May 18, 2014, 11:30 AM EDT
Fernando Alonso celebrated his 32nd birthday a few days after last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix. In the paddock, many people gave him good wishes ahead of the day, and some were even kind enough to ask him: “What do you want for your birthday?”
When the Spaniard turned around and said: “Someone else’s car,” the rumor mill went into overdrive. Could Alonso – the man who was intended to revive Ferrari’s fortunes from 2010 – really be looking to leave?
Since then, the story has refused to lie down. Speculation linking him to McLaren emerged when it was revealed that Sergio Perez was under pressure (and ultimately dropped), but Alonso remained defiant. In fact, he was getting a bit irritated towards the end of the season when, in every press conference, he was asked the same question. “Will you be leaving Ferrari?”
Come 2014, little has changed. The same rumors linger, and after another poor start to the season and another title concession, it’s not surprising. You cannot blame Alonso for being frustrated. This glorious partnership that was intended to take both driver and team back to the top has not gone entirely to plan. Three championship runner-up trophies will mean little to either Alonso or Ferrari.
As per 2013, the main place that the rumor mill continues to spit out is McLaren. Jenson Button is 33 and nearing the end of his career; McLaren will be getting Honda engines for 2015, and could return to form. Although Alonso’s tenure with the team ended in the worst possible fashion – him walking away when relations with Lewis Hamilton soured – there are suggestions he could be angling for a move back. After all, he is one of the most naturally talented drivers on the grid, and ultimately wants a third world title before he retires. If Ferrari can’t give him that, someone else might.
The big problem with this story for me is that McLaren already has a succession plan in place. Namely, Stoffel Vandoorne is the man who puts a spanner in the works.
Vandoorne has consistently impressed throughout his junior career, much like Kevin Magnussen. He won on his GP2 debut in Bahrain last month, and is thought of very highly within the McLaren setup. Should Button opt to call it quits at the end of the 2016 season, having enjoyed one year with Honda power, Vandoorne appears to be the perfect driver to complement Magnussen. If McLaren did draft in Alonso as a replacement for Button, it would put Vandoorne’s F1 aspirations on the back burner.
Over the Spanish Grand Prix weekend, an even stranger rumor emerged: Alonso was angling for a move to Mercedes, the team that will most probably win both championships in 2014.
It must be hastened that, unlike the Newey to Ferrari rumor, this came out of nowhere. However, some corners of the paddock suggested that Alonso could come in as a replacement for Nico Rosberg, and re-join Lewis Hamilton.
Toto Wolff was asked about this rumor, and he looked perplexed, telling broadcasters “I wouldn’t change my line-up for the world.” Indeed, the Hamilton-Rosberg partnership looks to be very fruitful, having scored 197/215 possible points in 2014.
Alonso was then asked whether he’d be moving to Mercedes, but he just said: “No.”
Back to our original question. Why won’t the Alonso leaving Ferrari rumors go away? Because Ferrari still isn’t winning. Just one podium finish in the first five races is a very poor yield. The Spaniard continues to pull the car through the order and make it do things that it simply shouldn’t, but until he’s got the fastest car, it’s unlikely the rumor mill will give this one up.
I can appreciate why he would want to leave Ferrari, but where can he go? McLaren has the afore-mentioned succession plan, Mercedes has a perfect line-up, and so does Red Bull. A move to Lotus? Force India? Williams? Unlikely.
This story does split opinion in the paddock, but I for one cannot see him walking away from Ferrari at the end of 2014 because – disregarding everything else – he has few places to go.
He is still the unofficial number one driver, as suggested by Kimi Raikkonen’s odd strategy in Spain, and technical director James Allison is yet to design a car. His first will be in 2015. And who knows? Maybe that will be the year that the Alonso-Ferrari partnership finally lives up to the lofty expectations.