F1 returns from the summer break and it’s a crash back to reality for McLaren Honda. Spa was never going to be a good track for them, being as power hungry as it is. Vandoorne was due to take a 35-place grid penalty going into his first F1 home race (which later increased to 65 places) and so it was a matter of teamwork in qualifying to try and get at least one car into Q3 by utilising the tow technique to gain more speed on the straights. But even with this, Alonso was knocked out in Q2 to start P11 courtesy of Nico Hulkenberg and a lack of power from the Honda engine at the end of the lap.
It looked like it was going to be a torrid race for the team. And for none more so than Fernando Alonso.
A good start had him up into P7 by the end of Lap 1 but that was due to be the highlight of his race. After a bit of a scrap with Hulkenberg’s Renault, it was largely a case of the McLaren falling down the order as faster cars breezed past. He made his opinions very clear over the radio throughout the race, calling the situation “embarrassing” and that this was just going to be “a test” for them, because of their lack of performance.
Eventually he asked his engineer to just stop talking to him altogether, although he still continued with his own communications.
And then something rather strange happened.
Alonso had been battling with Palmer for a non-points paying position and it was proving a struggle. He came over the radio to ask if there was any rain predicted on the radar but the team answered in the negative. Almost immediately, Alonso came over the radio to declare there was a problem with the engine and pitted to retire the car.
We’ve seen this happen countless times this season, of course. Except we usually hear the call from the pit wall, not from inside the cockpit. There seemed something off about it, to me, the moment it happened.
Speculation continues as Honda have come forth to say they found nothing on the data to show that there was a failure with the power unit. Curious. Alonso is adamant, of course, that he didn’t retire a healthy car but it wouldn’t be the first time he’s played dumb over something that could look unfavourable for him (Singapore 2008, Germany 2010).
In my opinion, he had had enough of being overtaken by practically the entire field and decided to cut his misery short. And since ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ isn’t considered a valid reason for retiring according to regulations, it seemed feasible enough to blame an engine failure. I mean, it’s to be expected at this point, right?
I see it as a power play. Alonso is clearly frustrated with the progress (or lack thereof) from Honda this year and isn’t shy about speaking out. He’s well within his rights, of course. If anything, the team have gone backwards from where they were last year and Honda aren’t delivering. But is this really the best way to resolve things? We saw back in 2015 how things got messy for Red Bull when they began publicly criticizing the Renault engine. I think come the end of this season, McLaren are going to find themselves at an impasse. An ultimatum.
Fernando Alonso or Honda.
At this stage, I honestly think Alonso needs McLaren more than they need him. Where else would he go? There’s no room at Mercedes because who would want to deal with Hamilton/Alonso 2.0? Ferrari have Vettel for another 3 years and there’s rumours he has a ‘no Alonso’ clause in that freshly signed contract. Red Bull have their own talent waiting in the wings so no hopes there.
There were rumours circulating this past weekend that Williams had shown an interest but, even if this were the case, where’s the appeal? They’ve been going backwards the last couple of seasons and are not going to be fighting for championships. Is that still Alonso’s goal? Or does he now just want one final reasonable season before retiring?
I can’t help but think the boat has sailed as far as championship number 3 goes. I understand that it’s frustrating not just for him but for his fans and Formula 1 fans in general that he’s not fighting at the front but it’s also not like this is all down to misfortune. It’s a case of bad choices, rather than bad luck. It was always going to be a risk going to McLaren and it’s one that so far hasn’t paid off. And there’s a reason that, despite his incredible talent, many teams are wary of employing him. This is a situation of his own making.
McLaren are paying him a lot of money and I feel like he is doing them a disservice by so publicly lambasting Honda and being so defeatist (especially when people continue to laud him as a ‘fighter’). It can’t be motivating to the people back in the Honda factory, especially when they are being blamed for things that clearly aren’t the case. Perhaps it would be better to save the money on his salary and pump it into R&D. Let Alonso spend a year in IndyCar full-time and hope that McLaren Honda can sort themselves out during 2018 with the possibility of him returning in 2019.
There’s a distinct possibility that Honda will never come good. The question is, is it too soon to predict that? Is it too early to throw in the towel and go to a different supplier for next year? Mercedes aren’t interested, neither are Ferrari which really just leaves them with the Renault. Is that enough of an improvement to keep Alonso around? The whole reason for the move was to be part of a works team; what is the incentive to stay if they become a customer team once more?
And with Sauber going back on the deal to switch from Ferrari to Honda, that will leave the engine supplier out of Formula 1 altogether, effectively having to cut their losses and bail. It’s clear that McLaren are trying to keep Alonso on board, knowing that, should they finally put all the pieces together, they’ll have the perfect driver to do the job. But I believe that McLaren should be about more than Fernando Alonso. I believe they should be looking at the bigger picture and look to their future. And I don’t believe Alonso is part of it.
But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how things unfold.