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OCTOBER 4, 2007

A Formula 1 story about motor racing

There have been a lot of stories in recent days about the politics of Formula 1 and little has been said of the driver market. What is clear is that everyone is now waiting to see what happens with Fernando Alonso. It has been fairly evident since the Hungarian Grand Prix that the future of the McLaren lies with Lewis Hamilton and there have been rumours of five-year deals worth very large sums of money. It makes total sense for McLaren to have moved quickly to nail down Hamilton and make sure that he is not lured elsewhere. The next problem is what to do with Fernando Alonso. He has a deal with McLaren for 2008. Neither side is happy with the situation but neither wants to be the one to make the break because of the legal implications involved and the need to pay for a settlement. Thus it has been a very cagey game of tryingg to find ways to break up the relationship without either side having to pay. This has not been easy, as was indicated by Bernie Ecclestone's recent remarks about Fernando perhaps having a sabbatical in 2008. That was never going to happen but it was probably a message to one someone.

There has been a lot of talk about Alonso going back to Renault but this is really wishful thinking as Renault does not have the cash to pay for him and there will be the fear that the team's performance will not improve next year and also that the quietly simmering scandals may yet bubble up and engulf Renault, as rumours have suggested for some time.

The obvious home for Alonso is at Ferrari and while Jean Todt says that Alonso will not be there in 2008, it is by no means certain that this will change. Fernando cannot just leave without a suitable settlement and the team is unlikely to fire him but this does not mean it is impossible for him to force the situation to his advantage. One could speculate that there are lessons that may have been learned from what Nick Heidfeld did a couple of years ago when he wanted to leave Williams to join BMW Sauber. Williams wanted him to stay and had a contract but Nick wanted to leave to become number one as the Swiss team. this was achieved by signing a contract for the year after his Williams deal ended. By doing this he made it clear that he was going to the rival operation and that Williams would then have to decide whether it was a good idea for him to gather a whole lot of knowledge that would go with him (in his head of course) arer whether it was best to cut and run and find an alternative.

Thus one can imagine a situation in which Alonso would agreed a deal with Ferrari to start in 2009 and then present this to McLaren. There is little reason then that McLaren would want him to stay on as that would simply be giving Ferrari a better insight into McLaren activities. At the moment Alonso is probably not playing any great role in the development of things for 2008 and so it is a good time for McLaren to agree to let him go. McLaren might like some money and it would really depend on what Ferrari (or its sponsors) are willing to pay. Marlboro always want the fastest drivers available but a company like Alice (a Spanish-controlled pan-European telecommunications company) may well be happy to chip in to grab Fernando.

McLaren's choice for a replacement is somewhat limited. There are the old lags who have the experience but not perhaps the hunger. There are young guys who are untried but might be good. There is very little in between as those who are available are contracted. In this class the only man who seems to be free is Tonio Liuzzi and the Italian is seen as a bit of a risk because the performances of the Toro Rosso has been pretty poor until Fuji. Sebastian Vettel got most of the publicity in Japan but Liuzzi did a very good job as well even if his point - the team's first - was ultimately taken away by the stewards.

The man who is most likely to join Lewis is, however, Nico Rosberg. He has been racing Hamilton since they were kids and has managed to handle it well and remain a friend. Hamilton has often been quicker than Rosberg, but not by much. Thus he is a good team-mate as he will win races where he can win races, even if Lewis wins more.

The departure of Rosberg would create double trouble for Williams because it would need to replace both Nico and Alexander Wurz, who is well-respected within the team but has no place next year in the race team. If Alonso moves to Ferrari, Williams might pick up Felipe Massa (if the team is interested). There are Liuzzi, Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson available but the team might prefer to strengthen its relationship with Toyota by going for novice Kazuki Nakajima in one of the cars.

At the moment all these things are bubbling - and no doubt there are more besides.

But Alonso holds the key to the market and no-one is moving until Fernando's future is known.