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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: Alonso is Mercedes' Plan B to replace Hamilton

by Mark Hughes
6 min read

The whole world knows what a formidable Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso is. He hardly needs to remind anyone of his remarkable skillset.

But on the eve of the season, it’s as if he’s intent on advertising his credentials for future consideration beyond this final year of his current contract with Aston Martin. Especially now that the future driver market has been completely reset by Lewis Hamilton’s surprise move to Ferrari for 2025, and the resultant potential vacancy at Mercedes.

“There are three fast world champions on the grid,” Alonso said in reference to himself, Hamilton and Max Verstappen. “I am the only one available for ’25.”

Since the second half of last year Aston Martin team principal Mike Krack has been making no secret of his desire to extend Alonso’s contract, and that is something he reiterated at the launch of the new AMR24, saying: “We love Fernando. We have a very good relationship with him, he’s an integral member of the team. We have a relationship based on trust and openness and we would be delighted to continue with Fernando into ’25 and the year after.”

The fact that Alonso has not yet chosen to progress Krack’s interest into an actual contract extension, and that he says “I think it’s going to be a question [I will be getting] for the first few months of the year”, suggests Fernando is not in any great hurry to renew. Why would he be, given his standing and the ambiguity surrounding that post-2024 driver market?

On the one hand, Alonso couches the situation as being one in which he, first of all, needs to decide if he wishes to continue in F1 - and that once he’s reached a decision on this, then he will, “Sit down with Aston Martin and say, 'OK I’ve made this decision and I’d love to continue with this project'”.

“We made a good step forward last year, built a lot of things together, we have the new facility and everything to succeed for the future and I trust this project. So that will be my first priority.”

Alonso being Alonso, when he says succeed in the future he doesn’t mean continuing where he and Aston were last year or even winning the odd race. If he’s in F1, he’s in it to race for the championship. Even if that’s not the seasonal target, any season can only be a part of the journey towards that accomplishment.

When he talks of deciding if he wishes to continue in F1, he means is there a feasible route to another championship in the years he has left at this level, given that he is 42.

“If I commit to a project in the future for the next few years I need to be ready to commit to that," he explained. “I will not drive a few more years in F1 just to drive and have fun. I’m not that kind of driver, not that kind of person.”

You can read between his lines quite clearly. If he doesn’t believe Aston has a championship within his timeframe, he would look elsewhere for somewhere that might. Mercedes perhaps?

Hence his selling of himself, very publicly dismissing the question marks anyone might have about such an idea. “I feel good. Fitter than ever. The numbers we achieved in all the physical tests we do every season, they were the best ever this year. I’ve been training a bit different this year.

"Adding a nutritionist to the team which changed a little our way of seeing things and preparing the body. Everything I do and have done in the last few months was just to prepare myself better than ever for a very long season and to prepare myself in case I want to keep driving myself to being better than ever - so that if I commit to a project in the future for the next few years I need to be ready.

"If I want to keep driving it’s because I know - starting from myself - that I can give 200% to the team on and off track. Simulator work, marketing work, delivering the result on track. I’m preparing for that in the eventuality I want to keep racing. If I want to keep racing let’s see what the options are.”

Marketing work? Really? This is a full-on sell. And there’s more. “If we cannot reach an agreement [with Aston] and I want to commit to continuing to race in F1 I know that I have a privileged position.

“I’m probably attractive to other teams for the performance they saw last year, the commitment and as I say there are only three world champions on the grid and for ’25 only one is available.”

So he’s giving himself a few months in which to judge if there is a route to another title before he retires and what that route might be. What sort of timescale might the 42-year-old be thinking?

“A few years ago I’d have said 42 or 41 was the limit. Now after seeing myself last year motivated and performing well I was thinking maybe I can keep racing a few more years. Now this winter I’ve been exceeding expectations in the physical tests so I’d say if you are motivated and want to commit you can drive to maybe 48, 49, even 50.

"But at the same time you have to give up everything in life. F1 needs total dedication… I can keep going for a few more years but I don’t know if I still want to be racing at 50 with such a demanding calendar. Not because of the ability but because there are other things in life I’m curious [about].”

So a relatively short-term, but very full, commitment in his chase of a title he last won 18 years ago - and what a story that would be. If he is not convinced by what he sees at Aston, does he have a realistic chance at Mercedes? Absolutely, he does. From what we understand, he is not Mercedes’ Plan A. But is currently the absolute favourite for Plan B.

Mercedes’ Plan A, The Race firmly believes, is Andrea Kimi Antonelli, the 17-year-old about to embark upon his first season in F2, with five years on Mercedes’ books.

There is a feeling from inside the team that this is ‘the new Verstappen’ and that, having lost out on signing the 16-year-old Max when he had the opportunity, Toto Wolff is keen not to repeat the mistake. If Antonelli does as expected in F2 this season, there is a very strong possibility he will directly replace Hamilton.

Before Hamilton made his Ferrari announcement the loose (unconfirmed but take it as read) plan for Antonelli was two years at Mercedes-linked Williams before a move to the main team, in the meantime being closely involved with the works team in simulator work, meetings etc, similar to how it went with George Russell.

The Hamilton move has potentially changed that. But what if his F2 season suggests he isn’t quite ready for such a high-pressure move? That’s when an Alonso Plan B option would become very attractive to Mercedes. Then Antonelli could revert to the original plan.

So that would be another good reason for Alonso to wait a few months - to wait for Mercedes to make that judgement about Antonelli.

If Aston Martin blows Mercedes away this season - as it was doing in the early part of 2023 - Alonso probably has no need to rely on Mercedes’ Plan B. But why would the proud Alonso even be willing to consider being a seat warmer for Antonelli?

He will not be seeing it like that. He is Fernando Alonso. If he believes the Mercedes project is the route to another title, he will go in there with the full belief that he will outperform George Russell and that even if Antonelli arrives a season or two down the line, he (Alonso) will still be there.

It was said by playwright George Bernard Shaw that all progress is made by unreasonable men. Men who see things differently to the pack. The common assumption used to be that F1 drivers couldn’t be competitive into their forties. It was always rubbish, but Alonso has proved it now.

There will be plenty now who believe it’s impossible for Alonso to find a route to another world title. He won’t be too concerned about that.

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