Fernando Alonso had initially shrugged off the small discomfort he felt after his heavy Melbourne crash. But when he got home the following Monday, the pain had increased. With the Bahrain Grand Prix just a few days away, a scan in Spain showed two cracked ribs and a small pneumothorax (an uncoupling of the lung from the chest wall). It was nothing serious, the doctor insisted. It would all knit back together soon enough and if he could manage the pain, there was no imminent danger, no reason why he couldn’t fly to Bahrain or race when he got there.
He would, however, require clearance from the FIA doctor at the meeting, Jean-Charles Piette. So on Thursday morning in Bahrain Fernando presented himself. Piette looked at the scans Alonso had brought with him from Spain. He disagreed about there being no risk. It was slight, perhaps, but there – that if he suffered another impact, the cracked ribs and the uncoupled lung might collide, with potentially very serious implications. He refused to sign him off as fit to race.
Which suddenly presented McLaren with a problem, of course. In the days between the races it had no reason to believe Alonso’s fitness might be in doubt. Its reserve driver, the hugely promising reigning GP2 champion Stoffel Vandoorne – who had been present in Melbourne – was in Japan testing his Super Formula car in preparation for his season there. Now he had to be recalled suddenly to make his Grand Prix debut. He landed in Bahrain early Friday morning after a 13-hour flight. First practice for this evening race was 2pm. Although he had not tested the actual MP4-31 before, he knew it intimately, had spent hours driving a representation of it on the simulator – though not at this track. His GP2 record here is pretty good though – three wins from four races.
The Belgian is six years older than Max Verstappen, but his potential is similarly vast. The longer years reflect a relatively late start in the sport and a family unconnected with racing, not in a position to assist financially with his career. The Royal Belgian Automobile Club picked him out as a young kartist to give him his break – and he’s dominated pretty much every junior category he’s contested. He won on his race debuts in the World Series by Renault and GP2 and, although he lost out to fellow McLaren junior driver Kevin Magnussen in the former series, he was effectively one year behind in experience. One driver coach with decades of experience describes his car control as, “The best I have ever seen – from anyone.” Ironically, there was a time when he shared management with Jenson Button, via Richard Goddard, but as Vandoorne came up through the McLaren ranks a conflict of interests was some day clearly going to develop. Which is when Button split from long-time manager Goddard to look after himself, while the latter concentrated on Vandoorne.
It was Button who last year conducted his own negotiations with Ron Dennis about whether McLaren would exercise its option on the second phase of his two-year contract. Contractually, McLaren could have chosen not to – in which case (the much cheaper) Vandoorne would have slotted in as Button’s replacement. But if it chose to take up the option, contractually McLaren had to pay Button the pre-agreed sum – believed to be double the $6 million he was paid in 2015. It’s fairly typical to ‘back-load’ multi-year contracts in this way. From the team’s perspective, if the driver underperforms it won’t have cost them as much. Dennis used brinkmanship in the negotiations, threatening to exercise the break point that annulled the contract by a set date last year – and then to renegotiate. Button played hardball, said that if he wished to use the break point to end the contract, that was Dennis’s prerogative… but that if he drove for McLaren in 2016 it would be for the already contracted sum. Button got his way and Vandoorne remained on the sidelines. But for 2017, Button has no contract. Alonso’s has another year to run. Essentially, Button and his former protégé Vandoorne might potentially be fighting over the 2017 McLaren seat – and
now here was Stoffel on his F1 debut, going head to head with Button. It wouldn’t just be the outside world that would be keenly monitoring the comparison.
Magnussen, now racing at Renault, had no doubts when asked if he thought his former rival could run at Button’s pace on his debut: “I think he can,” he said. “Maybe with the radio ban there might be more he has to remember, but in terms of driving the car, doing the race and being fast I’m sure it’ll be no problem.”
McLaren put him on aero data-gathering duty for the first few laps, just playing him in. His subsequent practice laps were contained, just filling in his data banks. Button, on a different programme, was revelling in the balance of the MP4-31, especially on the super-soft tyres he tried in second practice that evening. The Honda’s all-out power shortfall to Mercedes is still in the region of 100bhp – but not for the whole lap. It can now harvest and deploy its electrical energy in a way that could only have been dreamed about last year. On the low-fuel runs in practice two, Button’s name suddenly popped up in third place. Yes, it was probably on a lower fuel than most others, but the prospect of the McLaren-Honda getting through to Q3 for the first time seemed real.
Whether coincidence or not, it was at this point that Alonso expressed an interest in trying to overturn the FIA doctor’s decision. That evening he and Dennis took a walk down to Piette’s office… Alonso performed a series of press-ups in front of the doctor, insisted he had no physical symptoms. It would be fair to say that Ron finds it difficult to communicate in a benign way with anyone opposing his viewpoints. The discussion with Piette didn’t go well and Alonso remained sidelined.
“We have call on the leading world experts,” said Dennis later, “and based on the scans two sets of doctors cleared Fernando to drive. Fernando felt aggrieved and we thought it right to ask the FIA if it would consider clearing him if he had new scans made. They said no. Racing is data-driven and we felt there was no data supporting that decision. I didn’t think it was appropriate that they would not re-evaluate if presented with new data, felt that it was a bit unreasonable. Though we have to live by it, I don’t think the FIA has the ability to field every single expert in this domain.”
Vandoorne’s seat was thus safe for the weekend and Ron wouldn’t be making a career switch to the diplomatic corps any time soon.
Into Saturday Vandoorne began to push harder. Through the middle sector – the fast downhill sweeps and hard downhill braking into the hairpin, he was acing Button, but losing out by slightly more in the first sector. They were almost identical in the third. The car was hovering just outside the top 10. This was the pattern in practice three. Into qualifying Vandoorne locked up into Turn One and almost dropped out in Q1 in the second running of the controversial elimination-style qualifying. But escaping that, he made an inch-perfect yet aggressive lap in Q2. Button, feeling some understeer in Q1, had some front wing added before his Q2 lap and could feel as soon as he got out there it was too much – the car was now oversteering and by the beginning of the flying lap its rear tyres were already too hot. The resultant lap was 0.15sec slower than Vandoorne’s, the McLarens lining up 12th and 14th. Adding their best sectors together, Button would have been a few hundredths faster, but it was Vandoorne who’d succeeded in hooking up those sectors when it mattered. The battle might have continued, except there were no more fresh super-softs – reflecting the fact that the original allocation had been made when McLaren wasn’t expecting to be contending for Q3. To a CV showing multiple championships in junior categories, he could now add outqualifying a world champion team-mate at the first attempt in F1.
In the opening seconds of the race, the McLarens came perilously close to hitting each other amid the confusion sown by a Turn One collision between Lewis Hamilton’s pole-sitting but slow-starting Mercedes and Valtteri Bottas’ Williams – an incident that paved the way for a comfortable Nico Rosberg Mercedes victory – and it was Button who came out three places ahead, running 10th. Six laps later Button felt a sudden loss of power. The ers had failed, the engine cut out altogether and Button pulled off beneath the floodlights. Button seemed keen afterwards to highlight the race he’d lost out on – and by inference the comparison with a tidy but unspectacular drive into 10th place for Vandoorne. “I was running comfortably,” said JB, “saving a lot of fuel, my tyres were in good condition, and I was just cruising behind the cars in front. We were going to try something a little bit different with the strategy; the cars we were sat behind finished fifth and sixth, and I felt like we could have had a good fight with them.”
Stoffel said all the right things, thanked the team for the opportunity, thanked Alonso for his help through the weekend. There was a moment after qualifying when Dennis’s eyes met with Stoffel’s – and an unmistakable smile of pride and satisfaction was writ upon Ron’s face. Vandoorne has a big future at this team. The generations turn…
Two weeks later in the smog of the industrial hinterlands of Shanghai, it was difficult not to speculate whether Dennis’ performance in the good doctor’s room in Bahrain had any bearing on the delay of the FIA in confirming that Alonso was now fit to race. Eventually, he was allowed ‘provisionally’ to take part in first practice, but must ‘stop immediately’ if he felt any discomfort. Yeah, right… He was subsequently cleared for the rest of the weekend.
Even Shanghai’s 1.1km-long back straight wasn’t a swingeing penalty to the 2016-spec Honda, the McLarens in a similar state of competitiveness to Bahrain. Alonso and Button were each reckoning on challenging for a place in the top 10. Out there on their fresh super-softs in the last moments of Q1, trying to catch the track at its quickest, the task was to edge out the Toro Rossos or Force Indias – possible but not easy. A red flag forced them to abandon these laps – leaving Alonso and Button relying on their scrubbed-tyre times and starting 12th and 13th respectively.
Big problems for Hamilton – he’d failed to record a time in qualifying and suffered heavy damage at the first corner in an incident triggered by the Ferraris making contact – gifted Rosberg a sixth consecutive Grand Prix victory. Alonso and Button did what they have done so many times before – took each other on using transposed tyre strategies, Button ahead on the super-softs initially, Alonso staying sufficiently in touch to be ahead after the stops. JB tried for a late third stop to super-softs, but Alonso had him covered – 12th and 13th.
A long way still to go, but the McLaren-Hondas are no longer a joke. A big power upgrade is promised and for the second half of this season there is genuine hope. If that should progress into a properly competitive 2017 McLaren, the question of who will be driving it takes on an even more interesting dimension.