Given that the summer break has starved Formula 1 fans of concrete news stories over the past few weeks, silly season speculation has been rife. While much of the discussion can be filed under far-fetched fan fiction, the rumours surrounding Fernando Alonso seem somewhat substantiated.
In reality, speculation regarding Alonso’s future has been a news feature ever since the disappointing McLaren Honda MCL-32 rolled out of the garage – and was swiftly rolled back into the garage – on the opening day of 2017 pre-season testing.
It is entirely possible that Alonso is now considering the very real prospect of a tilt at IndyCar in 2018.
“My intention and first priority is to race here [in Formula 1] next year and not only to race, but to win,” Alonso stated before the Spanish Grand Prix weekend earlier this year. “I have not got any more obligations with McLaren. I am happy with the team, but we are not winning.
“So if from here to September, October, we are in a position to win in 2018, I will be more than happy to stay with the team. If it’s not the case, I will be more than happy to talk to anyone.”
As F1 finds itself emerging from its summer slumber McLaren continues to languish in the doldrums. Alonso may have managed to wrestle the car to the team’s strongest finish of the season in Hungary, but his sixth place here does not serve as evidence that McLaren is about to return to winning ways.
Hence, Alonso is left with no choice but to scout a different seat for the 2018 season – one in which he will be able to challenge for the elusive third world championship that he dearly craves. A title that his talent surely warrants.
However, with the driver market shaping up for a static 2018 ahead of a seismic shuffle for 2019, Alonso is highly likely to find himself unable to unlock a leading seat.
Sebastian Vettel appears to be content with another season as Ferrari’s team leader next year. Even if Ferrari’s board would consider re-hiring Alonso – despite the rather acrimonious end to their previous relationship – Vettel would surely veto the proposition of Alonso becoming his team-mate.
Similarly, signing Alonso would pose an enormous risk to the team stability provided by Mercedes’ current driver pairing. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have demonstrated the type of team ethic that is difficult to cultivate in a manufacturer team striving for championship glory.
Alonso’s potential to generate instability within a team environment was obvious during his first season with McLaren back in 2007, when paired with none other than Mercedes’ highly marketable super-star Hamilton. The breakdown in the relationship between team boss Ron Dennis and Alonso was spectacular and while a decade has passed, Mercedes are not in a position where they need to gamble team harmony.
A move back to Renault next season has also been rumoured, but with the French marque on their own road to recovery, it is highly questionable that Alonso’s old team has better prospects than his current one.
The ‘anticipation locomotive’ surrounding a potential return to the sport for Robert Kubica next season has gained traction in recent weeks, and with an abundance of Renault backed junior drivers in Formula 2 and GP3, the F1 outfit is not short of options should Jolyon Palmer find the Enstone exit door.
As a result, Alonso’s most pragmatic options for 2018 are either a renewal of his McLaren ties, in what would be a u-turn given the team’s continued predicament, or a switch to a different category entirely. Given Alonso’s defiance to reconvene in the F1 paddock with uncompetitive machinery next season, the latter seems far more likely at this point.
IndyCar would be the logical destination for Alonso. The Spaniard evidently relished his Indy 500 experience in May and transferred his abilities from ‘road course’ to oval racing with extraordinary ease. Prior to his painfully ironic engine failure, Alonso was in contention for a debut victory.
Honda’s association with the series would also make a smoother transition and a number of IndyCar teams that utilise Honda power – including the Andretti Autosport squad with which Alonso competed for Indy glory – could be in the market for a driver ahead of 2018.
Just two weeks ago, rumours surfaced that Alonso would head stateside to compete in the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma, despite the event clashing with the F1 Singapore GP. The speculation was categorically quelled by McLaren CEO Zak Brown and branded as “fake news.”
There is, however, no smoke without fire and it is undoubtedly curious that a story such as this would surface around the time in which Alonso would be investigating potential options for 2018.
Ceding Alonso’s services to IndyCar next year would undoubtedly be a blow to the McLaren Honda programme, particularly from a development standpoint, given his experience. However, Honda would surely not miss the public embarrassment and focus directed at their continuing issues courtesy of the fiery radio messages craftily executed by the cunning Alonso.
His exit would at least remove an element of pressure from what is clearly an unenviable predicament that Honda finds themselves in. Stoffel Vandoorne is young enough to offer the Japanese manufacturer constructive patience.
A full-time drive in IndyCar would also offer the 36-year-old a stronger chance at achieving triple crown glory. His Indy 500 debut was hugely competitive and impressive despite Alonso having not driven IndyCar machinery prior to the ‘Month of May’ or even completed a race on an oval.
It is not outlandish, therefore, to suggest that Alonso could challenge for both IndyCar championship glory and an Indy 500 victory in 2018. He won’t have a shot at either while sitting in a semi-competitive-at-best McLaren Honda.