SEPTEMBER 15, 2008
The future of Fernando Alonso
The news at Monza that Kimi Raikkonen will stay with Ferrari for another two seasons came as a surprise in Monza, given the Finn's poor performances this year. He now lies fourth in the Drivers' World Championship, behind BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica, and has no realistic chance of challenging for this year's crown, as he is now 21 points behind World Championship leader Lewis Hamilton with only four races remaining. He has failed to score in the last three races.
The Ferrari announcement sends a clear message that the team is not interested in signing Fernando Alonso, until 2011 at the earliest and there is little point in Alonso holding on and hoping that Raikkonen will retire. Thus he is faced with either staying at Renault or moving to a new team. Renault has been disappointing for the last two seasons and there is little sign that this will improve in the future with the budgets being kept down and the lack of results meaning that the team is not pulling in as much money as it needs to take on McLaren, Ferrari and the manufacturer-backed teams of Toyota, Honda and BMW. Alonso may be comfortable in the team but his primary motivation at the moment is to win races. He has made sufficient money in his career not to have to worry about such things and what he needs now is to re-establish himself. His year at McLaren has seriously undermined the idea of his invincibility and teams are wary of signing him because of the political trouble he stirred up at McLaren.
BMW Sauber is the obvious choice for Alonso but there is a problem in that the team has contracts with both Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica. Heidfeld is paid $10m a year, but with bonuses last year pushing this up to $15m, there is some tension inside the team because Robert Kubica is doing a better job and wants not just money but also recognition of his work. Raising Kubica's salary and keeping Heidfeld would be expensive at a time when BMW is putting a squeeze on the team's budget. Similarly, paying off Heidfeld and hiring Alonso instead would be very expensive and it may be in the team's best interest to keep the same two drivers and use the money that is saved to continue to improve the cars.
Honda is making no secret of its desire to get Alonso. The team will pay his salary demand and there is some potential for the future with Ross Brawn in charge. It would also be a situation in which Fernando Alonso would have nothing to lose (except time) as the team can take the blame if things do not go well.
The other point of interest in all of this is that Renault will be in trouble if Alonso does walk away as there are no real top names available at the moment.