The greatest drivers in Formula 1 are able to achieve great things with cars that are deemed to be uncompetitive. They understand the problems and adapt to them. Admittedly, it is not possible these days for a great driver to win in a bad car. The car must be at least vaguely competitive. And this is where one must take off one’s hat to Fernando Alonso. He is already considered by many to be the best driver in F1, but this year he is adding to that reputation. He pedals the Ferrari F14T with verve and ability. He never gives up, rarely makes mistakes and he has scored in every race this year, an achievement that only Nico Hulkenberg can match.
Fernando’s best finish is third, his worst ninth and his average around fifth. If you asked people to rate the three best cars in F1 this year (thus the cars that should fill the top six finishing positions) I have no doubt that the Mercedes would top the list and that Williams and Red Bull would be next, with the challengers behind them being McLaren, Ferrari and Force India. This being the case, how it is that Alonso is fourth in the standings with an average finish of fifth and a points total of 97?
By the same token why is Kimi Raikkonen languishing in 12th with just 19 points, despite having had only one retirement? It’s not pretty when you look closely at the results. So what is the problem with Raikkonen? Does he get the same equipment as Alonso? Is he lacking confidence in the car? Is he simply past his best and not really interested? The official argument is that the car does not suit his driving style and that he is working to make it better and when he does that and feels confident then he will fly again.
Some say that Alonso has the emotional support of the team and that makes it tough for Kimi to do well. That is not very convincing when one considers Kimi’s apparently impervious nature. Is he secretly a little flower that needs to be loved and nurtured? Other more cynical folk argue that Kimi came back to F1 and found himself in an exceptional F1 car in the Lotus and was thus able to produce some astonishing results, which revived his career. The car also allowed Romain Grosjean to get close to victories, so perhaps this flattered Kimi somewhat.
I don’t claim to know the answer to this question, but Ferrari boss Marco Mattiacci says that Kimi is the driver that Ferrari needs. Quite how he knows this after 12 minutes in the sport is an interesting question. How does he know that Raikkonen is doing a better job than Nico Hulkenberg or Jenson Button would do in the same car, or Felipe Massa come to that? The word is that the choice of Raikkonen was made by Luca Montezemolo at a moment last year when he thought that Alonso was going to leave and Ferrari needed a star name. The big guns behind Ferrari would not be satisfied with a Nico Hulkenberg or a Jules Bianchi. So Kimi it was…
The big question now is what happens next? Ferrari has not managed to give Alonso a title in five seasons of trying and the Spaniard is frustrated. He will be 33 next week and it is fairly clear that his next career decision will probably be his last in F1 terms. He is also in demand. Ferrari wants to keep him. McLaren wants to sign him. Williams would love to have him. Fernando can pretty much name his price at the moment and, as I hear it, last weekend in Germany was pretty significant as Fernando’s contract has a clause in it that says that he is free to leave his team if it is not in the top three in the Constructors’ Championship. In Hockenheim Williams overtook Ferrari for third place… What we do not know is the date at which this proviso kicks in, but normally these things must be decided by September 1 and announced at the Italian GP.
Thus, Ferrari is now exposed and Fernando can make his own arrangements without needing to worry about contracts. The question for Alonso is really very simple: what engine does he think will be the best one next season? If the answer is not Ferrari then there is no point in staying on in Maranello. If the answer is Mercedes, he has only one choice if he is serious about winning. With Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton locked in at Mercedes AMG Petronas, the best available seat for Fernando would have to be one of the two Williams drives. Niki Lauda remarked the other day that he was happy that Alonso was not in a Williams, an indication that the old charger has spotted that possibility. Sir Frank Williams, who has been around the F1 block more times than Lauda, has almost certainly spotted that as well.
If Alonso’s answer is Honda, or he feels that Honda can win the title in the course of the next three years, then he should go to Woking. The past is irrelevant.
McLaren and Honda can afford Fernando, Williams cannot, but there is little doubt that if he did do a deal to go to Grove, then Santander would probably follow as soon as it possibly could. Martini could be convinced to double, treble or quadruple its sponsorship of Williams in such a circumstance, but that’s not very likely. It was a cheap deal and is giving the firm fabulous return on its investment. However, if Williams had a competitive car and Alonso, money would arrive.
Ferrari understands that it must now fight for his services. It can give him as much money as it likes. It is a rich team, but Fernando is so wealthy these days that he lives in Spain and does not care about having to pay tax. The key question is whether or not he is hungry enough to risk a move, or would rather settle for a big Ferrari cheque and hope that the arrival of some of his old muckers from Lotus will turn the team around. That is a big gamble. Ferrari has often been a battleground between the Italians and imported helpers. The only time when this stopped was when Jean Todt ring-fenced the team against all interference and ran things as he felt was necessary. That worked. Could Mattiacci do the same or would Luca Montezemolo still call a crisis meeting every six weeks and try to run the team from on high?
The decision that Alonso makes will start the market moving, or freeze it. If he stays at Ferrari perhaps Raikkonen would be paid off. Perhaps the team would hire a youngster to build up into a star so that they have a star when Alonso does eventually go. If that happens then a Hulkenberg or a Bianchi is worth a flutter. If Alonso goes then things will get lively in Maranello. The need for a star name and the underperformance of Raikkonen would create a problem. The team could change both drivers but who would you hire? Jenson Button might stay at McLaren alongside Alonso, creating a nice super team for Honda. That would move the spotlight to Sebastian Vettel, who is not having an enjoyable time at Red Bull. The Milton Keynes team has a conveyor belt of talent in waiting with Daniil Kvyat ready to jump up if required and Carlos Sainz Jr ready to leap into Toro Rosso.
If Alonso is not available for McLaren, Jenson Button would be likely be secure and logically the team would keep Kevin Magnussen for another year. If it was a choice between Button and Magnussen as Alonso’s team-mate, the folk in Woking would probably go for Jenson… at least at the moment. If Kevin becomes more consistent he will strengthen his position.
If Alonso were to take a risk and head off to Williams, a move that would allow him to revive his relationship with Pat Symonds, with whom he won the titles at Renault back in 2005 and 2006, would the team choose Felipe Massa, who knows how to work with Alonso, or would it go for Valtteri Bottas? Perhaps Team Willy would look at selling its Finnish rising star to another well-heeled team, thus raising cash to pay for Fernando…
That’s possible too…