Difficult decisions for Alonso and McLaren

Fernando Alonso’s departure from McLaren is kind of old news now. But Ponzonha asked me to write about it, and I still have some views on it, so here they are.

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.


  1. My unqualified opinion is that Alonso should sign with Toyota for three years. Take the 150 million and make it work for everybody. Since he is a proven winner with two championships, I do believe that Toyota will rise above themselves having a brilliant driver as Alonso in their team. The Williams speed is the indicator here. If Toyota can make the changes to the chassis, then Alonso will make them World Champions as well. I rather like my analysis and I think I am right. But then again, my name is not Alonso. Shucks !

  2. Alonso – I was really hoping he would spend at least a year at Williams but that seems to have gone so I don’t have a clue where he will head now. Red Bull seems a good choice from his point of view – but is a huffy, sulking Spaniard really what Red BUll want? Doesn’t really fit in with their image in my view.

    McLaren – Can’t see DC going back there because he seems so much happier now, doubt he will want to spend possibly his last season back under pressure in Woking. My money is still on Heikki I think.

  3. Dear Dr.Vee,
    thank you for attending my request. Your unbiased analysis of the situation from the British point of view really complements the Spanish-fuelled information that I have. You have gained a loyal supporter here ;-).
    Here in Spain it is said that Ron has released ALO unconditionally. My theory is that ALO has agreed to say noting about what happened in McLaren this year. Spies, the “conspiracy theory”, HAM end of season… are all topics that can harm McLaren’s reputation. The proof of this “gentlemen agreement” is that ALO hasn’t talk about this season yet. I don’t really believe in the conspiracy theory, however, it is clear that Ron made a mistake not giving ALO full support.
    This means that ALO can sign for any team. Well, any team? No, I (we) think that only Renault, Toyota and Red Bull are the choices.
    -Renault: ALO’s home. The team where he made history with cars that were fast in the first half of the season but lagged behind Ferrari and McLaren in the second one. I think that without Michelin, Renault is lame and I doubt that they can make a fast car this year. However, it seems the obvious choice for ALO.
    -Toyota: My choice. It is true that Toyota hasn’t got passion, glamour… But it is the perfect team that can be put to serve one objective (making ALO win). It has money and brains, but lacks good pilots (Ralph was a real mistake). I have always liked Japanese way of doing things, but I fear that they wouldn’t let ALO make any important decision. Besides, it has Trulli, a friend of ALO.
    -Red Bull: The outsider. Young people, great engineers and a great appeal. Next year cars would be less important (no TC remember) and they can take advantage of that. I see it as the option of making money and living well, but I don’t think they can really make a champion.

    And now, McLaren. I know that you will not agree with me, but it clearly is a team where a pilot with ambition wouldn’t like to go. Ron loves HAM and nobody would be allowed to discuss HAM’s supremacy. That prevents talents like Sutil, Rosberg, Kovalainen or Kubica to join. The remembrance of Rubens in Ferrari under Michael’s rule is too fresh. I agree with you in that a Brit pilot makes no sense. This leaves DLR as the obvious choice. Remember that Santander bank gives a lot of money to McLaren and with all that happened this year there has been calls for boycott in Spain (!!). Nevertheless, I think that McLaren has here the most difficult decision in years for any team…
    Thank you for your post, I love to see what’s the view up there in Britain.

  4. I dunno. If you ask me who I prefer between Alonso and Hamilton, I would say Alonso every time. Alonso might be a prima donna off the track but, unlike Hamilton, he is a gentleman on the track. Hamiton is also a mega whiner, maybe not quite as bad as Alonso, but the nevertheless British media have played this down.

    There is also the small matter that Alonso is the greatest driver in the world. He is a man who beat Michael Schumacher to the Championship fair and square twice — the only person ever to have done that. I’ve heard a lot of people saying, “I bet none of the teams would want to hire Alonso after what he’s done this season.” But if you were running a team, would you really turn down a double World Champion? You would be nuts if you did.

  5. Call me biased if you like, but actually I could see teams turning Alonso down because of his behaviour this season. He hasn’t endeared himself to a lot of people. You say the British press play down Hamilton’s comments, but IMO, the Spanish press are even more blinkered. I don’t want to over-generalise, but some of the Spanish posters on other blogs and websites seem to see Alonso as some kind of God.

    Up until today, I was tipping Alonso to go back to Renault, but I doubt he’ll want to be associated now they’re under suspicion of spying/cheating, so now I’m more inclined to see him at Red Bull. It sounds like Toyota are going to have Glock in their second seat.

  6. Hey Doc…..you’ve drawn some pretty good conclusions there. In my mind, Toyota are probably a marginal choice at best; one of the top F1 budgets and still only an ‘also ran’. Yeah, the money they might offer would be good but, as you say, would FA really want to join a disaster area?

    Renault and RedBull are deffo favourites. I’m not sure if the latest spying accusations will have an affect….too early to tell. And if they are competitive would FA really care?

    The only thing I would disagree with is your comment about Alonso [There is also the small matter that Alonso is the greatest driver in the world. He is a man who beat Michael Schumacher to the Championship fair and square twice].

    I’m just hoping that it’s a parody of the Spanish MSM ;-), ‘cos i don’t see it. The 2005 season was a wash out for Ferrari in terms of chassis development (hardly grounds for square fight) and 2006 was equal wins and better consistency for FA.

    I would put MS above FA any day.

    Besides, wasn’t FA just beaten by Kimi…..fair and square?

  7. Yeah, I should have said that I think Alonso is the best driver who is currently in F1. Michael Schumacher is possibly better, although who knows now that he is out of practice and must be getting pretty creaky now.