McLaren plans to start negotiations with Fernando Alonso about a contract extension "a few races" into the 2017 season, according to executive director Zak Brown.
Alonso is in the third and final year of his McLaren contract and has made little secret of the fact that his future hinges on whether he enjoys the new generation of F1 cars, which are set for a big revamp under the new regulations. His decision to stay on will also be influenced by the competitiveness of McLaren following two seasons massively off the pace since he joined the team with Honda in 2015.
This year's driver market looks set to be a fascinating one, with Alonso and Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel among the big names entering the final year of their contracts, though Brown is keen to retain the man he feels is the best on the current grid.
"He's definitely committed to the project, but his contract is up and he's in high demand as you can imagine," Brown told NBC Sports. "Vettel's out of contract next year is my understanding. So as you can imagine, next year's going to be an exciting driver market.
"Obviously we'd love to keep [Alonso]. He's one of the greatest drivers on the track, if not the best. But we're just going to see how things go and kick off those conversations a few races into the year."
Brown thinks its perfectly acceptable for Alonso to want to wait and see whether McLaren is competitive before deciding to stay with the team.
"If I were him, I'd want to see how we perform before I started making decisions. You can't blame him for that. But I think we're all waiting to see and that goes both ways."
Alonso partners rookie Stoffel Vandoorne this year, with the Belgian driver replacing Jenson Button, who has stepped back into an ambassadorial role.