Fernando Alonso ‘celebrated’ his 300th grand prix by qualifying 14th in Canada as his McLaren team ended up in their worst grid positions of the season.
If it was not entirely a surprise, it certainly sharpened the focus on the fact that this weekend, for all the reflections on Alonso’s marvellous achievements in his 18 years in Formula 1, was as much about the Spaniard’s future as his past.
Alonso, who is 37 next month, has a big decision to make this summer. Does he stick around in F1, almost certainly with McLaren his only option, and put up with another year of this, or perhaps slightly better? Or twist and move on?
Now it has become apparent that he is unlikely to add to his two world titles, Alonso’s focus has turned to the so-called ‘triple crown’ – adding the Le Mans 24 Hours and Indianapolis 500 to his two victories in the Monaco Grand Prix. Only Graham Hill has won all three races in the entire history of motorsport.
Alonso has a strong chance of winning Le Mans with Toyota next weekend. If he does, that only leaves Indy. So the appeal of Indycar is obvious.
He has not exactly been effusive about F1 in interviews this weekend, expressing his frustration at its predictability. But at the same time, his message has been mixed – having a competitive car, he says, is not the be all and end all.
When I asked him after qualifying whether he could take much more of this, he made a reference to the fact that he twice came close to the title with Ferrari with a car that was not on the pace, in 2010 and 2012.
“I think it has been up and down,” he said. “The last possibility or the last championship car we had was 2007. All the rest have been always quite far off from the performance of the winning team that season.
“You know, I have been 11 years after that moment so I don’t think there is a problem.
“The biggest thing for me is to think (about) the direction F1 goes. I don’t think too much in how competitive you will be next year because it is impossible to predict. It is just about the sport. When you see today there are two Mercedes, two Ferraris, two Red Bulls, two Renaults and two Force Indias in the top 10, it is a constructors’ world championship, not a drivers’ world championship, so it is something I need to decide.”
Only Alonso knows his mind, and he says it is not made up.
Chief executive officer Zak Brown, who is considering setting up a McLaren Indycar team, said: “Hopefully we will keep him in the McLaren environment in some way shape or form.”
That is interpreted by some to be a hint Alonso will go to America next year. But will he? McLaren are desperate to keep him in F1, where he is this year earning $ 25m. He would struggle to take home 10% of that if he did Indycars alone, and while he does not need the money, drivers always see it as a measure of their value.
Perhaps a more likely solution is that he will stick around in F1 – but be given Monaco off to go and do Indy again, as in 2017.
Few signs of progress at McLaren
Alonso said McLaren had always been expecting a difficult weekend in Montreal, because “the type of corners and long straights were not the best on our package”, but he said he was still confident of scoring points on Sunday.
Racing director Eric Boullier said the nature of the track exposed the car’s weaknesses.
“It is low-speed corner lack of grip and here you have only low-speed corners,” Boullier said. “The highest minimum speed is 140km/h. It is a bit like the characteristics of Bahrain (McLaren’s next-worst weekend). And to compensate for this lack of grip we have to carry more wing, which means more drag. So the best compromise for our speed level is to run more drag and downforce and that hurts us.”
McLaren are clearly in some turmoil technically, having dispensed with chief technical officer Tim Goss back in April and still lacking a technical director. But Boullier said he had “100% confidence” that the team could turn things around.
Brown said: “We are in a rebuilding process. These things take time. We are frustrated by today, as you would expect. We did expect this would be one of the most difficult circuits.
“We are doing everything you would expect to move the team forward. When you come out of the gates with the problems we have you are not going to make substantial gains race to race. We have been making gains but this has not been a great qualifying weekend.”
A rare off-weekend in Canada for Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton practically owns the Canadian Grand Prix track, but on Saturday he did not get it together here at all, and his qualifying session was a story of little mistakes that added up to fourth on the grid rather than his customary pole position.
“I was just struggling with the car in qualifying and it was a bit everywhere,” he said.
Things were particularly bad into the hairpin, where Hamilton repeatedly locked up – and he said there was enough time gone missing at that single corner to have put him on pole had he got it right.
Team-mate Valtteri Bottas, second on the grid behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, managed better, but Mercedes admitted that in hindsight they had made a mistake in not bringing enough of the fastest hyper-soft tyres to run them before Saturday morning, hurting the drivers’ preparation for qualifying.
The tyres were chosen three months ago, so it was just one of those things, and a decision based on the belief that it will not be a great race tyre. But Ferrari won’t be using them in the race either, and winning from fourth is a big ask in F1 in a normal race, so Hamilton has his work cut out.
Team boss Toto Wolff said: “This is a championship that is going to be won and lost with the tiniest of margins and certainly not having given the drivers enough track time on the hyper is something if we could have changed we would have changed.
“Was it the decisive factor? Probably not. If we had brought the engine upgrade it would have been an advantage. We just can’t miss out on the tiniest of upgrades, and the smallest of mistakes we will be penalised and the same applies to our competitors and this is going to make the difference between winning and losing.”
Red Bull facing agonising engine decision
Even if the Mercedes remains the overall best engine in F1, they lost the battle of the upgrades in Canada, after they decided at the last minute not to bring their new power-unit because a reliability problem was discovered in its final test.
As Wolff put it: “Retirements are much more painful for the championship than maybe 0.1secs in performance but it would have made a difference. Whether it would have been enough for Lewis to qualify on the front row, we don’t know.”
All three other manufacturers did bring updates. How big were they? Renault’s we know because Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo blabbed it after qualifying – “9kw,” he said. Which is 12bhp and about 0.192secs a lap – or about twice what Red Bull design chief Adrian Newey said it was earlier in the week.
Honda’s is said to be worth at least double that and both Toro Rosso drivers spoke positively about it. Pierre Gasly had to use the old engine for qualifying and race after a problem was discovered in his new unit but Brendon Hartley qualified an encouraging 12th with it.
Hartley, who did well under the pressure of knowing Red Bull are considering replacing him, was especially optimistic because he said the update made more difference in the race than in qualifying, where he said it was “relatively small”. A key part of its improved performance is that it allows the Honda to deploy more energy during races, going at least some of the way to fixing one of the Japanese engine’s biggest weaknesses.
Red Bull, who say they want to decide on their engine for 2019 within the next three weeks, will have been watching with interest. They have a choice between Renault and Honda, and although Renault are trying to persuade them to stay, at the moment the decision seems to be swinging Honda’s way.
Prospects for the race
The key question for the opening laps of the race is whether the Red Bulls, starting on the grippier hyper-softs, can make up ground in the opening stages on those around them starting on the harder ultra-softs.
That is the plan, and with Max Verstappen starting an impressive third, the opening lap could be spicy.
Daniel Ricciardo, three places behind his team-mate, was optimistic both could move forward; Hamilton disagreed, saying the advantage in grip was not enough to make up the size of the distance between the cars, especially with the Ferraris consistently the fastest starters.
But with a glint in his eye, the world champion referred to Verstappen’s aggression and magnetic attraction to trouble this year.
“I am sure he will give it everything as we all know he always does,” Hamilton said, “and I hope he does and me and Valtteri will hopefully be there to maximise the points. That’s the key goal. Long way to go in the season. You can’t have every weekend perfect but there is still a long race and as difficult as days like this can feel there are no points for qualifying.”
The Canadian Grand Prix is nearly always a race you can’t take your eyes off. There is no reason to believe this one will be any different.