Walking into the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Sunday morning, there was a genuine buzz among all of the fans who were getting off the metro at Parc Jean-Drapeau.
I’m sure it was partly fueled by the fact we were going to go racing for the first time in Montreal since 2019, but there was a common theme among those who were looking forward to the race: Fernando Alonso.
A stunning performance in qualifying meant he was lining up on the front row for the first time in a decade, and it had captured the imagination of so many who were hoping to see him at least lead early on – as Alonso stated was his target. Some of the more optimistic among them felt he could win the whole thing.
Sadly it wasn’t to be. Max Verstappen managed to nail his start and gave Alonso no chance of threatening him on the opening lap, and then a power unit issue cost the Spaniard performance on the straights and left him slipping back through the field.
Seventh place at the flag became ninth place after a penalty for weaving in front of Valtteri Bottas on the final lap, and was scant return for a weekend that had promised so much. So it might seem a bit strange but the question now is, what does Alpine do with Alonso?
The double world champion is still clearly performing, but the team is not at the level he had come back to Formula 1 for. It’s not that Alpine has done a bad job – if anything, it has made a step forward to be threatening McLaren for fourth place in the constructors’ championship – but it isn’t in the mix for podiums and victories despite the reset that the new regulations offered.
And you don’t need me to remind you that Oscar Piastri is waiting in the wings after having been so unlucky to not get a seat in F1 off the back of consecutive titles in Formula Renault 2.0, Formula 3 and Formula 2.
Recent talk has been about the potential for Piastri to move to Williams this year in place of Nicholas Latifi, but that seems unlikely to happen. Latifi has a tight contract that would cost Williams significant money to pay off, and would hardly be the most amicable way to end a relationship with a driver and his backers who helped the team through such tough financial times in 2020.
And what would Williams really gain if it were to ditch the Canadian? It would lose money, and even if it replaced him with a driver who showed better performance, it’s not going to make a difference to its constructors’ championship position.
Alex Albon has been driving well but 12th and 13th in each of the last two races is about as good as Williams can hope for, and even if Piastri could hit the ground running he’s not going to produce regular points in the slowest car on the grid. Haas is now next in the constructors’ championship, and with a 12-point deficit Williams seems resigned to 10th place.
So sticking with Latifi and seeing out the season doesn’t really cost the team anything, and it similarly would mean Piastri isn’t faced with a challenge that could hurt his reputation. Being thrown in mid-season in a tough car against an impressive Albon would likely mean an initial gap between the two that might never close given the Red Bull backed driver’s head start, and it wouldn’t tell Alpine all that much about its young prospect.
But if we’re talking about where Williams is right now, then we have to do the same for Alpine, too.
This is not a team that is on the verge of challenging for world championships. It’s still a long way from the front, even if it has the ingredients to get closer to the top three and get itself into the mix eventually. Patience is going to be needed, and it might make more sense to take a leaf out of Ferrari’s book.
After 2020, with a tough road ahead to get back into the mix for race wins, Ferrari moved away from the experienced world champion it had in Sebastian Vettel and signed Carlos Sainz to partner Charles Leclerc, giving a driver line-up for the future.
While I’m not suggesting Vettel and Alonso’s performances are comparable – the latter is delivering at a much higher level than Vettel was at that time – the dynamic and forward-thinking mentality could be similar when Alpine considers what it does for 2023.
A line-up of Ocon and Piastri next season might be more fitting for a team working its way to the front, as it allows Ocon further responsibility that he appears to be ready for, and gives Piastri the required experience within the team and with its current car, rather than in an uncompetitive set-up somewhere else on the grid.
But to opt for that pairing over an Alonso who is still driving so well is a big call, and one that would likely need an early decision based on his contractual situation. The Spaniard is hardly going to wait around until November to learn what the team wants to do, and he might even have the power in his existing deal to force its hand earlier on that front.
It’s exactly that dilemma that has led to Piastri’s links to Williams getting stronger, and some members of the Dorilton-owned team expect to see the Australian in its colors next year. Alpine needs to know what its back-up options are if it continues with Alonso, and as team principal Otmar Szafnauer made clear in Canada, Piastri will be racing in F1 next year. He needs to be.
In a slightly backwards way, it would make Alpine’s life a bit easier if Alonso actually wasn’t performing so well. Instead, the very good problem to have about whether to stick with a world class proven champion or one of the sport’s brightest young prospects remains one that needs dealing with.