I guess the first thing to point out is that Alonso’s departure from McLaren is not much of a surprise. There was still a cheeky part of my brain that was saying, “maybe Alonso can stay at McLaren after all.” But clearly the relationship between Alonso and the team had broken down irreparably. Despite a contract that said Alonso was going to be around for two more years, there was no way that was in the interests of either Alonso or McLaren.
The question then turns to what actually happened in the negotiations. Given that a contract existed, there must have been some kind of deal. Of course, McLaren and Alonso are trying to give the impression that they just discussed it and mutually decided to part ways. But few seem to believe that.
I doubt, however, that any deal involved money. A common theory is that Alonso is either not allowed to move to a “competitive” team or not allowed to move to a manufacturer team. I suppose another possibility is that Alonso will go on gardening leave for the two years until his McLaren contract runs out. But I doubt Alonso would want to sit out for two seasons.
Fernando Alonso’s difficult decision
Of course, the most obvious team for Alonso to go to is Renault — assuming this hasn’t been ruled out by Ron Dennis. He has reportedly already been offered a seat there, but seemingly Alonso has not (yet) accepted it.
One possibility for this is that Alonso does not see Renault as a competitive enough proposition. But what other options are there? BMW and Ferrari are both locked out. No-one else is as competitive, except (arguably) for Red Bull.
Another theory that I have heard is that there is “something up” between Alonso and Renault. Perhaps they had some kind of falling-out and they were just much more successful at keeping it a secret than McLaren were. Don’t forget that towards the end of the 2006 season Alonso was talking about how lonely he felt in the team. I had always thought of Alonso as a real Renault guy. But putting the pieces together, it seems to make sense that he perhaps fell out with the team.
The next most popular rumour is a move to Toyota. This has a lot going for it in one respect. There is a big Ralf Schumacher-sized vacancy and Toyota is probably the only team with the willingness and ability to pay the big bucks that Alonso no doubt demands.
Alonso is also good friends with Toyota driver Jarno Trulli. Also, if Alonso really has the ability to give six tenths to a team, who better to give it to than Toyota? This would allow them to mix with the front runners more regularly.
But I just don’t see it. Firstly, the rumours linking Alonso and Ross Brawn with a joint move to Toyota (or any team for that matter) seem too far fetched to me. Why would they join forces like that?
Also, the Toyota team is a disaster. I doubt even Alonso could make the team competitive — the bureaucracy is too overwhelming. Maybe he would want to do what Michael Schumacher did in 1996 and move to a mediocre team and “build” it into something much more successful. But it is one thing to resurrect a team as romantic as Ferrari. Toyota? It has no history, no passion, no tifosi… Just nothing going for it.
This all appears to pave the way to Red Bull. Firstly, they will have enough money to pay for Alonso. Secondly, they have the potential to become a front-running team. Geoff Willis and Adrian Newey are more than capable of building a seriously fast car. As long as they can get the reliability sorted, Red Bull ought to be a serious proposition. Also, it is not a manufacturer team, so if Alonso is forbidden to join one then Red Bull by default becomes obvious choice.
The only thing is that Red Bull already has two drivers for next season. However, it is not totally inconceivable that Red Bull could pay one of them off.
For me, the Red Bull rumour seems to stack up the most. It is not a manufacturer team, so it does not seem to be obvious at first. But there aren’t any major obstacles to the idea. But even if I was a gambler, I would not put any money on it. Everything is too uncertain.
Fernando Alonso seems to have a difficult choice ahead of him. But it looks easy in comparison to the awful choice McLaren has to take! Who shall they choose to replace Fernando Alonso?
McLaren’s difficult decision
McLaren have a really difficult juggling act to perform here. First of all, I imagine that McLaren would be wary of hiring anyone who is remotely as talented as Lewis Hamilton in an attempt to avoid the awful events of the past six months or so.
But they also want to hire somebody who has some experience. As awesome as Lewis Hamilton is, he does not have the same kind of experience that is required in terms of car set-up and whatnot. Teams tend to want to balance fresh talent with experience.
Also, they won’t want to hire another Brit. The media keeps on suggesting that Jenson Button is a possibility, but this is arrant nonsense. It doesn’t make commercial sense for them, because having drivers of two different nationalities encourages sponsors from both of those countries. McLaren is a British team with a British driver. It certainly doesn’t need another one. There is also the fact that Button just isn’t talented enough to driver for a team as good as McLaren.
All in all, it’s difficult to see who could be suitable for the McLaren drive. It is not just the three problems I have outlined above. The fact is that all of the feasible options are either inexperienced or past it.
So, who are the options? Up until today I would have said Nico Rosberg was a possibility. But today he was confirmed as a Williams driver for 2009.
Who else? Heikki Kovalainen appears to be the most obvious candidate. If Alonso moves to Renault, it would be a straight swap. Kovalainen has been quite competent at Renault this year.
I do remember once reading someone say that Kovalainen is an obvious choice for McLaren. Why? A Brit and a Finn — how could Ron Dennis resist?
It is potentially dangerous for Kovalainen though. His reputation has been built on the line that if he was in the McLaren and Hamilton was in the Renault, then everybody would be talking about Kovalainen and not Hamilton. That reputation could be lost if he turns out not to be so hot! However, I don’t imagine Kovalainen would turn down a drive at McLaren, especially with his future at Renault looking (inexplicably) so uncertain.
Lewis Hamilton himself has said he wants his team mate to be either Rosberg (now out of the question), Kovalainen or Adrian Sutil. Hamilton was team mates with Sutil in GP2 and seems to get along well with him. Hamilton has also been favourable about Sutil’s driving ability this season. Many people do think that Sutil is due a drive at a better team. But is he really McLaren material? I doubt it.
Patrick Head has cheekily suggested that it could be Michael Schumacher. This is obviously just Patrick Head being a little bit playful, so shouldn’t be considered too seriously. However, I wouldn’t rule out a Schumacher comeback in the future.
People say that Schumacher is a Ferrari guy through and through. I am not so sure about that. Ferrari post-2006 is a very different beast, and we’ve seen that partly with the whole Stepneygate issue. There is some nasty politics in that team, and a lot of senior figures seem very disgruntled.
I think that rather than being a Ferrari man, Michael Schumacher is a Ross Brawn / Rory Byrne / Jean Todt / etc man. As such, I don’t think it’s unthinkable that Schumacher could make a comeback in a non-Ferrari for a one-off season. Of course, Mercedes would probably love that!
Who are the other options? Ralf Schumacher is so bad that he has already been ruled out by McLaren, even though they won’t say another word on the driver issue at the moment. Giancarlo Fisichella is similarly falling out of favour, and is starting to look very past it.
Pedro de la Rosa is another possibility, and he seems to be advertising himself a bit. He clearly wants the drive. He is trusty, but also rusty. De la Rosa knows his stuff and is an excellent test driver for McLaren, but his occasional race performances haven’t set the world alight (except for Bahrain 2005 — wow!). There also may be a question mark in Ron Dennis’s mind due to de la Rosa’s apparently heavy involvement in the row concerning Ferrari documents this year.
Another test driver is Gary Paffett. He is held in high regard, but is effectively ruled out because he is British.
Perhaps not quite over the hill yet are Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard. Honda have been saying some astonishing things about Barrichello since Brazil, and the sword of Damocles seemingly hangs over him. Coulthard, meanwhile, may well get the heave-ho should Alonso join Red Bull.
It’s a bit of a shame really. There has been a bit of hype about Barrichello and Coulthard both surpassing Ricardo Patrese’s record as the most experienced F1 driver ever if they complete the 2009 season. All of a sudden, by the looks of things, it seems as though neither of them might make it!
But are they possibilities for the McLaren drive? David Coulthard has already driven for McLaren, and he’s not always spoken about them in glowing terms since he left. But it would make the transition smooth and everyone will know where they stand. Coulthard would surely also be an excellent mentor for Lewis Hamilton.
Similarly for Barrichello. He has not driven for McLaren in the past, but I don’t think he is quite that rusty yet.
All-in-all, McLaren really have a tough choice. They either choose somebody who is not experienced enough, or they hire someone who is on the last legs of their F1 career. I’m glad I’m not responsible for making that decision.