In the end, Fernando Alonso’s decision to leave Formula 1 at the end of 2018 wasn’t really a news bombshell – for that, it would have to have been unexpected.
For several months, speculation surrounding Alonso’s future has linked him with moves away from F1. After the emergence of McLaren’s unexpected struggles in 2018, despite its box-fresh partnership with Renault, it became a more obvious path.
However, it’s important to note that this is not an F1 retirement – at least, in terms of the language used by McLaren and Alonso in the press release.
Alonso’s decision is simply to not race in F1 in 2019 – extending that into an eventual F1 retirement is entirely possible but it would seem that neither party is willing to close off the prospect of a return.
In fact, Alonso actively talks up the prospect of a comeback in the right circumstances; “My heart is with the team [McLaren] forever. I know they will come back stronger and better in the future and it could be the right moment for me to be back in the series; that would make me really happy.
“I have built so many great relationships with many fantastic people at McLaren, and they have given me the opportunity to broaden my horizons and race in other categories. I feel I am a more complete driver now than ever.”
What’s remarkable about Alonso is that despite being a 37-year-old, you can believe him when he says that he is a “more complete driver now than ever.” You can also believe McLaren boss Zak Brown when he says that Alonso “is in the finest form of his career.”
Alonso has dominated the intra-team battle against Stoffel Vandoorne. While the 2015 GP2 champion may be suffering his own dip in fortunes, he was still one of the most highly rated junior formulae drivers of his generation and one who Alonso has out-qualified on each and every occasion in 2018 and who he has outscored with five times the amount of points.
Alonso would return to F1 in the future – and most likely drive a McLaren – as long as he could be assured of a chance to fight for the title.
Bowing out of F1 while his stock is as high as ever is a smart approach and gives him options to win in other series and pursue motorsport’s unofficial triple crown – the only accolade which could seemingly compensate for the lack of a third F1 title.
What does the decision mean for McLaren? The team will unquestionably miss Alonso from both a performance perspective and a brand perspective; (he might yet stay with McLaren as part of an IndyCar start-up project, but this is simply speculation at present).
McLaren now finds itself with two open seats for 2019. Incumbent Vandoorne’s hopes of resigning for next season seem thin. Given that McLaren has been trigger happy with recent personnel shake-ups, it’s unlikely that Alonso’s announcement will offer Vandoorne a stay of execution after a treacherously difficult second season in F1.
The team has been courting Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr, albeit his case is a complicated one. Contracted to Red Bull, Sainz could be called upon to replace Daniel Ricciardo at the team for next season. However, should Red Bull instead promote the in-form Pierre Gasly from Toro Rosso, Sainz would become a free agent and a move to McLaren highly likely.
Almost guaranteed a seat as a result of Alonso’s verdict is McLaren’s current reserve driver Lando Norris. Currently second in the Formula 2 championship and embroiled in a title fight with Mercedes junior Geroge Russell, Norris has been on Red Bull’s radar this year as they made a swoop for him to replace Brendon Hartley before the summer break.
McLaren rejected the approach, but it will have alerted them to Norris’s high market value and the fact that depriving him of an F1 opportunity could leave McLaren vulnerable to losing him in short order.
F1 losing Alonso from its driver roster is a blow but the category does still earn a conciliatory win in the form of an ability to introduce fresh talent and if Norris does step in at McLaren, F1 will have gained one of the sport’s most impressive young drivers in what is shaping to be a generation of strong talents.
It is still no surprise that the Liberty Media triumvirate “tried to change” Alonso’s mind. However, motorsport as a whole will benefit and if Alonso does indeed land in IndyCar, the series will have hit the commercial jackpot.
Few men in world motorsport could draw an audience of over two million people to watch a single team test session – Alonso managed it with his first IndyCar run in 2017.
There are plenty of winners as a result of Alonso’s decision, which is ultimately the right one. The man who was only eight points away from being a five-time world champion is now free to go and hunt the legacy he craves, without the finality of having declared an ‘F1 retirement’ – not yet at least.