It is looking increasingly likely that Fernando Alonso will stay put at Renault next season, though what colour his overalls will be in 2010 is anyone’s guess.
Next week’s Hungarian Grand Prix marks the anniversary of Alonso’s public fall-out with McLaren-Mercedes over perceived driver favouritism, a row which ultimately led to the Spaniard’s return to Renault for 2008.
“The Alonso effect” was widely believed to be the missing piece in Renault’s lacklustre 2007 puzzle, and he was hailed as the man to return the RÃ©gie to its former glory, before the new season had even begun.
Things haven’t quite turned out as expected. Barring some dazzling displays behind the wheel of his R28 in qualifying, Alonso and Renault have struggled to claw themselves out of the mid-field where they find themselves entrenched in a fierce scrap with Red Bull Racing, Toyota and Williams. Alonso’s fourth place at the season-opener in Melbourne stands as his best result so far, but that was as much to do with others misfortune as it was his talent behind the wheel.
Alonso has made clear his frustration on occasions and there is no doubt he is chomping at the bit to challenge for the world championship again, but anyone thinking that he has lost his drive at Renault is way off the mark.
“There was a bit of frustration when I saw that I wouldn’t win or get on the podium,” the 26-year-old told F1 Racing this month. “But it’s still a challenge to beat our main opponents, and that’s the motivation to keep doing my best. I’ll keep fighting for a podium or even a victory this year because that will prove that I’m still here.”
“I want to prove to everybody that I’m the best so I need a super performance to do that, which means a podium or a win. And I’ll be trying to do it in the second part of the season.”
The problem for Alonso is that Renault’s 2008 challenger, the R28, has yet to show it is capable of victory, and the F1 rumour-mill has gone into overdrive with theories that Alonso will use his get-out clause to leave Renault at the end of the season.
With on-going speculation about Kimi Raikkonen’s future at Ferrari, the double world champion found himself linked to the Scuderia as early as the Monaco Grand Prix in May. Paddock whispers placing the Spaniard at Honda and even Red Bull for 2009 also surfaced over the course of the season.
With both Ferrari drivers under contract for 2009, Honda and Red Bull Racing all but confirming their current line-up for next year, and BMW Sauber unlikely to play stop-over hosts to Alonso before he climbs into scarlet overalls in 2010, the doors are shutting fast.
The general view in the paddock is that Alonso will stay with Renault for 2009 before making the switch to Ferrari the following year – though there is still a big question mark over who the man sitting in the opposite side of the garage will be.
Staying at Renault makes sense. The raft of new regulations proposed for 2009 are expected to shake up the pecking order considerably. In the context of such sweeping change, the money is on the teams with the biggest budgets to emerge as the forerunners. McLaren, Ferrari and BMW Sauber will still be the teams to beat, but Honda and Toyota could also bring themselves into play.
A year at Renault would enable Alonso to weigh up his options, assess the progress made by the teams around him, and most importantly of all avoid a Button-style contract row that would come with throwing his eggs in one basket. Renault themselves may even spring a surprise.
Whatever his plans, expect the speculation to run deep into the summer. Alonso has said he will announce his intentions after the Italian grand prix – a date which, as commentators have been quick to point out, is traditionally used by Ferrari to announce their driver line-up for the following year.
“After the summer, I think we’ll see what the possibilities are,” said Alonso. “At the moment I’ve read these things [rumours linking him to other teams], but there’s nothing close or anything like that. It’s just a question of common sense, really.”
“If we improve, if we’re fighting and winning races at the end of the championship with Renault, then next year is looking great. That’s the first target for us, to try and improve together because we’ve still got a lot of work to do to catch up the big teams.”
“After that, then we’ll seeâ€¦”