Fernando Alonso has officially started his Indy 500 odyssey. The most exciting story in motorsports kicked off properly on Monday, with the Spaniard completing the first official day of practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But make no mistake about it -- this is not what Alonso planned to be doing on January 1 this year. As good as the story is, it is a drive borne out of Honda's disastrous return to Formula One; if Honda was even remotely competitive this season, Alonso would not have dreamed of missing Monaco. It speaks volumes that the Spaniard was already thinking about it ahead of the season opener in Australia -- proof that at that, after winter testing, he already knew 2017 would be another wasted year of his unfulfilled F1 career.
The Spaniard's burning ambition is to add to the two world titles he won in 2005 and 2006. That remains abundantly clear, and was something he stressed ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix last weekend. He also used the Thursday press conference to give a clear indication of what he wants from 2018.
"My intention, or my first priority is to race here, but not only to race, I want to win."
There's one key word to look at there -- win. Alonso has no interest in joining a project looking for wins in 2019 or 2020, he's waited patiently -- and sometimes not so patiently -- for Honda to find a magic solution since 2015. As he showed with his superb qualifying performance in Spain, he's a man driving better than ever and deserves at least one more season where he can challenge for a championship. He said he will start looking for a winning car in September/October of this year, but can he find one in time for 2018? And what are his realistic options?
On the surface, this is an easy decision. Cut your losses, ditch Honda, and get out of there. For the third year in a row Alonso is battling for scraps every weekend -- the highlight of Saturday in Spain was the Spaniard dragging his car into Q3. The four-year anniversary of his last win came and went during the weekend in Barcelona, a painful reminder of how long he's waited for a car to match his incredible talent.
But the decision is about more than just Honda. Alonso has a genuine affinity for McLaren and the partnership -- his first go-kart was painted red and white like the great McLaren-Honda of the late 1980s. The team is changing, too. The departure of Ron Dennis and arrival of CEO Zak Brown has already been significant for McLaren, highlighted by a return to orange and a return to Indianapolis. The always-optimistic Brown seems like the perfect man to help McLaren weather this storm and return it to glory days of old. On top of that, through the Indy 500 project he's shown Alonso a career with the team awaits whenever he's done with Formula One, with Le Mans high on both men's bucket lists.
Then there is the possibility Honda might just get it right in 2018. Though the last three years make that seem unlikely, Honda has the resources and the motivation to get it done. For a man infamous for being in the wrong place at the wrong time since his last title win, it would be painfully ironic if Alonso left and Honda suddenly found the missing ingredient. Though the onus still very much is on Honda to convince Alonso to stay, he has invested too much time and endured too much pain to leave just when things get good again and that will undoubtedly be weighing on his mind come September/October.
Returning to Renault might seem like an odd suggestion given the fact the team is only currently a few steps higher than McLaren in the pecking order, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Ever since buying out the Lotus team at the end of 2015, there was one target in mind -- 2018. Last year was about treading water and the campaign was soon written off to focus on this year's rule change, one the factory has already made a step forward in. Renault seriously considered quitting altogether at the end of 2015 but its desire to win championships again prompted it to return as a fully-fledged manufacturer. The team didn't come back just to make up the numbers.
Signing Alonso would be a giant statement of intent from Renault. The team already added another of the grid's unfulfilled talents, Nico Hulkenberg, for this season and with Alonso on board it would have a genuinely world class line-up at its disposal. The Spaniard would be welcomed back with open arms, having won his two world championships in Renault colours during the last decade. Alonso will have noticed the clear upward trajectory of the Renault team -- something not currently visible with Honda -- and the fact it is slowly but surely making progress with its problematic power unit.
However, the fact that Renault seems to be Alonso's most logical destination if he leaves Honda says a lot about the decisions he's made before reaching this current juncture...
As long as Sebastian Vettel is at Ferrari, Alonso hasn't got a chance of going back to Maranello. Alonso's departure from Ferrari was straight out of the Burning Bridges handbook and coincided with the arrival of Vettel, with former team boss Marco Mattiacci calling Alonso's bluff by signing the four-time world champion in late 2014. Vettel has since moulded the team around him and is reaping the rewards with the lead of the drivers' championship.
Even since the return of Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari has always operated with a clear number one and two driver and the team would not upset this balance by replacing the Finn with Alonso. If recent rumours of Vettel leaving are true (however unlikely), all bets are off. In that scenario, Alonso would seem more of an appealing option, though memories of his disruptive presence undoubtedly linger. It would take a remarkable set of circumstances for Alonso to be wearing red next season.
Mercedes or Red Bull
If the choice was Alonso's, he'd drive at Mercedes next season. Or rather, he'd have been driving at Mercedes this season. Or the two before that. As mouth-watering as a reunion with Lewis Hamilton is to most fans, it's the stuff of nightmares for team boss Toto Wolff. After three years of stage-managing a frosty Hamilton-Nico Rosberg feud, the team picked the affable, unassuming Valtteri Bottas to fill the retired world champion's seat. Bottas' one-year deal leaves a question-mark over his future but his early win in Russia showed he is more than capable of filling the seat long-term.
Red Bull is as close to the opposite of a sure thing as you can get. Alonso spent much of the early 2010s courting the team he turned down when it was in its infancy, to no avail. Red Bull might be a team obsessed with winning but it's also loyal to the principle of its young driver programme. Even if they weren't, not many teams would happily part company with Daniel Ricciardo or Max Verstappen.
Alonso will line up at Le Mans one day, but something will have to have gone terribly wrong for it to be in 2018. Though his Indy 500 appearance would suggest he is happy to dabble away from F1, it's a reaction to being in a car which is hopelessly uncompetitive. Even if Le Mans does not clash with Formula One next year, Alonso will hope he is too engrossed in a title fight to give the endurance race much thought.
If he wins at the Brickyard on May 28, expect the Le Mans 2018 questions to intensify as it would mark the final piece of the Triple Crown but, as Alonso knows better than anyone, he has much more time to win that event than he does a third Formula One world championship.