Fernando Alonso expects more F1 race seats for 2018 to become available. The Spaniard – talking to Sky Sports News – believes more opportunities exist than current paddock talk suggests.
“I know there are even more movements than probably we all know and there are some teams we think are set for next year, I don’t think it’s so clear that they are 100 per cent confirmed” explained Alonso as he prepares for another difficult race weekend with McLaren-Honda.
The former World Champion concluded: “I think there will be a lot of changes for next year.”
Alonso’s F1 options for 2018 are widely considered to be limited. Beyond sticking with McLaren who may or may not still be powered by Honda next season, vacant seats for 2018 seem to be limited to Ferrari and Renault. A return to the team he left with 2 years remaining on his contract is considered remote. Meanwhile Renault are not in a position to give him the race winning car he craves.
So what does Alonso know (or suspect) that most of the F1 paddock does not? Let’s take a look at the potential options.
Mercedes and Ferrari
Lewis Hamilton has been vocal in claiming Ferrari are now the team to beat in F1. The triple champion might be indulging in mind games but a championship for Ferrari this season could usher in a changing of the guard. Few teams have been able to sustain F1 dominance for more than 3-4 consecutive years in the past. Suggesting Mercedes’ time at the top might be nearing an end.
Hamilton is unlikely to finish his F1 career without racing for the Scuderia. The romance of the prancing horse combined with the multi-million dollar possibilities of a Hamilton/Ferrari brand tie-up will be too much of an attraction.
Hamilton’s ‘grand finale’
He seeks a place amongst the legends of the sport and the closing chapter in that story could be racing for Ferrari. Teaming up with and beating Sebastien Vettel would make for a grand finale.
As one of the three outstanding drivers of this generation – alongside Hamilton and Alonso – Vettel must be on Lewis’ list. Having shown he can beat Alonso during their brief time together at McLaren, Vettel is the final piece of the puzzle.
Can Mercedes afford not to consider Alonso?
Whether Valtteri Bottas extends his stay at Mercedes remains the key that unlocks the 2018 driver market. The Finn is doing a great job and has proven to be faster than many expected. His true form against Hamilton has been masked by technical issues, despite his Russian Grand Prix win.
Should Mercedes wish to play it safe, keeping Bottas is the logical choice. Fast enough to push Hamilton but not fast enough consistently to upset his teammate. But it is not that simple.
Consider for a moment that Hamilton is genuinely thinking about Ferrari. Can Mercedes leave themselves exposed by not chasing a big name? Nico Rosberg’s retirement caught them completely cold so it is not inconceivable Hamilton could do the same. Can they afford to be left to run Bottas as team leader alongside a Pascal Wehrlein or Esteban Ocon in 2018? Particularly if Ferrari were to secure a Vettel/Hamilton dream team?
Stick or twist for Vettel
It is no secret that the board of Mercedes-Benz is keen to get a German driver back in one of their silver arrows. With the jury still out on Wehrlein and Hulkenberg tied to Renault, Vettel is the prime candidate. In this particular scenario, a lot rides on how Ferrari and Mercedes perform during the 2017 summer period.
At the close of the 2016 season the Vettel/Ferrari marriage was considered to be on the rocks. The upswing in performance during pre-season testing convinced the German there was renewed hope at Maranello. If Ferrari continue to match or out pace Mercedes, Vettel will likely extend his stay. If however Mercedes overcome their deficit to Ferrari, it will give Vettel cause to consider his options with only 1 year left on his current contract.
Are F1 contracts ever water-tight?
Both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen are on what Red Bull consider to be water-tight contracts. But one thing F1 constantly reminds us is that contracts can and will be broken. Verstappen has been getting increasingly agitated at the clear signs Red Bull and Renault (aka TAG Heuer) will not close the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari this season. Frustration is bubbling up for Daniel Ricciardo too.
At 27 the Australian is not yet an elder statesman but he is certainly no longer a young prospect. His time is now if he wants to secure an F1 World title. Were Mercedes or Ferrari to come calling, Ricciardo would undoubtedly be looking at ways to break his contract. In the case of teammate Verstappen, Max may be young but he is extremely hungry to add to his lone F1 race win. The Dutchman eyes a future filled with multiple world titles and probably sees no reason not to start racking them up now.
A Renault home-coming for Alonso?
Despite comments from Alain Prost that they would be unable to offer Alonso a race winning car in 2018, there are undoubtedly driver changes coming here. Nico Hulkenberg will remain having exceeded expectations and thoroughly embarrasing Jolyon Palmer in the process. Palmer’s F1 days with Renault are however numbered so his seat is definitely up for grabs.
The recent private test of Robert Kubica adds a little more intrigue and nostalgia to considerations. As does the standout performances of Esteban Ocon for Force India. A move to Renault by Alonso might be a slight step upwards but would likely come as a last resort. And it would undoubtedly be contingent upon cast iron assurances big progress is coming for 2019.
Smoke and mirrors?
As F1 has also demonstrated time after time, it could of course just be smoke and mirrors. It will however be hugely entertaining to see how things unfold in the run up to Alonso’s September decision ‘deadline’.