OCTOBER 11, 2007

Letters of intent

If the German media is correct and Fernando Alonso has signed a letter of intent to drive for Renault in 2008 then he is likely to be in breach of his McLaren contract and unless he has a very good argument as to why he can walk away, would thus have to bash open his piggy-bank and pay the Woking team for the two years that remain on his contract. Despite his constant public support for Alonso, there is no doubt that Ron Dennis is a man who would be forgiven for feeling a certain amount of antipathy towards the Spaniard after their exchange of views in Hungary. The full details of that conversation have never be revealed but it certainly included a threat to report McLaren to the FIA with regard to e-mails that Alonso had in his computer - which were up to that point unknown to the team. Dennis said that Alonso later retracted his threat and apologised but the two men have not talked since then and one wonders what else might have been said in that conversation that have caused such a chill to pass through the team, which despite its outer coolness is usually a pretty warm place.

Alonso is committed until the end of 2009 and the team has built a package of sponsorship around him with the likes of Vodafone and Banco Santander. If Alonso walks there will be collateral damage for McLaren. Legally-speaking Alonso cannot just join another team because McLaren would then be able to challenge that deal with the Contract Recognition Board and if this body ruled in McLaren's favour - which it would because it considers only the contracts it has, not the arguments around them - Alonso could be made to sit on the bench in 2008 if he does not want to race for McLaren.

In other words, if there is to be a settlement someone is going to have to pay to get Fernando out of McLaren. The reality is that Alonso is unlikely to be able to afford that himself - as he was not a big earner at Renault before he moved to McLaren - and he would thus be relying on Renault to pay that for him - and that does not sound like the kind of thing that Renault boss Carlos Ghosn is going to sanction because he wants cost-effective F1 rather than the bills for purchasing stars. It is possible that Flavio Briatore might find a sponsor to pay for it but at that kind of money it would require a lot of space on the car. The others that could do it (Toyota) may not be very attractive to Alonso or think they are not ready to take him (BMW).

Fernando might like to be fired but there would need to be suitable grounds for a dismissal and McLaren cannot afford to do that before the end of the World Championship lest the watchdogs from the FIA come busting through the door, claiming that the team is manipulating the World Championship. But firing Fernando does not make much sense for McLaren because if there is an opportunity to offset any collateral damage from his departure it would be logical for the team to take it.