progress, but after the race was red-flagged and everyone was allowed to start on full fuel, we knew we were going to have a hard time doing much strategy-wise to move toward the front. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t get a chance to see what we could do during the remainder of the race because of an electrical issue that had us stopped on track before the field went green. The boys had it fixed and back out on track, but once we had confirmed the issue was fixed out on track and the heavy rain picked back up again, there was no point in us continuing and possibly tearing anything up.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet – quote given Saturday) – finished 23rd: “The No. 10 car of Ed Jones just drove into the back of me. The stewards reviewed it and decided that no action would be taken, which I vehemently disagree with. Yeah, visibility was tough out there, but it was tough for everyone. I didn’t run into anyone and no one else ran into me, except for the No. 10 car. I don’t know what the stewards were looking at, but I’m going to have a discussion with them after the race. I’m just disappointed because the Carlin guys know how to run in the wet and they gave me a great car. We were moving up the field a few spots, and with the Marco (Andretti) spin, we were able to elevate another spot. We were just knocking on the door of making it into the top 10 and coming out of here in these conditions with a top-10 result heading into May would’ve been really good for the team.”

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