Is Fernando Alonso interested in a sabbatical in 2016? McLaren boss Ron Dennis appears to think so, yet Alonso claims he has no idea what his employer is on about. One of them is lying.
While the F1 paddock was buzzing with the Ferrari/Haas wind tunnel saga, that shot was quickly muffled with the stewards’ clarification on the matter, making room for the weekend’s second juiciest story: Why exactly did Ron Dennis say what he said?
It’s important at first not to make a mountain out of a grain of sand but this is a fight that’s been brewing in the background almost all season long. Let’s go back to Dennis’ claims that McLaren will be competitive from the first day of their Honda partnership, even going as far as predicting the Woking squad will challenge for race victories come the latter stage of the season. As we saw all year long, these claims were off the mark – wide off.
Reliability and competitiveness woes were clear from the get-go at the Young Drivers’ Test in Abu Dhabi last year after the tight packaging caused cooling problems on both McLaren’s and Honda’s behalf.
The comments of solidarity that all faces of the partnership were insisting on from last November only lasted until this year’s Canadian Grand Prix in June as Alonso erupted on the radio saying their pace (lack of) on the straights is making them look like amateurs. Said in the heat of battle, this comment didn’t come from nowhere. When Eric Boullier was asked whether he thought Alonso was directing a message to Honda he replied with a simple “I don’t know, ask him,” and then he went on to say “Probably, yes”. Better to seem calculated than to seem to lose temper.
Episode 2 came at the Belgian Grand Prix where the McLaren cars were being passed like lighting at the end of the Kemmel straight by seemingly everyone, despite the MP4-30 being fitted with an upgraded engine. Embarrassment ensued.
Honda was forced to sit through a brutal press conference at the next event in Italy where the management on the Japanese side was grilled after its Chief Officer of Motorsport, Yasuhisa Arai, proclaimed that the updated engine had a horsepower advantage on Renault. That was completely contradicted with the difference in top speed between them and the Renault-powered cars.
Arai was asked whether he thought he should apologize to the McLaren drivers, to which he had no answer but an awkward “Why? Why?”.
Honda countered by arguing that the MP4-30 chassis isn’t that good, either. The British tabloid press demanded that Honda’s management step aside and make room for a fresher approach. Boullier’s smirk after saying the two companies are a team and they will behave like one said it all.
The partnership had been cornered into explaining their areas of weakness, hardly a pleasant thing for an engine manufacturer to admit that it made its turbos too small. Also not pleasant: a technology group admitting they made inadequate energy recovery systems, albeit a result of inadequate turbochargers; the price of size zero.
Episode 3 was the Japanese Grand Prix. Alonso again came on the radio complaining his lack of pace was embarrassing as once again a fleet of cars went past him. Later he was heard comparing his power unit to a “GP2 engine” as he was once again blasted by.
With it being Honda’s home Grand Prix there was certainly no room for error, so it would be a very safe assumption that messages were being spread across the air for whoever wanted to listen. Dennis had to deflect, citing the comments as “unprofessional”, but tension was clearly past the point of simmering and now at boiling temperatures.
Tempers had to be cooled, and cooled they were. There were no more accusations of lack of power or an inferior chassis. While inevitable, it was still the sane thing to do.
Then came the end-of-season evaluation at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Dennis surprisingly claimed that Fernando Alonso might be interested to take the 2016 season off if Honda couldn’t raise its game. Alonso denied this and expressed surprise. What does it all mean?
In specifics: Dennis said Alonso would still drive for the team in 2017 and 2018, meaning the Spaniard’s three-year contract is watertight and he will see out his three years at the team no matter what. Alonso was also forced to deny his visit at Red Bull Racing during the Red Bull-Mercedes tie-up rumors was nothing more more than a visit to his old pal Paul Monaghan…
It’s always been difficult to interpret Dennis’ words of ‘Ronspeak’ with his silver-tongue way of speaking aimed at always looking like he has the upper hand. If Alonso really had no idea what this was all about then it could be more messages from Dennis to Honda.
He could be threatening the Japanese squad that their continued lack of form could cost them their star signing, even if it is temporary. He might also be warning Alonso that his services are dispensable if he can’t control his temper in public.
If Dennis is telling the truth, however, it could mean any number of things. Both McLaren drivers were linked to a drive in the FIA World Endurance Championship before they were confirmed at the team and Alonso was denied a run at Le Mans this year by none other than Dennis. It could mean that a performance clause exists to allow him to take a year off until McLaren can return to their old selves. One other possibility is Dennis offering this year off as the apology to Alonso that Honda wouldn’t offer, but this seems unfair to Button and very uncharacteristic of Dennis.
Either way, Alonso is a man with fourteen years in the sport, two championships and five years of politics at Ferrari, he knows what he’s saying. So does an entrepreneur who took a privateer team in the seventies and turned it into a multi-faceted enterprise and who retracted his comments two days after the race.
A certain Mark Webber said that Alonso must be a ticking bomb that will explode at the first February test if he isn’t delivered a car that can win. The winter break will cool that fuse for now, but with McLaren on the brink of financial troubles and unable to attract any sponsors, even bleeding long-standing ones, they don’t appear to have a choice.
The pressure is still on. This should be interesting to watch.
Images via McLaren