Ted Kravitz Q&A: Analysing Alonso's return & Button's retention at new-look McLaren
The Sky F1 reporter assesses whether Alonso/McLaren version II will work, ponders whether Mercedes could have put out tentative feelers to Fernando, and looks at how Jenson Button earned his new deal
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 16/12/14 3:13pm
Let’s start with Fernando Alonso’s return – is it going to work this time?
Ted Kravitz: “In many ways I think Alonso's return was the most fascinating angle to Thursday’s announcement. He was back in McLaren mode: The grey suit, the crisp white shirt, the nicely blow-dried hair – although how long the beard lasts in a company where beards are only allowed if they’re immaculately kept we will see.
“A couple of things struck me as particularly interesting. Firstly, all the nostalgia that came out when Fernando first signed for McLaren in 2007 was there again. His reference to Ayrton Senna being his hero, the toy karts which his father had built in the McLaren-Honda livery, the lure of the McLaren name… this is all stuff I heard when he signed for them and they launched the car in Valencia back in 2007, this life-long desire to drive for McLaren. While I suppose Fernando still feels that way despite what happened, the reality is he didn’t have any other top F1 teams to drive for.
“However, nobody has picked up on Alonso’s very heavy hint about the interest from the top three teams. The quote was “over the past year I have received several offers, some of them really tempting, given the current performance of some of the teams that showed interest”.
“If you put that together with another line that’s come out in the last few days which is how Mercedes dealt with the Rosberg/Hamilton fallout after Spa when the team made it clear to both drivers that if they continued to crash into each other they’d have to reassess their driver line-up, I wonder if to back-up that threat there was an exploratory contact from Mercedes to Alonso regarding his availability if it did all go belly up with Hamilton and Rosberg.
“Alonso’s either talking about Mercedes when he says that, or he’s talking about Williams or Red Bull. Williams would have had to break a contract with Felipe Massa to accommodate Alonso (assuming they kept Bottas) whereas Red Bull are increasingly locked into their own young driver programme. There were Alonso-Mercedes rumours in the paddock around Spa, too, for what that's worth, so I think Fernando was talking about Mercedes, mischievously!"
One of the sound bites from Ron Dennis at last week’s driver unveiling was the line “we have to succeed together”. Given how things turned out between Fernando and McLaren in 2007, is this a marriage of convenience?
TK: “Clearly, Honda wanted a marquee name: A Vettel, Alonso or Hamilton and they’ve managed to get the only one of those three who was willing and available. So that’s great for them. I suppose it’s a marriage of convenience in that Alonso, having decided to leave Ferrari didn't have anywhere else to go, but what that quote from Ron hinted at was how he has retrospectively identified what went wrong seven years ago. There was a breakdown in communication, there was hurt pride, and there was the added emotional factor of Ron’s protégé, Lewis Hamilton, coming into the team and Ron wanting to do the right thing and be fair. Ron and Fernando didn't work together back then and that was evident when it all came to a head in Qualifying at the '07 Hungarian GP.
“I remember at the time, you could see that nobody was talking to anyone and they were all just festering in their own anger, which produced a vicious cycle and a downward spiral that led to the very messy break-up. So I think that statement is just Ron giving a clue as to what went wrong before and what he's going to do to avoid a repeat.”
Both Ron and Fernando have said they have learnt from their respective mistakes from seven years ago, so can you see a stronger relationship developing between them this time? Or will everything simply rest on how competitive the McLaren-Honda package proves to be over the next couple of years?
TK: “There will be bridges to be built but day to day it's Eric Boullier who's going to be Fernando's boss so that will be an interesting one to watch! I can see it working because I don’t think the car is going to be beating Mercedes for the first year at least. In 2007 Fernando went into a McLaren-Mercedes outfit that had a car and a team ready to win the championship and should have won the championship, so the fight about which driver was going to do it was more intense. The first year of a new engine partnership means that the focus won't be on the battle between Fernando and Jenson, it’s going to be on the car.
“That’s where Fernando’s attention will be – making progress with Honda and re-establishing himself with the team, which shouldn’t be too hard. If he knows that expectations are low, that he can’t realistically win the championship next year, and he said as much last week, then I don’t think there’s going to be the intensity which means it probably will all be sweetness and light for the first couple of years.
“Although even if the car is a Mercedes-beater, Ron Dennis made it very clear last week that Lewis Hamilton hadn't been blameless in the breakdown in McLaren relations with Fernando. Alonso himself said it would be different this time because 'Jenson is not Lewis'. Take that either way: that ‘Jenson isn’t as fast as Lewis’, or that Jenson isn't the McLaren 'chosen one' as Hamilton was. Either way, I can see the relationship being better this time, but as Ferrari will tell you - with Alonso, you never know!”
And how do you see Jenson’s position in the team alongside Fernando?
TK: “In many ways Jenson’s in a no-lose situation. He’s managed to convince Ron and McLaren that his heart is still in it. He knows how to handle Fernando, he’s known him long enough, and he knows Fernando’s weaknesses, few though they are. There will be days when Jenson can beat Fernando – no problem, hands down, when the car is perfect for him. Jenson's already got a bit of an advantage in that he already has his feet under the table at McLaren, he knows how everything works, whereas Alonso not only has to get back into the McLaren way of operating, but if the strong rumours are to be believed, Fernando is bringing his Ferrari engineer Andrea Stella with him to Woking - and that's also going to take some time to bed in.”
So how do you think Jenson did manage to convince Ron to keep him on? In Abu Dhabi it seemed like it was the big farewell…
TK: “I do believe Ron (and Boullier) wanted Magnussen alongside Alonso initially but Jenson and others changed their minds. We didn’t know it at the time, but that shot that our cameraman Mat Bryant got of Ron having his post-race chat with Jenson - during which I’m sure Jenson pointed out something that I remarked upon in the Notebook, that he’d just secured fifth place in the Constructors’ Championship for McLaren - was the conversation which Ron said clearly revealed to him ‘the extent of Jenson’s commitment to racing and to McLaren’.
“What I read into that is that Ron’s doubts actually centered on whether Jenson’s heart was still in it. Jenson had clearly had a horrible year emotionally with his father John’s passing and I just wonder whether Ron had almost done some thinking for Jenson and had in his mind that ‘oh, well, things have changed for Jenson, maybe he’s fallen out of love with Formula 1, tired of the grind and fed up with not winning’. What Jenson managed to persuade him of in Abu Dhabi was that is absolutely not the case. He managed to convince Ron that he is still super-motivated, he’s not tired mentally or physically and that the emotional turmoil of the last 12 months hasn’t had any effect on the way he goes racing.
“People might wonder whether McLaren were worried about whether Jenson is fast enough or not, but I don’t think that was what Ron was particularly concerned about actually.”
But what about Eric Boullier’s supposed concerns that Jenson was lacking the kind of out-and-out pace of a Lewis Hamilton?
TK: “Well, actually, it was Jenson’s form from Singapore onwards that showed that he has all the race pace and the talent needed to nurse the car and the tyres to extract the best from the current style of Formula 1, where you need to save fuel and look after your tyres but also push when you need to. It’s not an out-and-out pace formula anymore.
“Jenson has often been dubbed as not quick enough, but it’s impossible to dispute that his finishing and points-scoring record post-Singapore wasn’t pretty much what the maximum that the car could do. He certainly had the edge over Kevin Magnussen, who we know is extremely quick over one lap and more if things go his way in the race.
“In McLaren’s words ‘Jenson is the master of dealing with what’s required in the current formula under these regulations’.”
Magnussen, meanwhile has dropped down the pecking order to test and reserve driver. Ron said that he strongly believes the Dane will follow the paths of Alonso and Mika Hakkinen by returning to the grid after a spell as a tester, but can you see Kevin’s McLaren career progressing much from here given both Fernando and Jenson are said to be on multi-year deals?
TK: “I must say I felt so sorry for Kevin having to sit through that press conference and Ron didn’t help him out when he referred to him as ‘look at poor, sad Kevin sitting there’, which raised a little laugh in the audience, but not particularly from Kevin himself!
“Magnussen has been very unlucky. He has been harshly treated by the stewards this year, there’s no doubt about it, which means that he’s been robbed of points through penalties and he’s been robbed of points through mechanical failures with the car as well.
“But there have also been times when he hasn’t understood what’s required from these cars in the current formula, as McLaren would say, and he hasn’t pushed the tyres when he needs to and conserved them when he needs to. We saw that in Abu Dhabi and we saw that in Singapore as well.
“So I don’t think a year out learning will do him any harm. He’s still a young man and Boullier and Dennis keep saying that ‘we need drivers for the future’. Well, they haven’t forsaken Kevin, they still want him in the longer term as he’s a very talented driver and they’ve got him waiting in the wings, so I’m sure he’ll be back in a McLaren at some point.
“The detail of Jenson being on a two-year deal is true, but this year’s shown us conclusively that there’s no point believing anything about contract lengths because it means precisely nothing in Formula 1 - they can be broken on both sides at will. Maybe Magnussen will get farmed out to a McLaren-friendly team, or maybe Haas F1 if they are coming in and serious in 2016. They could do with Kevin Magnussen alongside Alex Rossi, something like that. That’d be a good youthful, quick pairing.
“So I expect to see Magnussen driving again in 2016. Whether it’s in a McLaren, I’m not so sure.”
So McLaren’s 2015 line-up is – finally – settled, but what about the bigger picture of the team’s likely competitiveness in Honda’s first year back? Should we read much into the interim car completing just five laps in the Abu Dhabi test?
TK: “I don’t know what everyone was expecting – for their second attempt at running with the new car and power unit after the first filming day at Silverstone a week or so before to go swimmingly? That just doesn’t happen.
“The team said that it was annoying little problems with electronics and software interfaces, etc. I think the more concerning thing will be the rumours that the power unit is thirsty and underpowered and we’ll only find out whether that’s true or not in pre-season testing.
“So let’s not worry about what happened in Abu Dhabi, it’s better that they get their problems out of the way over the winter and they can build a bullet-proof platform from which they can go testing. There are only 12 days testing before the start of the season, there’s so much to do, so what they just need is something reliable otherwise they’ll just be in a completely horrible situation going to Australia. They need a reliable power unit and all the ERS and electrical software glitches ironed out and then they can actually get somewhere with putting some performance on the car. So it’s better they have the problems now than in February testing.”