OPINION: F1’s 2021 off-track intrigue has already begun

Their earlier careers are almost defined by a toxic rivalry as teammates at McLaren in 2007, and two of the finest drivers on the Formula 1 grid continue to make headlines some 14 years on. The relationship between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso is much better these days – and has been for some time […]

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Their earlier careers are almost defined by a toxic rivalry as teammates at McLaren in 2007, and two of the finest drivers on the Formula 1 grid continue to make headlines some 14 years on.

The relationship between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso is much better these days – and has been for some time – and it’s not as a joint effort that they’ve caught the eye recently. But the presence of one and absence of the other on Tuesday were each noteworthy in their own right.

Hamilton was at the center of increasing media interest when December came and went with no new deal being announced for the seven-time world champion. And then January then also passed by…

As much as Mercedes insisted there was no delay and the media was overplaying the timeline, as soon as a contract was finally announced in February, Toto Wolff admitted that it had dragged on and that he wanted to avoid a repeat in future.

Wolff’s quotes came from a media session, but the only ones from Hamilton were contained within a press release about the announcement. There was no follow-up, no chance to put questions to him at the time and, much more notably, not even an acknowledgement from his side on a personal level that the deal had been done at all.

Hamilton continued to post about important matters on social media, but there wasn’t a single nod to the fact he had signed a new contract and would be continuing with Mercedes. In much the same way, he didn’t reference his knighthood at the turn of the year.

So when Mercedes launched the W12 on Tuesday morning, the bigger intrigue was not about the car that the team had built, but about the driver who would be behind the wheel and was appearing in a team capacity for the first time in months.

The elephant in the room was at least addressed during the initial launch, as the length of Hamilton’s contract was discussed as well as his motivations. But those answers will only have added to speculation this could be his last year.

“Firstly, I’m kind of in a fortunate position where I’ve achieved most of the stuff that I’ve wanted to achieve up until this point, so there’s no real need necessarily to plan too far ahead in the future,” Hamilton said. “I think we live in quite an unusual period of time in life and I just wanted one year.

“Then we can talk about if we do more and keep adding one year if we have to.”

He later insisted that he is still fully committed to racing in F1, but at the same time stated that he didn’t want to commit to more than one year. So at the very least, Hamilton is going to be facing ongoing questions about his future all season long.

When I asked him about the lack of acknowledgment of his new deal or knighthood, Hamilton admitted the silence was for a number of reasons, including an appreciation of the wider world and a focus on things outside of F1.

“I think it’s the shut-off at the end of the year, taking away time for myself,” he said. “It wasn’t the easiest of breaks. I continue to be conscious of what’s happening in the world, and you know, posting pictures and celebrating things such as a contract being signed is not really important to me. That’s not really a message I want to be sending out to people who are losing families, relatives still, struggling in a pandemic, that’s not where I’m at.

“I kind of kept to myself, was focused on my recovery – as it wasn’t a quick situation – and getting myself back to full strength, and getting the deal done, and working on some personal relationships that I have.”

Hamilton was providing some answers to questions that had been raised by his decisions, but it was a different scenario when it came to Alonso.

The excitement surrounding his return to a car that should be fighting at least in the midfield if not at the front of it was tempered last month when news broke that he had been in a cycling accident. The slow release of details led some to initially fear the worst, but fortunately Alonso was relatively lucky in the fact he ‘only’ suffered a fractured upper jaw that required surgery.

After a few days in hospital, he was back home and training again, but completely understandably, many commitments were called off at that point. Until it came to the team launch.

Alonso’s first photo in Alpine colors might have come off a touch formal, but the Spaniard has plenty of influence behind the scenes. Image via Alpine F1

Now, I should clarify at this point that the situation in Europe is still very different to the U.S. right now. The United Kingdom is in strict lockdown, travel is heavily limited and there’s a need for anyone arriving in the country to self-isolate for 10 days. So all of the launch events are taking place remotely, with no “live” attendees in terms of guests and media.

Just like every F1-related event from the past 11 months, that’s meant every connection is virtual, with streaming of the launches and video conferencing. All of the associated troubles are included too, with new Alpine racing director Davide Brivio in Dubai and suffering from a poor connection that delayed proceedings for a while.

Despite that world we’ve been living in for a long time, Alpine announced over a week ago that Alonso would not take part in the launch at all because “the sanitary situation and corresponding regulations in place do not allow him to do any communications and marketing activities while he undertakes his critical season preparation”.

If the team had simply said he’s still recovering from his accident then nobody would have batted an eyelid, but the excuse that he isn’t allowed to do the kind of work that – let’s face it, all drivers dislike – because he can’t travel, and the suggestion that his preparations are more important than any other driver’s so he can’t be involved remotely, is an odd one.

The Spaniard has had a reputation for being tough to work with at times – which can either be emphatically denied or strongly backed up, depending on which of his previous colleagues you talk to – but there was an impression last year that he would be refreshed and return to F1 with a different atmosphere around him after his two seasons out.

Instead, as management changes appear to happen last-minute at Alpine and a new structure takes time to settle down, Alonso has been afforded an opportunity to take more control. His absence from the event could have suggested he is taking it, but managing director Marcin Budkowski says it’s more a reflection of the impact of the accident on his health.

“Honestly, it is about giving him the best chances of fully recovering for the beginning of the season,” Budkowski said when asked by RACER about the disruption if Alonso is out of action at present. “It’s more important – our comms people probably would disagree – having him completely fit in time for the test in Bahrain than having him here today for the launch, or having him actually driving the car tomorrow for the shakedown.

“On top of that, when someone is recovering from an accident and you have restrictions on travel and quarantine, it is not the best situation. Let’s give Fernando 100% time for recovery and have him fit for Bahrain testing.”

The two explanations suggest that Alonso’s absence was either a sign that he’s facing a tough challenge to be fully ready for the new season, or that he has the power to pick and choose his commitments upon his return to Enstone. One has implications for the opening few races, the other on his overall influence at Alpine.

They might not be teammates this time around, but Hamilton and Alonso could well be box office this year. And that’s just off the track.

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