McLaren confirmed the worst kept secret in Formula One last week when they announced Fernando Alonso had officially left the team.
It is a shame that Alonso was unable to make amends with McLaren because his rivalry with Lewis Hamilton was fantastic. Another year of them together would have been great to watch.
It is also a shame for Alonso because staying at McLaren and beating Hamilton would have been the best way to restore his shattered reputation. Fernando was quicker than Lewis more often than not this year and scored the same number of points as the rookie despite having slightly worse luck. The double world champ should have relished the challenge of trouncing Hamilton on equal footing next year, but instead leaving McLaren is like admitting defeat.
The question on everybody’s lips now is where Fernando will end up in 2008 and beyond.
Ferrari is not an option. The Scuderia have signed Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen for the next two years and they would have been crazy not to. Both drivers are supremely fast and also work together very well. Introducing Alonso into the mix would have been a risk unlikely to pay off, and Ferrari are still bitter that he did not sign for them in 2001.
The Italian team will not be changing their line-up until Raikkonen leaves the sport in a few years time.
Along with Ferrari there are some backmarkers that Alonso can rule out joining. Force India cannot afford him, nor would Fernando want to go there. Super Aguri are also out of the running because Honda would push the Spaniard into their senior outfit instead. Red Bull would do the same thing to Scuderia Toro Rosso, but STR wouldn’t care anyway because they already have two fast cheap drivers next year.
However, just about everyone else is potentially on Fernando Alonso’s shopping list.
Renault seem the most likely option. Alonso started with the team back in 2002 as their test driver and ended up handing the French manufacturer two world championships. He knows the team very well and he would return there as undisputed number one.
Renault have confirmed offering Alonso a contract for 2008 and they are simply waiting on a response.
McLaren would also be happy to have Heikki Kovalainen so a convenient swap could be organised.
A deal with Flavio Briatore is not so straightforward though.
Alonso left the team on bad terms. He signed for McLaren as early as 2005 before publicly stating that he “felt alone” at Renault. Not everyone within the team would be welcoming him back.
Not only that, but Renault pride themselves on cost efficiency. They won the world title on a much smaller budget than their competitors and may not be ready to change that philosophy to accommodate Fernando’s massive salary. Alonso will be after big dollars but Renault might not want to hand them over.
Fernando might be prepared to take a pay cut to get into Renault, because the only other competitive team on the grid is BMW and his chances of joining them are extremely slim.
BMW have confirmed that Heidfeld and Kubica are contracted for 2008, so Alonso’s only hope is that Mario Theissen organises a driver swap with McLaren. Nick Heidfeld used to be a McLaren test driver, and also won the Formula 3000 title for Ron Dennis, so it would not be unnatural to see him dressed in silver. However it is extremely unlikely. It seems far more certain that Alonso will be racing next year with an uncompetitive team.
Red Bull and Toyota are the favourites.
Both have the budget to afford him, and both would be willing to meet any of Alonso’s demands.
Red Bull are a team on the way up. Adrian Newey designed a very quick, if unreliable, car in 2007 and another year of development will improve it greatly. Ron Dennis himself once said “It is easier to make a fast car reliable than a reliable car fast”. If Red Bull can build a gearbox and hydraulic system that holds together for a race distance they will be in serious contention. They should have won the Japanese Grand Prix this year and they are likely to have more such opportunities in the future.
If Red Bull are also courting Ross Brawn as rumoured, they might become a very potent force in the years ahead.
The drinks company could also engineer a swap that sends Mark Webber to McLaren. Webber did a very good job for Mercedes in sportscars and he is highly rated by Norbert Haug. He was briefly linked to McLaren last year before Hamilton was confirmed, so it is a deal that could work out nicely for all involved.
Toyota would also be quite reasonable for Fernando.
The main factor that forced Alonso out of McLaren was his teammate, but he wouldn’t have that problem at Toyota since he and Trulli are good friends. Jarno has also said that he would love to have Alonso back with him.
More importantly, Trulli has recently said “I know he (Fernando) has spoken to Toyota”.
The Japanese team need Alonso and they need him badly. The only way Toyota are going to become serious contenders in Formula One is to hire superfast driver and Alonso is just that. Trulli is very quick but he is not consistent and he is not a team leader. Toyota would be prepared to offer Alonso any salary along with anything else he wanted.
Fernando would also be safe in the knowledge that Toyota can only improve, and any future success would be attributed to his technical development and driving.
If Alonso joins Toyota he will be under no pressure, he will be racing with friends, and he will be taking home enough cash to run a small country.
Not bad at all.
However the biggest setback to Fernando snaring an attractive contract is that he only wants a one year deal.
Flavio Braitore said that “an agreement for one year would have no sense with an outlook projected for a period of time”.
Alonso wants to be in a race winning car but since he probably won’t have that chance next year his focus is understandably 2009. Unfortunately, there are not many teams willing to make a huge investment in Alonso only for him to leave within twelve months.
It might be the deal-breaker that keeps him out of Renault, Red Bull and Toyota.
Williams or Honda might then become options, albeit very slim.
Rosberg is the key to Alonso joining Williams. Now that McLaren have a vacant seat they would be thrilled to fill it with Nico. He has links with Mercedes, he is quick and young, and gets on well with Lewis Hamilton.
Signing Rosberg would not be easy for McLaren though because Williams would not let him go without some serious compensation.
Enough cash to guarantee Alonso might be that very compensation.
Honda can’t be totally ruled out either because not that long ago they were genuinely fighting for race wins. In 2004 they finished second in the championship and last year Jenson Button scored more points than Alonso from the German Grand Prix onwards. Twelve months ago a move to Honda would have been a real possibility for Alonso.
However, Fernando is unlikely to join Honda because he would only do so if Button left the team. Jenson is very quick and very settled so there is no way Alonso would be Honda’s number one driver. The only other team that Button could drive for in 2008 is McLaren, and that is almost certainly not going to happen.
Also, Honda are embarrassingly slow at the moment and have a long way to go before they are back up to 2004 levels.
With that in mind Renault seem favourites to land the double world champion’s services next year, with Toyota and Red Bull close behind. If neither of those teams grab Alonso it will be a very tough season for the Spaniard.
Or will it?
If Prodrive make it onto the 2008 grid they could be Fernando’s best bet.
The uncertainty over Prodrive’s future will make any negotiations difficult, but if they do make it into F1 next year they will likely do so with current-spec McLarens. That means they will have a race winning car available from day one.
Alonso would be in a quick car, in a new team built around him, and would even have the opportunity to beat Lewis Hamilton on equal footing.
He would love that more than anything else.
Watch this space.