Ferrari or Red Bull - what is Fernando Alonso's next move?

Fernando Alonso signs autographs for Ferrari fans at Monza in 2018
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Fernando Alonso always seemed to have a good story following him around when he was in Formula 1, and it's no different at Monza this weekend on his first visit to a grand prix since Bahrain back in March.

The two-time world champion, who left F1 at the end of last year, is at the Italian Grand Prix in his role as a McLaren ambassador. But inevitably there are questions about whether he might return to the sport, not least because Alonso himself has always kept the door open on the idea.

And the way this season has developed has ensured the issue has stayed very much alive.

In two of the three top teams, there are question marks over one of the drivers, and Alonso offers a theoretical alternative that, if competitiveness was the only factor in the decision, might be very appealing.

Alonso or his management have contacted both teams in recent weeks to enquire about possible seats, senior figures have told BBC Sport, but have been rebuffed.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel with Fernando Alonso during his time as a McLaren driver
We got a deal? Alonso could be a possible alternative for Ferrari if Sebastian Vettel decides he wants to return to Red Bull

To start, a little anecdote

Alonso and this writer had a lengthy - and fundamentally private - chat in the McLaren motorhome on Friday in Monza. I prodded him about the idea of an F1 return, about the approaches to Ferrari and Red Bull, and got nowhere, as expected. We talked at length about his preparations for the Dakar Rally, and chatted generally about the Indianapolis 500, F1 and his future.

Later that afternoon, I was back at McLaren talking to chief executive officer Zak Brown.

Suddenly, a packet of sugar bearing a Ferrari logo landed on the saucer of the coffee cup I was drinking, and then Alonso walked by, big smile on his face.

How did you get that, I asked?

He'd been to the Ferrari motorhome, he said, for a chat with their communications chief Silvia Hoffer Frangipane. She spent the last four years at McLaren chaperoning Alonso and is now a firm friend.

"I went to see Silvia just to say hello," Alonso said, grinning, "and I thought the story could be developed a bit more now in your hands…"

His chances of a return to front-line F1 might look slim, but Alonso has not lost any of his mischievous sense of humour. Nor his ability to keep himself at the centre of attention.

Fernando Alonso with members of the Ferrari team at Barcelona for testing in February
Sweet enough: Alonso's mischievous nature means he has a happy knack of keeping himself at the centre of attention

Why is an Alonso return being talked about?

Alonso is being discussed because of the driver situations at both Red Bull and Ferrari.

Red Bull have already dropped Pierre Gasly back to Toro Rosso after a disappointing first part of the season, and his replacement Alexander Albon has made a good start but is still very early into the nine races that the team say will decide whether he keeps the drive for 2020.

At Ferrari, meanwhile, both drivers are under contract for next season, but everyone knows that in F1 that is not necessarily an unresolvable impediment, and Sebastian Vettel's form is raising doubts about his future.

The German has now been out-qualified seven times in a row by team-mate Charles Leclerc. Even if a couple have had extenuating circumstances, such as in Monza on Saturday, Leclerc looks to be slowly emerging as the team's de facto lead driver, simply by the strength of his performances. And the 21-year-old is undoubtedly being marked out as the team's long-term future.

Vettel is a proud man and the question inevitably being asked is, how long can he put up with this situation, and if he wants to stop the obvious damage to his reputation, what can he do about it?

On the record, Vettel continues to insist that he wants to stay at Ferrari and satisfy his ambition of winning the world title with the team.

But for a while now in F1 there have been whispers that the marriage between Vettel and Ferrari is not what it was, that he might be interested in a move away, and that his preferred destination would be Red Bull, where he achieved the vast majority of his success.

And who might be a logical replacement for Vettel at Ferrari who could offer similar or potentially stronger performance? Well, a certain Spaniard, of course.

Fernando Alonso poses with the Ferrari car
Can you hear the drums, Fernando? Possibly not banging for a Ferrari return

Ferrari and Red Bull say no

It should be said at this point that both teams deny any of this could happen.

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said at the Belgian Grand Prix last weekend that Vettel was "not available next year".

Pressed on how he knew, he said: "I know. He's a Ferrari driver. He's contracted to the end of 2020."

It was pointed out to Horner that Vettel was also under contract to Red Bull for 2015, when he ended up joining Ferrari. He shrugged.

In any case, this is a different situation. Then, Vettel had what is known as a performance clause in his contract, which allowed him to leave if he was below a certain championship position by a certain point in the season. At Ferrari, insiders say, that is not the case; it is a cast-iron contract with no escape clauses.

Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said on Friday in Monza: "I have said it and I am confirming it again - for next year Sebastian and Charles are our drivers and there's no doubt at all about this."

Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen's presence at Red Bull makes it unlikely that Sebastian Vettel would join and open the way for Alonso to take his seat at Ferrari

Why Alonso is snookered

There are a number of reasons why Vettel to Red Bull and Alonso to Ferrari appear unlikely to happen.

Regarding Vettel, as one senior figure said, he is already finding Leclerc a tough rival, so why on earth would he want to go to Red Bull and face a situation that is at least as difficult and possibly more so against Max Verstappen?

Then there are the costs involved for Red Bull of having to pay two superstar salaries. And the difficulties of managing two bulls in one field.

As for Alonso's chances at either team, Red Bull are out of the question even if they wanted him, because of Honda.

After their fractious time together at McLaren, the Japanese manufacturer blocked Alonso from driving an Indycar with one of its engines in it, so are hardly likely to welcome him into an F1 car fitted with one.

At Ferrari, it is very clear that they see Leclerc as their future for many years to come. Why risk destabilising that by going back to Alonso?

Few would doubt that he would be quick, and offer them race-winning performance. But his time with the team did not exactly end positively five years ago.

Binotto was there when that relationship fell apart through 2013 and 2014, even if he was not directly involved in handling Alonso. Would he really want to bring all Alonso can entail back into a team where tension and pressure already run high just by its nature?

Meanwhile, Alonso was conspicuous by his absence from the celebration of 90 years of the Italian Grand Prix in Milan on Wednesday, attended by a multitude of ex-Ferrari drivers. Explanations as to why he was not there differed depending on to whom you spoke.

Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel with Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto
Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said on Friday there was "no doubt" Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel would continue to be the team's drivers next season

So what is Alonso's future?

Alonso is cagey about his plans. "We'll see," was all he would say to BBC Sport when asked about any potential F1 return.

He has been doing extensive desert testing in a Toyota Hilux rally pick-up truck this year and is set to do the Dakar Rally in one in the new year, although this has not yet been officially announced. And he is still very keen to win the Indianapolis 500 and become the only driver other than Graham Hill to complete motorsport's unofficial 'triple crown'.

But he's not thought to be that keen on a full Indycar schedule.

The obvious solution would be to do a deal with the leading Penske team, who won the race with Simon Pagenaud this year, for them to run a fourth car for Alonso at Indy next year.

But Alonso may prefer to maintain his links to McLaren, and the possibility of their new Indycar team running a third car for him at the Brickyard is very much still open, despite the embarrassing set of circumstances that led to them failing to qualify for the race this year.

Alonso is also not exactly enthused by the idea of a 22-race F1 calendar.

And at the start of the 2021 season, when new regulations are being introduced in the hope of closing up the field, Alonso will be closing on his 40th birthday.

On the face of it, then, an F1 return next year - or after - looks highly improbable. But in F1, you just never know what might be around the corner.

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