Time is running out for Fernando Alonso.
The dream partnership he embarked upon when he joined Ferrari in 2010 has, after a period of gradual decline, gone stale.
Following the Bahrain Grand Prix, we’re now three races into the 2014 Formula One season and Alonso is rather uncharacteristically yet to register on anyone’s consciousness. He is still waiting for his first podium of the year while his first victory of the campaign is entirely reliant on his skills as an amateur magician.
The rabbit is wasting away at the very bottom of the hat with Alonso stuck on 26 points, the same amount of points he had registered after three grands prix in 2011—the year that he claimed only a single win—and he is already 35 behind Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, the current world championship leader.
The major difference between 2011 and 2014, though, is that it is no longer a surprise to see Ferrari struggling. Their fall from serial title winners to mere podium hopefuls over the last decade has been alarming, and it is worrying that nobody now seems to notice when the lead car of the most successful team in the sport’s history trundles its way to fourth place, the positions Alonso claimed in Australia and Malaysia.
In short, mediocrity is the team’s new, accepted level.
This would have been unacceptable at the best of times for an institution as gigantic as Ferrari, but in 2014—when the new regulation changes were set to provide the Prancing Horse with a fresh start—it is bordering on unforgivable.
Formula One’s renewed status as an engine formula was, in theory, set to play into the hands of major manufacturers who produce their own powertrain as well as their chassis.
And while Mercedes have capitalised on the rule changes to establish not only their works team but their customer outfits as the class of the field (six of the top 10 drivers in the Bahrain Grand Prix were powered by the German manufacturer), Ferrari have been left behind, resorted to picking up the scraps.
The Italian team’s failure to use the 2014 regulations as a stepping stone to return to the front of the pack is almost certainly the final straw for Alonso, who turns 33 in July, and who now has little choice but to seek alternative employment.
The Spaniard had already sewn the seed for a potential transfer in 2013 when he was quoted by BBC Sport’s Andrew Benson as claiming he wanted “someone else’s car” following the Hungarian Grand Prix, and with this season a write-off barring a Mercedes implosion, Alonso must take further steps toward plotting an escape route from Ferrari.
The obvious move, of course, would be a return to McLaren. Martin Whitmarsh had spoken flatteringly of Alonso when questioned by Sky Sports at last year’s Singapore Grand Prix, but after a winter of change at Woking, Whitmarsh has been reduced from his position as team principal of McLaren to F1’s answer to Where’s Wally.
The mutual dislike between Alonso and Ron Dennis, the Group CEO of McLaren, is common knowledge after the Spaniard’s first stint with the team in 2007, although the latter did admit to being open to the idea of re-signing the double world champion to BBC Sport last year. Alonso, however, admitted that his openness to rejoining the team was down to the fact that Dennis was, at that point, a background figure at McLaren.
Kevin Magnussen’s near-seamless transition to F1 means that he will surely be retained for 2015 while Jenson Button’s plans are as yet unclear, although you’d expect the thought of aligning with Honda, McLaren’s powertrain partner from next season, will appeal to the 2009 world champion as much as Alonso.
Aside from McLaren, Alonso’s options are limited.
Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton are likely to remain with Mercedes unless tensions boil over in the heat of this season’s title battle, and Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel should remain at Red Bull unless the latter feels he can extract no more from the four-time world champions.
This presents quite a dilemma for Alonso: Does he reaffirm his belief and hope in the Ferrari project or take the biggest gamble of his career and join a less fashionable team to get his hands on that decisive Mercedes engine?
The true beauty of the new regulations is that teams such as Williams and Force India have suddenly transformed from being standard midfield runners to increasingly attractive propositions for drivers. Sergio Perez’s podium in Bahrain confirmed the latter’s continuous growth in stature, while the recent additions in personnel and sponsorship at Williams suggest the team could return to the front of the grid somewhere down the line.
Indeed, Alonso’s status as the highest-paid driver on the grid (he earned $30 million in 2013, according to the Forbes Rich List) would be an issue, but at this stage of his career, it is a question of whether he wants to be the richest driver of the grid or the most successful.
And given that he told Sky Sports’ Johnny Herbert in Abu Dhabi last year that he would give “one arm” to win another title, the prospect of him taking one step backward in order to go forward is not as outlandish as it may seem.
This September will mark nine years since Alonso coasted his Renault in to parc ferme at Interlagos as the man who had just broken Michael Schumacher’s five-year winning streak. As F1’s youngest world champion at the time, it was expected that he would embark upon his own period of dominance, breaking every record in his path.
Since then, however, his career has mostly been a tale of near-misses, missed opportunities and false hope, with him losing the title by less than five points on three separate occasions. The prospect of a driver of such vast talent and influence as Alonso retiring with only two world titles to his name is unthinkable, yet is an ever-increasing possibility.
A change of scenery would serve the Spaniard well and allow Alonso to regain the momentum that Ferrari’s incompetence has cruelly robbed of him.
Some things are just never meant to work out.