Considered by many as one of the most talented drivers on the Formula 1 grid, Spaniard Fernando Alonso hasn’t been able to fully do his skill justice over his career. The two-time World Champion has, through a combination of bad luck and a lack of insight, routinely ended up in cars that can’t hold a candle to his natural ability and ambitions.
None more so than McLaren, who Alonso rejoined in 2015 after a tumultuous previous stint with the Woking outfit in 2007 that lasted only one year and was characterized by infighting with then-rookie teammate Lewis Hamilton. After splitting from long-time engine providers Mercedes-Benz, McLaren became the works team of Japanese automotive giants Honda. McLaren and Honda, of course, had a very successful working relationship in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost memorably dominating the 1988 season with 15 wins in 16 races.
However, the second McLaren-Honda era has yielded nothing but frustration and disappointment, with an awful first season being followed up by a campaign that started to show promise. Unfortunately, this promise never materialized into any form of discernible progress in 2017, with the team yet to have scored a single point heading into the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku due to a catastrophically under-powered and unreliable power-unit that provides for penalties a-plenty both for Alonso and highly rated teammate Stoffel Vandoorne. To give some context to the extent of the rot, struggling Sauber have even gotten themselves off the mark, leaving the Woking team to prop up the constructors standings.
With Alonso’s McLaren contract set to run out, team boss Zak Brown has bent over backwards in order to keep his star driver happy, even allowing the Spaniard to skip the Monaco Grand Prix to take part in the Indianapolis 500. In a cruel act of irony, Alonso’s Mclaren-Andretti IndyCar’s engine blew up late in the race while Alonso was running quite well among the leading pack. The engine in the car? What else than Honda. At the start of the Baku Grand Prix weekend, Alonso showed no indication of considering retirement from F1 just yet, stating; “I’m definitely at probably my best, so that’s okay in terms of keeping motivation and keeping hunger for success, despite the results – because you know and you feel that you are in a very good moment of your driving career” (Motorsport.com).
But what lies ahead for Alonso in 2018? We take a look at a number of possible destinations the Spaniard may end up at within F1:
Staying with McLaren
As unlikely as this seems, there is a possibility that Alonso may remain with his current team. Brown and Racing Director Eric Boullier have made it clear publicly in recent times that patience with Honda is wearing thin, and the general consensus around the paddock seems to be that a divorce is inevitable. The most likely result seems to be a return to Mercedes engines, with the German automotive giant capable of supplying another client team, while Renault have also indicated that they are willing and able to supply another team with engines.
The Spaniard may feel that if he leaves now, the previous three years would have been a complete waste, and he may stick around to try and see how the McLaren chassis performs with a more powerful and reliable engine in the back. Or, more unlikely, if the Honda partnership magically begins to pay dividends. Also, with Brown having indulged his desire to take part in the Indy 500, he might feel that the team may help him realize another one of his dreams – Namely to take part in Le Mans under the McLaren name in his quest to become only the second man to achieve the triple crown. Additionally, staying might make a lot of sense if a satisfactory opportunity elsewhere does not present itself in 2018.
Ferrari or Mercedes
Both marquee teams may potentially have available seats in 2018, with Kimi Raikkonen’s contract winding down at the Prancing Horse and Valtteri Bottas only having a one-year deal at the Silver Arrows. It would be any fan’s dream to see Alonso in one of the dominant machines under the new regulations, and the driver himself has stated that he is seeking a competitive seat. However, there are major barriers that may prevent the Spaniard joining either of these two powerhouses.
Alonso burned quite a few bridges when he departed from Ferrari after racing for them between 2010 and 2014. The Spaniard attempted a contractual power-play, which the Scuderia responded to by calling his bluff and signing Sebastian Vettel. The German, of course, has been firmly established as the undisputed number 1 at Ferrari, and it’s difficult to imagine them potentially upsetting the balance of the team by signing another driver who will not settle for anything less than being the main man. That being said, Vettel’s contract is also winding down, which means that the door may be opened for Alonso were the German to leave.
Similarly, Lewis Hamilton is entrenched as Mercedes’ lead driver, and their history at McLaren makes reuniting them a risky proposition. Additionally, we have seen that Hamilton does not play well with others who he considers a threat and is willing to go toe-to-toe with him. One has to look no further than his frosty relationship with retired World Champion Nico Rosberg to realize this. Even though the Silver Arrows’ boss, Toto Wolff, has refused to rule out a move for Alonso, it is hard to imagine that Mercedes would willfully give up the harmonious atmosphere so far cultivated between Hamilton and the level-headed Bottas.
A Return to Renault
Could Alonso return to the French manufacturer for a third stint? After all, the Spaniard won his two titles for Renault in 2005 and 2006, and they served as a sort of safe haven after his difficult 2007 campaign at McLaren. The temptation may also be overwhelming to join a factory team with an increased amount of resources available. After their full return to F1, Renault have been steadily improving, and with Jolyon Palmer’s well-documented struggles a seat would surely be opened up for Alonso were he to decide to return.
However, the question is whether the Spaniard would be willing to join what is still very much a work-in-progress. Renault do not yet seem to be in a position where they can realistically compete for podium positions, never mind the wins that Alonso so craves.
With Christian Horner having all but ruled out a move for Alonso due to the “watertight contracts”of all the drivers in the Red Bull stable, and Toro Rosso’s focus on developing young drivers, it’s safe to assume that he won’t be joining them for the 2018 season. Force India might be an intriguing destination to see what Alonso could do with the plucky over-performers, but it is unlikely that their modest financial clout would allow them to sign a superstar such as the Spanish ace. Teams like Williams, Haas and Sauber would obviously love to have Alonso on their books, but in terms of their current level of performance it seems unlikely that they would be able to convince Alonso to sign up.
But, tantalizingly, the Spaniard offered a fascinating soundbite recently. “I know there are more moves than we all probably know,” Alonso Spanish radio Cadena Cope. “It seems that some teams are already set for next year, but I do not think it is 100% confirmed,” he added. “I think there will be a lot of changes in 2018.”
Interesting times lie ahead for Fernando Alonso, and he may well have teased the fact that there might be an unexpected twist or two in the tale.