Ron Dennis and Éric Boullier make for strange bedfellows. The inimitable anal Brit fabled for his “Ron-speak” can only be topped by the verbally confusing Frenchman…
Boullier has made his name in the F1 paddock during his time with the Enstone squad, during which he rightly earned the title of Éric the Believable. One of the main protagonists of the tragicomedy also known as Mansoor Ijaz, Boullier has often been caught making pronouncements along the lines of “all is fine” and “nothing to see here, move on”, yet all those cheques waiting in the mail from new investors never quite got to Enstone… Some had even been suggesting that Boullier was the perfect PR recruit for McLaren, to keep a semblance of “all is well” in Woking during these years of being in the doldrums.
The volatile combination, PR-wise, that is Dennis-Boullier has made itself known again not long before the beginning of the season. In November last year Ron Dennis, with little prompting, had freely floated the idea of Fernando Alonso taking a sabbatical:
“He will definitely finish his career with McLaren.
“I have an open mind to anything, and some of the ideas have involved those sorts of considerations, yes, sabbatical years, etc.
“But at this moment of time I would say, we believe we know where we will be.”
Of course to neutral observers the idea of Fred “definitely” finishing his career at McLaren seems like a strange notion, filled with uncertainties. There is little love lost between Big Ron and Fernando courtesy of the tumultuous 2007 season, and last year’s (un-)competitiveness of the McHonda package has done little to sweeten their uncomfortable second marriage. And while Honda has certainly made progress with the reliability of its PU, McLaren has had at best an average winter testing and projections for this year’s performance were overall not rosy.
The statistical analysis of testing performed by F1Metrics put the McHonda package some 2 seconds behind the impressive (and sandbagging) Mercedes car, barely in the ballpark to fight the likes of Force India and Renault, never mind confirmed second-tier teams like Williams and Red Bull. Indeed, following the first few races of the season McLaren is at best on par with Force India and Renault in terms of performance, and has barely managed to scrape a few points in Sochi and Barcelona with its regular drivers, in both cases partly thanks to front-running cars playing bumper cars with each other. It must be a sad day at the office when barely making it into Q3 in Barcelona is the two-year high point for one of the most successful teams in F1 with two WDCs at the wheel…
So it came as no surprise that Fernando was starting to stir waves at the beginning of the year by entertaining the possibility of a life outside the Woking team. In the summer of 2014 the paddock regularly buzzed with speculation that an Alonso/Mercedes deal was in the air. (This would neatly explain the LaFerrari that Hamilton mysteriously got from Maranello—traditionally reserved for either a contracted Ferrari F1 driver or someone who has at least five Ferraris in their collection—, which suggests Hamilton ending up at Ferrari was a very real possibility.) Asked in Barcelona testing this year whether the rumours were true, he said:
“Yes, the offer was there.
“The circumstances meant it came up, but Ferrari didn’t want it at that point.”
A happy man in a happy team would unlikely dig up such memories so publicly. It is safe to assume that Fernando would happily move sideways should an offer present itself. (Perhaps a return of the prodigal son to Renault? Though Renault isn’t showing many signs of doing any better than the McHonda package this year…)
But what does come as a surprise is when dear Éric pontificates that it would be “foolish” for Alonso not to extend his current 3-year McLaren deal:
“He [Alonso] would be foolish already to decide to stop after three years.”
In light of the circumstances, it is hard not to look at this comically. Barely half a year has passed between Fernando should perhaps be “taking a sabbatical” if the car performs poorly, again, to Fernando “would be foolish” not to re-sign with the Woking team. Now of course Éric the Believable talks the talk of the McLaren driver becoming WDC in some vague future:
“We cannot provide the timescale.”
“You cannot say in racing, ‘in three years we will be world champion’. The guy who says this will be wrong.”
“You can say, ‘we will be world champion between three and five years’.”
“To this I agree, but you can’t say we will be world champions in 2017.”
Bold claims coming from a team who hasn’t won a race in the past 3 years, and has produced a single WDC in the past decade. And just last week after the Sochi race Comical Ali was caught at it again:
“We can see that we are the team that have a lot of fuel saving for obvious reasons.”
“But with Fernando you could see towards the end of the race he was more than 1.2s faster [per lap].”
“So without fuel saving we’d save another 50s which we would’ve had at the end of the race.”
“If you look, we are with Williams [without fuel-saving] so it’s the kind of progress we need to go [further].”
Without fuel-saving McLaren might theoretically be on par with a second-tier car, although this begs the question where would Williams be without fuel-saving? If you unchained the Merc war stallion in the back of the Williams, there’s no telling how much farther up in front it would end up (and whether Honda should double its stock of inhaler parts for its asthmatic power unit as well)…
Of course, Fernando isn’t getting any younger. At 34 three to five years would mean an estimated 37-39 years for the incredibly talented Spaniard, well past his prime and an age at which few drivers if any have operated successfully at this level in recent decades. Should Fernando have faith and put his future in the hands of Comical Ali?
And if not, what next for McLaren’s star driver? Signs emanating from Maranello are that chief Sergio Marchionne is most unpleased with Ferrari’s failing to deliver title-winning performances this year, with a mooted sacking of Mr Arrivederci coming right up, and the sight of a dead-man walking after Barcelona Q3 did nothing to help dispel these rumours notwithstanding Marchionne’s protestations on “job safety” in Maranello. (With Marchionne in charge we all know how quickly that can go sideways…) Which entails a question mark over the Scuderia’s driver line-up as well. Surely Sergio doesn’t really think that Räikkönen, after the drumming he got from Alonso, is part of any “world’s best” two-driver shortlist out there…
Besides Vettel, there are only three other drivers in the paddock with the potential to deliver titles in inferior machinery: Hamilton (tied to Merc and not going anywhere while they’re playing dominatrix with the others), Ricciardo (who Spice Boy Horner claims is tied up in Red Bull aluminium chains until the end of 2017, along with Verstappen son of Verstappen, the newly crowned Emperor Maximilian) and Alonso. Fernando must surely have performance-related exit clauses in his current contract (which McHonda is in no danger to achieve), and if Sergio has no interest in keeping grudges and is all about delivering the WDC that he so craves, a wildly speculative proposition would be an unexpected return of the prodigal son to Ferrari…
And it’s not like Alonso would mind one bit getting back into his old red overalls, as he intimated after winter testing this year:
“If they [Ferrari] win the championship, probably, yes [I would feel some regret], because I had a contract last year and this year with them.”
“So if they win the championship this year, probably, I will feel I could have had that opportunity as well if I was able to drive as good as the champion.”