It is looking like the end of the road for Fernando Alonso and Ferrari after five years of rocky marriage. The Spaniard has been told by the new Ferrari management that he can leave and well placed sources say that unless there is an 11th hour change of heart the clamorous split will happen.
Alonso has been frustrated in his five years at Ferrari not to have had a car capable of winning the world title, even though he came close in 2010 and 2012, losing out both times to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. He looked around in the summer of 2013 and received the famous “ear tweak” from then chairman Luca di Montezemolo, but with Ferrari now at a crossroads with Sergio Marchionne taking over from Montezemolo, there are forces within Ferrari who want to see the back of Alonso and make a fresh start.
Understandably Alonso has made requests and demands, but the noises coming from Maranello is that these are not reasonable and the disillusion has grown on both sides over the Summer and Autumn to the jump off point where they now stand.
Alonso said he would put Ferrari’s interests first, but added that he is pretty clear in his mind what he will do next year, “I always put the interest of the team and the interest of the tifosi – this big brand Ferrari that is bigger than all of us – in front of my own interest,” he said in the Suzuka paddock today.
“So if there is something to talk about in the future and something better for Ferrari, I will do whatever.”
So who would Ferrari target next and what will Alonso do?
The signs are clear that Marchionne’s team believe they can get Sebastian Vettel to come to Maranello. The question is whether they can get him out of his Red Bull contract, which runs to the end of 2015. Red Bull will strenuously resist this, but the season has not been a good one for Vettel. He has stayed united with the team, but if he were to go then Red Bull has an able line up in Daniel Ricciardo and Danill Kvyat ready to go.
Bernie Ecclestone will have some influence on this as he is close to Vettel and he has played a part in moves like Michael Schumacher’s to Ferrari in 1995. Lewis Hamilton is also of interest to Ferrari, but it is harder to imagine him leaving Mercedes, certainly not before the end of his contact period in 2015.
It looks very much as though 2015 will be a transition year for Ferrari as they struggle to close the gap to the benchmark Mercedes chassis and power unit. The latter will probably take longer than the former.
If Vettel is not available until 2016, the word is that Ferrari will look to fill the gap with Jules Bianchi, who has done two seasons with Marussia in addition to a season as test and reserve driver for Force India.
Bianchi has made an impression this year, with some strong qualifying performances taking him into Q2 on three occasions and his 9th place result in Monaco brought Marussia its first world championship points.
Is he ready for a move like this? The comparison is with Felipe Massa, who did three complete seasons with Sauber as well as a year as Ferrari test driver before making his Ferrari debut in 2006 alongside Michael Schumacher.
Ferrari don’t tend to take inexperienced drivers, but this is an unusual situation and one senses that if they were going to hire a driver like Nico Hulkenberg they would have done so by now.
If Bianchi were given the chance and he performed, then it would increase his standing and give him some options to continue to mature elsewhere (for future recall by Ferrari) or he might be able to retain the seat for 2016 alongside Vettel or whoever comes in, as Kimi Raikkonen is likely to stop at the end of 2015.
Asked whether he feels he is ready for such a step up, Bianchi said today, “Yes of course I feel ready. I have been working for that since I’m in the (Ferrari) Academy, end of 2009. So, now I did nearly two seasons in Formula One.
“I think I have good experience and I feel ready for that, for sure. It looks like the logical step for me if something happens like this. Obviously at the moment both drivers have a contract so it’s not the question but if there is the opportunity I feel it would be good for me and I feel good.”
As for Alonso, the two time world champion is clearly weighing up a McLaren Honda offer. It’s a big decision as it’s probably the last move of his career and he needs to be sure that the package will deliver over the next three years, by which time he will be 36.
Year one will be a development year for Honda and a transition for McLaren with its new technical line up. The pressure will be on to deliver a winning car in 2016. Alonso needs some assurances.
The McLaren picture is complicated by the position of Ron Dennis. Although McLaren has strenuously denied today that Dennis is set to be replaced by Gerhard Berger as team boss, there is some truth to the background story that Dennis’ return to the helm in place of Martin Whitmarsh was linked to a deal with the Bahraini shareholders and requited Dennis to find significant new funding for the team, which he has failed to do.
Alonso will not be overly concerned if Dennis, with whom he fell out spectacularly in 2007, is not part of the team’s future plans. Honda is known to be determined to get Alonso, whom they unsuccessfully tried to get in the late 2000s on several occasions.