Could anyone have imagined Fernando Alonso mingling with the crowd in the stands when he drove for Ferrari? Well that’s what he did last week when the engine in his McLaren once again broke down, this time at the Gilles Villeneuve circuit in Montreal and just two laps from the race finish. The gesture was spontaneous, but deep down it reveals the new strategy of the Spanish double world champion, whose main objective right now is to spend a few more years in Formula 1, a World Championship that has turned him into a global icon.
Alonso will turn 36 next month, and despite feeling that he is in the best moment of his career, he is also aware that his days in the championship are now numbered. McLaren is unable to offer him the car he needs to make the most of his huge talent, because the team is lumbered with Honda, a manufacturer that in the last three years has been completely incapable of designing a hybrid engine that is anything near stable.
We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we need to broadcast for free so that we can reach more people and make sure the sponsors have greater visibility
Chase Carey, Liberty Media chairman
As such, the Spaniard – whose contract at McLaren ends at the end of this season – has been getting himself into the driver market these last few days, although he is also aware that the decisions he took in the past while elsewhere – and above all how he executed them– will limit his options considerably.
On the one hand, there is the chance of him renewing his agreement with his current team, although that would only happen if McLaren breaks off with Honda and starts using Mercedes engines again – something that the British press, specifically the Daily Mail, says is nearly a done deal. For obvious reasons, it seems impossible that Alonso could return to Ferrari (he decided to leave after they, too, were unable to provide him with a winning car). Mercedes, meanwhile, does not need him, and anyway it is hard to believe that anyone in their right mind would put him back under the same roof as British three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton, with whom Alonso had a very messy and public falling out back in 2007 during the Briton’s rookie year.
Signing Alonso would not fit within the philosophy of former champions Red Bull, who look to their driver-training program for new blood. That leaves Renault, the team where Alonso took his two titles back in 2005 and 2006. “I think it’s still early to be thinking about it,” said former F1 driver-turned-pundit Pedro de la Rosa – and great friend of fellow countryman Alonso – several days ago in an interview with Spanish sports daily AS.
Whatever the next move of the native of Asturias, in northern Spain, might be, right now he is seeking out allies and complicity among the highest levels of the sport – i.e., he is trying to convince the heads of Liberty Media, which is the new promoter of the championship, of the value that he has both on the track and off it. Alonso has a number of very relevant issues working in his favor, which will surely turn him into a unique property in the F1 circus, and the majority of them are not directly related to the performance of the car he might be driving.
On the one hand, his recent participation in the Indy 500 was a smash-hit success, both in the United States and in Europe, and that is an opportunity that he knows Liberty will not be likely to miss out on, given its desire to see F1 establish a major fan base across the Atlantic.
And on the other hand, one must consider that the income from this business is still the huge fortunes that broadcasters pay across the world for the TV rights.
The future of Alonso will have a decisive influence on the price of F1 broadcast rights in Spain from now on
The contract that Spanish operator Movistar currently holds with rights-holder Formula One Management, for which parent company Telefónica pays €65 million a year, comes to an end in late 2017. And if one thing is clear, it is that the future of Alonso will have a decisive influence on the price of F1 rights in Spain from now on.
“Right now, pay TV is bringing us greater revenues,” explained Liberty Media chairman Chase Carey a few days ago. “But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we need to broadcast for free so that we can reach more people and make sure the sponsors have greater visibility. […] We need to find the balance between short-term income, and combine that with a mid- to long-term plan with different experiences that will reach the biggest number of people.”
The F1’s top executive held a meeting with Alonso last week in Montreal at the McLaren hospitality tent – an encounter that drew plenty of media interest.
English version by Simon Hunter.