Following Mercedes' release of Fernando Alonso from his contract with McLaren and his earlier reported letter of intent with Renault where he won his two world titles, Alonso looks all but completely assured to be leaving McLaren a season early. That leaves McLaren with an open seat, and few available drivers to fill it.
The question no one seems to be asking is who will fill Alonso's seat at the British team next year. Never shying away from the difficult questions, Autoblog looks at the different options available for McLaren for 2008. Follow the jump to read more.
[Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty]
Although many observers scoffed at McLaren's purportedly premature placement of Lewis Hamilton in the race seat without a buffer year as a test driver in between, team principal Ron Dennis' decision has by now been vindicated with the rookie's astonishing talent and effort this season, even if he didn't actually clinch the title. McLaren could opt to focus purely on Hamilton next season by partnering him with an less talented teammate.
While that could be just about anyone (given the mince meat he made out of just about everyone in the field this season), the likely choice could be Pedro de la Rossa, who has remained quietly on the proverbial side lines as the team's loyal test driver since McLaren gave the race seat to Hamilton. The Spanish driver was looking at moving to Prodrive next season, but with the McLaren farm-team now unlikely to make its debut next season, Pedro announced he intends to honor the remaining two years on his contract with McLaren. While that ostensibly means as a test driver, 2008 could easily be the season for de la Rossa's jump to the race seat.
Alternatively, the team could recruit another rookie driver to drive alongside their title contender Hamilton, easily attracting a test driver from another team or looking back into a lower series for a race seat.
McLaren would, however, clearly benefit from the presence of a more experienced driver to counterbalance Hamilton and provide valuable feedback into the development of the car. So who's available? Ralf Schumacher, recently departed from Toyota and is looking for a competitive drive, but that would seem a highly unlikely choice for McLaren given Schu Jr.'s unfortunate track record.
Far more likely, and speculated upon last year following the departure of Kimi Raikkonen to Ferrari and Juan Pablo Montoya to stock cars, could herald the Return of the Hakk. Former world champion Mika Hakkinen has been keeping his skills honed by driving in DTM, and has kept close relations with McLaren, even pitching in to test drive the team's cars in the off season. He was even seen in the McLaren paddock when they disappointingly and narrowly lost the race and the championship in Brazil, and if Ron Dennis was looking for a solution, he didn't have to look far to find Hakkinen. Mika won back-to-back world championship in 1998 and '99, but critics widely agree that his career was hampered only by the dominance of Michael Schumacher. Now a full year into his retirement, Schumacher is out of the way, and despite a prolonged absense from F1 and a relatively advanced age, now could be Mika's time once again.
McLaren recently recruited another experienced talent, as F1 Racing magazine editor Matt Bishop left journalism to head up communications for McLaren. While he clearly won't be driving next year, we will look to him for the announcement of who'll take over Alonso's seat next year. As for us, our money's on Hakkinen.