Should he stay? Or should he go?
There have been a few bumps in Fernando Alonso's relationship with McLaren so far, but the catastrophic breakdown many people expected hasn't happened yet. Andrew Benson asks if this unlikely pairing can see it through
Even before Fernando Alonso's move to McLaren-Honda became official, his commitment to the project was being questioned. People asked what he was thinking. How could a man so driven, who believes that "in equal cars and equal equipment, I'd beat them all", as he told Spanish TV earlier this year, and who has such a reputation for being demanding and often difficult, be happy in an unreliable car in the midfield? Surely the relationship is bound to collapse sooner or later?
Perhaps it will, but, one or two minor wobbles aside, the volcanic eruption many were expecting to tear McLaren and Alonso apart has not yet occurred. For the past 18 months, Alonso himself has talked about his belief that McLaren and Honda will win together and expressed his confidence that they are the team with the best chance of ultimately dethroning Mercedes. But it is by his actions that Alonso has provided the best answer yet for anyone wondering about his genuine feelings for the team.
In Bahrain this year, when FIA doctors ruled him out from competing in the second round as a result of a broken rib, McLaren told Alonso to go home and concentrate on getting well for the subsequent race in China. Instead, he stayed for all four days, helping his stand-in, reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne, with his debut.
"The team told me: 'You will fly back home.' And I said: 'No way. I want to hear the cars. I want to help Stoffel. I want to see the new updates in the car, how they work.'"
And so he did. All weekend Alonso was in the garage, on the pitwall, in the debriefing room. Well after the race he could still be seen in the McLaren area, joking with colleagues and enjoying himself - to all appearances totally content with his world.
Bahrain also offered another glimpse into his commitment. On Friday, after second practice, he went with chairman Ron Dennis to try to persuade the FIA to let him race. Broken rib or not, he did press-ups in front of the doctors to try to convince them he was okay.
But, it has to be said, it's not hard to understand why outsiders would question the sincerity of Alonso's commitment to McLaren. This, after all, is a man with a thirst to win arguably greater than that of any of his peers; a man whose frustration with his inability to win with Ferrari the third title for which he had been striving since 2007, ultimately drove him away from them, despite the
Scuderia being the team closest to challenging F1's established pace-setters.
So how can that same man be happy with his current situation, notwithstanding the obvious progress McLaren-Honda have made even at this early stage of 2016? Alonso has an answer to that question, too.
"I am aware of the difficulties we had last year and I am aware of the difficulties we may face this year in terms of performance," he says. "While you are not winning you can never be happy. Only one team can be happy, all the others are in the same position. Sometimes we tend to forget; we tend to differentiate and assume whoever is finishing third, fifth, seventh is happier than whoever is finishing 12th or 18th, and that the person in 22nd is the unhappiest man in the world. This is not true, at least not in my case - finishing second, fifth, 11th or 21st is exactly the same pain, because you are not winning.
"This year I feel happy inside because I see the commitment and the project that one day will win. If that day will be in the short-, medium- or long-term, I don't know. But this McLaren-Honda partnership will win one day, and we want to make this time as short as possible and that is what we are working for. I understand that from a fan's point of view it could be easier to fight for fifth or fourth than P1 and it seems quite sad. But from the inside it is the same frustration. Sometimes even more frustration if you are fourth all the time."
In that one answer, Alonso has explained both why he is seemingly content for now at McLaren and why he left Ferrari. Since this article was written in the immediate aftermath of the Bahrain Grand Prix, it is too early to make any definitive judgements about Ferrari's absolute competitiveness. But one thing is very clear - they still do not have the same outright pace as Mercedes.