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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…

More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”

Jolyon Palmer on the back foot in Australia after F1 practice crash

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Renault’s Jolyon Palmer has admitted that he is “on the back foot” heading into the remainder of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix after completing just 10 laps in Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions.

F1 sophomore Palmer arrived in Australia looking to impress after enjoying a bold drive on debut at Albert Park 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on a points finish.

The Briton was the first driver to fall victim of F1’s more challenging cars in an official 2017 race weekend session, losing control through the final corner and slamming into the wall to bring his FP2 running to an early end.

This followed a problem earlier in the day that had limited his FP1 mileage, leaving Palmer with just 10 laps to his name from three hours of Friday running.

“Sadly it was a pretty short day for me in terms of time in the car. We had a minor technical issue in the first session then I had an off in FP2, which unlike FP1 required more than one part replacing,” Palmer explained.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened and we’ll be having a close look at the data. I feel for my crew as they have a decent amount of work to do.

“I’m hopeful of more track time tomorrow, but we’ll be on the back foot heading into qualifying after only 10 laps today.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Indy 500 champ Rossi takes his shot with the Blackhawks (PHOTOS)

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There are many cool things you get to do after winning the Indianapolis 500. Visiting the grounds of one of the NHL’s most successful, Stanley Cup-winning teams is one of them.

Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi visited Chicago this week to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks, trading in his usual No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for a No. 98 jersey.

Usually it’s the ‘Hawks that are one of the top teams in the NHL and a usual Stanley Cup trophy winner – they’ve won in 2013 and 2015, recently – but it’s the Cubs that right now host a championship trophy having won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

Anyway, here’s a few photos and videos from Rossi’s trip to Chitown, which also included his own chance to shoot a puck.

Rossi took a photo with iconic Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison:

Here’s Rossi with Marian Hossa:

Here’s a quick photo before practicing, then video of Rossi practicing:

Rossi paid a visit to WGN Radio:

And all told, Rossi was a fan:

FIA WEC reveals restructured TV commentary team

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One of Audi’s flagship drivers, Allan McNish and veteran TV hosts Martin Haven and Toby Moody join Louise Beckett and Graham Goodwin as part of the restructured television commentary team for the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of its 2017 season.

McNish retired from active driving at the end of the 2013 season and the two-time Le Mans winner and 2013 WEC LMP1 champion with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval has remained an ambassador for Audi in the years since. He’ll be at six of the eight WEC rounds this season (Le Mans considered separately, although under the WEC umbrella).

Moody has been a familiar voice for his bike coverage and in the U.S., for Red Bull Global Rallycross broadcasts on NBC Sports. He’ll be on for the 6 Hours of Silverstone, the 6 Hours of Nürburgring and the 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Haven is well known to sports car fans and will be on for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, 6 Hours of Mexico, 6 Hours of COTA, 6 Hours of Fuji and 6 Hours of Shanghai.

Beckett continues in the pits and paddock with DailySportscar editor Goodwin also back as part of the team; he’s been the lead analyst alongside John Hindhaugh the last couple years.

Hindhaugh won’t be on the TV side, instead having announced earlier this week on his own he’d be focusing on Radio Show Limited’s audio productions for WEC shows. Le Mans is treated as a separate entity from a broadcast and production side compared to the rest of the WEC season.

Renowned for his radio calls, Hindhaugh will be in his true area of passion throughout this season, as he also is Stateside for IMSA Radio’s coverage of IMSA championships. RSL has also recently announced it will broadcast VLN coverage this season (more here via DailySportscar).

“Thankfully the busy endurance racing schedule has only a couple of clashes so that means that for most of the WEC events I will be joining the established team providing live commentary for RSL radio,” Hindhaugh said in a release.

“For the WEC events I’m covering for the RSL radio service, we’ll be adding live audio coverage of qualifying to the regular full race broadcast.”

In the WEC release, series CEO Gerard Neveu thanked Hindhaugh for what he’s brought to the TV side the last couple years while also looking forward to the new arrivals to this year’s broadcast team.

“We believe that one of the reasons for the WEC’s current success in today’s motorsport world is that we try not to rest on our laurels; we are always looking to innovate and re-energize the championship in every area.

“John Hindhaugh, who has been our lead commentator until now, has decided to return to his first love of radio commentary, and we want to thank him for the great job he has done, and for his contribution to the championship. We are sure we will have an opportunity to work together again in the future but, for this year, we are very enthusiastic about our new broadcast team and the season ahead.”

The WEC season kicks off with the Prologue test next week in Monza before the season itself starts April 16 at Silverstone.