Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Holding all the cards // Fernando Alonso is key to the driver market yet again

Published by Christine

We’re starting to see the 2014 silly season kick into gear, as drivers look ahead to their future plans. There have been a couple of contract confirmations, Nico Rosberg in particular has re-signed with Mercedes for an unspecified number of years, and Pastor Maldonado has extended his contract with Lotus at least until the end of next season. The big news occurred at Toro Rosso, with F1’s youngest ever driver in Max Verstappen set to make his debut in 2015, to a varied reaction.

Aside from Nico’s negotiations, there hasn’t been a lot of movement at the front of the grid, and speculation is now starting to really ramp up as the season winds its way to a conclusion. The amazing thing to me is that the 2014/15 driver market, as with so many years previously, is resting on the shoulders of one man: Fernando Alonso.

Rumour has it that McLaren are in the hunt for the Ferrari driver, who has previously said he would want to finish his career at the Scuderia. That was before he spent six years fruitlessly searching for a third championship with the Italian squad, however. Now, it would be perfectly understandable for Alonso to look for a new opportunity, and McLaren could be a promising prospect next season. They’ve suffered a little this year, but have Ron Dennis back at the helm and Honda engines waiting in the wings. I personally can’t see how Ron and Fernando could work together after previous experiences, but stranger things have happened.

Alonso secret holds the key

Alonso’s decision to stay or go will impact many other drivers. Jenson Button's position at McLaren had been growing stronger and stronger after he joined in 2010, and remained after Lewis Hamilton opted to depart two years later. With a younger driver alongside him, Button was the anchor that kept the team together and pushing forward. Since then, however, results have also been sparse, and this year it’s reported Ron Dennis gave him the “try harder” speech. Would Alonso replace Button or would the team want two A-grade drivers again? Would that mean Button looking for a drive in the presumably latter stages of his F1 career? Or would it be Magnussen be searching for an opportunity elsewhere?

Equally, a spare seat at Ferrari would open up a lot of possibilities. Sebastian Vettel has been linked with the Scuderia for much of this year. It would give him the chance to attempt a title at another team (although that didn’t work so well for Fernando), and it would allow him to escape from the slightly embarrassing situation of being shown up by Daniel Ricciardo. Other drivers have been promising over the past couple of years and are ready for the chance – Nico Hülkenberg may or may not be in the frame again, and Valtteri Bottas has certainly raised eyebrows. Double Finn strategy, anyone? And we can’t count out Jules Bianchi, who has put in some star performances at the rear of the field, and already has that Ferrari connection. With top drivers unlikely to want to move down the grid, a Bianchi promotion would take one seat out of contention without offering up an alternative.

Rosberg may have re-signed to Mercedes but this year’s unrest could shake things up at the German team. Lewis Hamilton may be keen to get away from another tempestuous teammate relationship and must be on the wishlist of teams hoping for a fast and high profile driver. Returning to McLaren, particularly under the guidance of Ron Dennis, would be a tempting prospect for the Brit but I can’t imagine that would remain the case if a certain Ferrari driver gets there first. Would Lewis fit at Ferrari? He’s spent so long fighting them on track, it would be a hard transition to make.

I don’t have any answers because like the rest of the F1 world, I’m waiting to see what Alonso does. The Spaniard has held the key to the driver market for so many years, even now, when his results haven’t been what he would have wanted from his time at Maranello. There are no clear changes yet, but the speculation, that’s where the fun lies. So many potential combinations and such fun putting them altogether, F1’s 2015 chess match has started in earnest.