RACING

What Alpine’s exit from Alonso means for the rest of the F1 driver market

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Over the past two weeks, Alonso and Alpine’s top dogs have expressed confidence that things will be resolved quickly. Alonso said Thursday he thought it would only take a 10-minute conversation to sort things out.

This piece was probably true. It may not even have taken him 10 minutes to say, “Guys, I’m leaving.”

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Don’t worry: It’s a huge, huge move in F1’s silly season. The Aston Martin seat vacated by retired Sebastian Vettel was always going to be key in the market, attracting a variety of names. Alonso was naturally in the mix, having discussed a deal with Lawrence Stroll ahead of his return to F1 with Alpine in 2021. Few would have expected things to move so quickly, especially Alpine.

Losing a driver of Alonso’s experience and caliber is a blow for the French team. At first glance, this seems to solve the problem of what he was going to do with Oscar Piastri.

Alpine is stuck in a classic “three drivers in two seats” conundrum that many F1 teams have faced in the past. It had Esteban Ocon under long-term contract, Alonso was doing well and reserve driver Piastri was waiting in the wings with a junior record that is the envy of anyone on the F1 grid.

Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi said in France he was confident Alonso and Piastri would race in F1 next year, indicating Alonso would stay put and Piastri would be loaned out. Williams had been the intended destination for the young Australian, replacing Nicholas Latifi, but over time McLaren were also emerging as a possible landing spot should Daniel Ricciardo leave at the end of the season.

It was made clear from the start that Alpine did not want to lose Piastri. Rossi stressed he would only be looking to loan him out to another team, not let him go completely – something that would have happened had he failed to land him an F1 seat for 2023. His confidence in its future is total.

Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Oscar Piastri, Alpine, Laurent Rossi, CEO Alpine

Picture by: Alpine

Although Alpine may not have wanted to lose Alonso, having Piastri in their back pocket would have given them support in the talks. If Alonso had gone to Alpine bosses and used Aston Martin’s interest as leverage for a better deal, it’s unlikely there would have been the same fear of what life would be like without Alonso. Piastri would solve this problem.

Or so it would seem. The fact that talks have dragged on for so long has led to question marks over Piastri and Alpine’s future together, and whether that may have opened the door for another team to swoop in and trap him given that his agreement contained various time-sensitive clauses. around summer. There were growing rumors over the Hungarian weekend that McLaren could be an option should Ricciardo leave, or potentially even beyond 2024. If Alpine was so confident Alonso would continue, Piastri would it have already slipped through his fingers?

As long as Piastri is still in his hands, the priority for Alpine will be to get him on the grid and start building a long-term future after Alonso. An Ocon/Piastri line-up might lack Alonso’s experience or star power, but there’s no denying it’s an exciting prospect. Alpine will also finally achieve its goal of getting one of its juniors into a work seat, albeit sooner than it would have expected just a few weeks ago.

But the ripple effect in the driver market goes far beyond Alonso going to Aston Martin and Piastri getting a chance with Alpine as a result. In fact, Alpine may not be the only team lucky enough to benefit from a young rider they have backed and can now plan for the long term with.

For Williams, bringing Piastri on loan from Alpine may have been good in many ways, giving a bright young driver a chance. Yet it also didn’t make sense if it was to help develop Piastri only for him to be gone in a year or two.

If Williams wanted to look to the long term and invest in its own talent, then Logan Sargeant, the leading member of its young driver academy who currently sits third in the Formula 2 standings, was a wiser choice. Sargeant missed out on the F3 title to Piastri in 2020 by just four points and has recovered from financial setbacks to impress in his F2 rookie campaign this year.

Williams boss Jost Capito has admitted in France that it would be a “good headache” if Sargeant becomes an option for an F1 seat next year. Frankly, for a team that is looking to build for the future and has American owners, bringing a young American driver onto the grid might just be the best decision they can make.

Winner Logan Sargeant, Carlin

Winner Logan Sargeant, Carlin

Photo by: Williams

Another candidate for Williams would be Nyck de Vries, who he considered for this year before eventually signing Alex Albon along with partner Latifi. De Vries is highly rated by Capito and has earned his stripes through F2 and Formula E titles, but at 27 he may have a lower cap than Sargeant at 21 and lack the commercial boost to bring an American driver onto the grid, which would also have great appeal for F1.

Just as it was last year after George Russell’s move to Mercedes, Williams’ open seat is one that could be powerful enough in the silly season and doesn’t need to be filled immediately. Sargeant still needs to get the required F1 superlicence points – but will do so if he stays in contention for the title – and if you’re a driver who needs a seat, that could be an option.

It’s for the same reason that Aston Martin’s confirmation of Alonso’s nasty stuff may have taken a slight turn for Ricciardo too. The Australian has been clear in his commitment to see his three-year deal with McLaren expire at the end of next season, but Zak Brown’s comment in May on the ‘mechanisms’ in his contract that allow for an early exit, the links to Piastri and the flurry of IndyCar drivers signed to McLaren’s driver pool has done little to dispel doubts over his future.

Ricciardo’s best move, without a doubt, is not to move. But if things had gotten to a point where a switch was the only option, then would Aston Martin have been a viable landing spot? It’s unlikely. For all his talent and success, Ricciardo didn’t quite fit the shrewd image that Aston Martin pursues with its team under Stroll ownership. If the commitment from both parties to make it work for Ricciardo at Woking is concrete, then Alonso’s decision won’t change anything. But should he part ways with McLaren, there is now one less alternative option on the table.

In the space of a few days, an F1 great hung up his helmet and another signed up for a few more years on the grid.

The decisions will have huge ramifications on the driver market and have already kicked off a silly season – just as the paddock planned to get up during the summer break.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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