One of the more notable features of the Singapore Grand Prix weekend was the way McLaren dealt with the subject of their driver line up for 2014; especially in the face of the rumours about a dramatic reunion with Fernando Alonso.
On the face of it the team is all set to renew both drivers for next year, but it is delaying. In F1 any vacuum creates rumour and tension which escalates. Teams can take steps to avoid that and McLaren weren’t taking those steps.
As the weekend went on they made it clear that Button’s option has been taken up and he will continue, but they are in no hurry on Perez. Perez has disappointed in his first season as a McLaren driver on the whole and to leave the door open is good practice from McLaren as he is unlikely to leave so there’s no hurry to renew. Martin Whitmarsh responded smartly to a question from the media, “What’s the delay?” with the answer, “What’s the Hurry?”
It was 12 months ago that the pieces fell into place and Lewis Hamilton left McLaren to be replaced by Perez. The Mexican was evasive in the 2012 Singapore GP press conference on his rumoured McLaren move, but was confirmed soon afterwards.
His season to that point had been impressive, but his form dipped alarmingly once his McLaren deal was announced. He has not been able to pull his form back up since, not helped by a difficult car. Jenson Button has struggled with it too.
However it has been improved since the summer break and several engineers in the pit lane have observed wryly that had Lewis Hamilton still been in the car, McLaren might have had that first podium of 2013 by now, although Hamilton has been off form this month.
This is an emotive subject and one that insiders don’t like to be drawn on.
Instead they are going through a period of introspection, prompted by their failure to win. And for once they are not coming up with that well worn line of teams struggling for competitiveness, “The drivers are not the problem.”
The sense in Singapore was that the team is desperate to win again and it has much to look forward to with the return of Honda in 2015, with its turbo engines and its generous funding. It also has two very talented young drivers in Stoffel Vandoorme and Kevin Magnussen, who need to be channeled into F1 opportunities. The new Lewis Hamilton? Maybe, but the path in is going to be challenging with limited opportunity on the current grid.
Honda failed abjectly on its last F1 foray, as a chassis and engine maker, and it will be desperate to win on its return. So a top line driver line-up is essential and that again leads the team to look in the direction of Alonso.
He is clearly unsettled at Ferrari, despite his protestations to the contrary. He did seek an opening at Red Bull, which caused increased friction in Maranello. That does not mean he will leave Ferrari; he may stay there to the end of his career. Ferrari will certainly want to make it hard for him to leave.
But Ferrari couldn’t be sure and hiring Raikkonen was as much about an insurance policy against losing Alonso as it was about winning the constructors’ championship.
Alonso and McLaren has an underlying logic, however warped it may seem based on their history. If even Ron Dennis could be heard to say at the weekend, “Nothing is impossible” when asked about a reunion with Alonso, then you know that this desire to win again overcomes all prejudices and grudges. Whitmarsh quietly underlined that even if Dennis had a problem with it, that would not be an impediment.
When I asked a source close to Honda if they would like to have Alonso in the car when they return he said simply, “Of course.”
Perez is in a difficult spot. He got the dream breakthrough but not everything that glitters is gold and it’s not worked out. He’s dropped his manager and ally Adrian Fernandez and is on a tightrope. Even if he gets renewed for 2014, which is expected to happen, he’ll have to step up his game significantly if he’s to be a fixture of the team in the Honda era.
Perez himself was fairly open and honest in his appraisal of a “difficult car and a difficult year”.
He said: “My season looks worse on paper than it has been in terms of speed but I know very clearly that I have to improve and I am working to improve because once we get the car we have to be right in every single detail.
“Even though the car has not been there, we haven’t been good enough all together to maximise every single detail.”