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In the Formula One world, the enforced shutdown of the European summer is usually accompanied by a ‘silly season’ of driver and team discussions, fuelled by idle hands of drivers, teams, agents, and most of all: motorsport writers.
As we approach the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, it would seem that this speculation had been quelled by stability in the top teams, who are instead focusing on the title fight.
There is one story leading the paddock, a slow burn of a driver running out of time. Fernando Alonso at a stagnant McLaren-Honda. The story has focused on two questions: what should McLaren do? And where will Alonso go?
One thing remains unaddressed: these two decisions will affect the entire paddock, even more so as the slow move into a new engine formula has been set in action.
Initially, Honda searched for a second team to improve their reliability. Sauber signed a deal, and then withdrew over concerns about McLaren supplied parts. Ever other team is locked into a better deal – anyone with a Mercedes engine has no reason to leave the most successful supplier of the current formula.
Haas is linked to Ferrari, and Red Bull highly unlikely to experiment when they have a mildly functioning Tag-Heuer branded Renault.
This leaves only one team at the table: Toro Rosso.
Talks allegedly collapsed, but resumed after rumoured help from Illmor on the 2018 engine showed promising results. If nothing else, Honda would double their engine supply, gain insight from the 2017 Renault engines lying around the Toro Rosso garage, and Toro Rosso would have an extra $100 million in the bank.
No Toro Rosso deal would take less than McLaren currently do. Honda can only improve from their current performance, and any drastic improvements would see the watchful eyes of Red Bull considering a Honda supply.
McLaren’s next decision, should the Toro Rosso deal go ahead, will determine the shape of the entire paddock. Should they leave Honda, to placate Alonso, they will go with Renault. The Monza Paddock saw continued discussions between Alain Prost, Cyril Abiteboul, Renault Sport Managing Director, and Ross Brawn, Formula One Managing Director of Motorsports, and one can only imagine what was discussed.
Migration to Renault would be a straight swap with Toro Rosso – so Renault would see no real increase in supply. McLaren lose the Honda payments, and face competition with the works team and Red Bull, both of which have had strong head starts.
This is where the change could influence the entire grid. Mercedes and Ferrari have locked in their drivers. With nowhere better to go, Ricciardo and Verstappen will stay at Red Bull. For the rese of the driver’s market: Renault holds all the chips, and could wield significant power over McLaren.
They have a large waiting list of drivers waiting for a seat: Kubica seems very close to a return. Sirotkin, Latifi and Rowland are all waiting in the wings. Sainz can be bought out of his Red Bull contract, Kvyat is trying to keep his career alive, and Perez could be tempted with a swich.
Renault could very easily close up the driver market by asking for a McLaren seat, or even both.
This is made even cloudier by the second question: where will Alonso go? Even if McLaren swaps to Renault supply to placate him, surely he would prefer to take a seat in the works team. Renault and Williams are both named as potential ‘winning’ options for Alonso in 2018.
Thus the snake eats itself – if, by placating Alonso, McLaren become a customer team, they may lose him to the works team. Williams, who may replace Massa at any time, will surely be looking in his direction.
Honda can only improve from their current dire results. McLaren will most likely lose Alonso within the next season or two either way. Whatever outcome, there are a lot of drivers and their agents keenly watching the situation, as these two decisions will shake up the entire bottom half of the grid.