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Alonso to Williams rumor offers fresh twist to F1 silly season

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Just as Formula 1’s driver market ‘silly season’ appeared to be running out of steam, a fresh twist has emerged ahead of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix following a report that a move to Williams has emerged as a possible option for two-time world champion Fernando Alonso next season.

Alonso is out of contract at the end of 2018, and has long made his desire to be in a winning car next season clear after three difficult years with McLaren, hamstrung by Honda’s underperforming power unit.

Alonso entered this season appearing to hold the keys to the driver market for next year, but his options have narrowed dramatically in the months that have followed.

Valtteri Bottas’ impressive start to life with Mercedes looks set to result in him sticking around for 2018, while Ferrari confirmed earlier this week that Kimi Raikkonen would be part of its line-up once again next year. A similar announcement concerning Sebastian Vettel does not appear to be far off.

With Renault still running in F1’s midfield and rebuilding after returning to the sport with a works team in 2016, a third stint with the French marque does not yet appear attractive enough to Alonso.

This appeared to leave the Spaniard two options for 2018: stick with McLaren, regardless of whether or not it continues with Honda; or take time out of F1, something he does not want to do given his affinity for the new-spec cars.

Auto Motor und Sport‘s Michael Schmidt reported on Friday that Williams has now emerged as a possible alternative for Alonso, as the British team bids to return to its past glories and boost its global profile with a blue-riband signing.

The idea of Alonso joining Williams for 2018 was put to deputy team boss Claire Williams by NBCSN’s Will Buxton over the British Grand Prix weekend in July.

“I would be very flattered if Fernando Alonso came and knocked on our door, of course,” Williams said.

“He’s one of the best drivers in Formula 1 history, that the sport has ever seen. He’s a phenomenal talent.

“What a great coup for any team to get Fernando. But as I said, we’ve got to focus on this year and maybe worry about drivers later in the year.”

Williams did however add: “He would be a proper Williams driver. He’d probably look good in Williams Martini overalls as well, right? We’ll see…”

Williams currently fields Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll in its race seats, the latter arriving in F1 this year off the back of a convincing Formula 3 title win and with significant financial backing from his father, Lawrence.

Massa had initially planned to retire from F1 at the end of last year, only for Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to quit the sport after his world championship win to free up a seat at Williams again when Valtteri Bottas moved up to Mercedes.

Were Alonso to join Williams, he would find himself racing with the strongest power unit on the grid courtesy of Mercedes, resolving his chief complaint from his time with McLaren.

Alonso has long said he would wait until September before making a decision about his F1 future, even joking at Spa earlier this week that he has “one more week of freedom” before he would start thinking about it.

Schmidt notes in his report that Alonso would only be looking for a one-year deal, regardless of where he moves to, with the driver market for 2019 set to be particularly fluid as more seats at the front of the field become available.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.