While he could hardly have done a better job of reminding team bosses of his abilities this year, none of the top squads look likely to make room for him once his contact with McLaren expires after November’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Red Bull’s junior driver programme has supplied them with two stars in the shape of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. A return to Ferrari, which he left three years ago frustrated at their lack of progress, is unrealistic.
And Mercedes? Toto Wolff made it clear last month they’re not looking to bring in Alonso.
“Without any doubt he’s an important personality in Formula One and a great driver and Honda and McLaren appreciate that,” said Wolff. “With us at the moment we are really happy with the line-up.”
“I know it’s not the answer you want to hear but stability is an important factor, the dynamics between the drivers is an important factor and we have no reason to complain.”
A driver of Alonso’s calibre is unlikely to settle for anything less than a place at a team aligned with a manufacturer. But no new manufacturers are likely to arrive before 2020, when F1’s next new engine regulations appear. Can Alonso stand to wait that long?
In the meantime he’s left with a choice of staying at McLaren, moving to Renault or leaving F1. Tied in with this is the question of McLaren’s engine plans for 2018, which appears to now be a straight choice between persevering with Honda or becoming a Renault customer.
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(The latter scenario may seem unrealistic. Switching to Renault would mean McLaren go from getting F1’s least competitive engines for free to getting the second-worst power units for a price. It would also leave the team at the added disadvantage of having to accept Renault’s preferred engine design specifications instead of giving their own input.
But patience with Honda has worn thin after three years of serious under-performance. And those within McLaren eager to try an alternative can point to the fact Red Bull have already won a race with [TAG Heuer-branded] Renaults this year.)
Will Alonso desert F1 completley? There’s one good reason to expect not. Last year he said he would only stay in F1 beyond the end of his current McLaren contract if the cars delivered more driving satisfaction in 2017. The arrival of more spectacular cars this year has ticked that box.
Nonetheless his Indianapolis 500 run this year inevitably prompted speculation he could make a full-time switch to IndyCar racing if he doesn’t have a good enough offer for F1. But as Alonso has repeatedly pointed out his target in America is the Indianapolis 500 leg of the ‘triple crown’, not the championship.
While IndyCar’s shorter, more compact calendar may appeal to a driver who has has voiced concerns about F1’s growing schedule, Alonso knows from his competitive run at Indianapolis this year that he doesn’t need to do a full season to stand a chance of winning the race. When interviewed about it during a live IndyCar race broadcast in June, Alonso played down the possibility of a full-time IndyCar switch.
One factor in favour of Alonso making a full-time switch to IndyCar next year is the arrival of the championship’s new aerodynamic kit. Six years of accumulated set-up knowledge will be wiped out, making 2018 a good time for a new driver to come into the series. Even so, it seems an unlikely move.
The Le Mans 24 Hours is another of Alonso’s career goals. Crucially, Alonso can tackle this race without having to miss a grand prix. But now Porsche has followed Audi in quitting the series, Alonso’s chances of racing there appear to have diminished. Even if Toyota stays, there is no way he could drive for them while also being under contract to McLaren and Toyota’s major domestic market rival Honda.
All this seems to point to Alonso staying in F1, which he has already said is his first choice. A third stint at Renault appears to be a possibility as his management is known to have spoken with the team.
However Renault is also investigating the feasibility of Robert Kubica making a return to drive for them. Alonso has heaped praise on his rival in the past but would he really stand in the way of him returning to get his hands on a better drive for next year? Alonso must be eyeing the huge year-on-year performance gain Renault have made over the last 12 months and thinking “if they do that again next year…”
The counter-argument to this is Renault were always going to make strides in 2017 because their 2016 car was so underdeveloped. McLaren could arguably be a better prospect once Honda embark on the second year with the revised power unit design philosophy they introduced this year.
If Alonso is going to remain in F1 this could be the decision he faces. But with both cars unlikely to be contenders for race wins let alone championships next year, could Alonso’s extra-curricular activities be the deal breaker? Staying at McLaren for another year would at least give him the option of returning to the Indianapolis 500.
It might have seemed impossible a few months ago, but sticking it out for one more year at McLaren could be Alonso’s best option for 2018 before seeing if better options appear the year after.
View the current list of 2018 F1 drivers and teams
2018 F1 season
- The 2018 F1 driver market: Massa key to midfield moves
- The 2018 F1 driver market: Renault’s Kubica question
- The 2018 F1 driver market: Alonso lacks McLaren alternatives
- The 2018 F1 driver market: No big changes for the ‘big three’?
- Which new drivers belong on the F1 grid in 2018?