McLaren might not yet be talking publicly at great length about McLaren-Honda, but, believe me, there’s a lot of hard work going on behind the frosted glass interior walls at Woking to make sure the partnership gets started on the right foot.
Not least, McLaren-Honda sounds like it’ll be a busy place next year – after all, if you believe what you read on the internet, they must be running about six cars, for all the drivers they’re supposed to be signing for 2015!
Teams like to talk about their ‘staircase’ of driver talent – that’s to say, a vertical scale of drivers, all at different stages of their careers, who are each being slowly pushed to the top of the tree as their careers mature. At McLaren, Kevin Magnussen is the most recent graduate of the scheme, but hot on his heels is Belgian super-kid Stoffel Vandoorne, who’s looking increasingly impressive in GP2 and was mega-quick in his sole World Series by Renault 3.5 season last year. Below Stoffel is a very fleet Dutchman called Nyck de Vries, who’s currently winning everything in Formula Renault 2.0. Below Nyck is a young Yorkshire lad called Ben Barnicoat, who’s just started racing cars.
At the moment, however, McLaren is less of a staircase and more of a broad, deep pool – within which are currently bobbing a number of drivers who could potentially be netted and landed for 2015, and beyond.
Each candidate is keeping their cards close to their chest as they issue what’s known in the trade as a series of non-denial denials. What’s that, I hear you say? Ah, an N-DD is a form of words that enables one to brush the rumours away with a vaguely dismissive air, but it also makes pretty sure that the denial isn’t too concrete, too emphatic, and rules nowt out.
At the start of last week, we heard a classic non-denial denial from Fernando Alonso (“it's not my intention at the moment to move”); as the paddock swung into Monza, focus had switched to Sebastian Vettel (whose N-DD was “I’m happy where I am. But you never know what’s happening in the future.”).
By race morning at Monza, Lewis Hamilton was in the N-DD frame too – according to a phalanx of British tabloids, at least. Additionally, Valtteri Bottas’s name was cited as a likely McLaren hiring in The Sun (until Valtteri was confirmed that same day at Williams for 2015).
Lest we forget, McLaren currently employs two uber-capable Formula 1 aces named Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen – anybody heard of them?
The sheer silliness of the silly season got me thinking – who else should McLaren be considering? If your search terms are so sweeping that they seemingly include half the paddock, then is there anybody we might have overlooked?
I gave it some thought, and came up with a solution that was so nuttily perfect, so ludicrously insane yet so improbably impeccable that it worked on every level.
Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
As with any good announcement, timing and secrecy are essential. The team’s new appointment would be so left-field that few would have even thought to connect the two; even though the figure I’m about to name-check is a regular paddock attendee and a true Formula 1 legend, nobody would suss.
I could imagine the nervous crackle of excitement within McLaren’s crack communications team as they formulated the first official announcement via their excellent @McLarenF1 Twitter feed:
[email protected] is delighted to confirm our new 2015 driver. Are you ready? #McLarenDrivers
If you weren’t already listening, you certainly would be now. The Formula 1 world would be rapt, and scarcely able to believe the next couple of mega-important Tweets…
We will be joined by a driver who has already raced for @McLarenF1… #McLarenDrivers
How cruel! How could they keep us hanging like that! Let’s get on with it, please…
There’d be a pregnant pause, Twitter would go crazy with speculation – is it Lewis? It’s definitely NOT Seb. Could it be Fernando?
He’s a double world champion, AND a Formula 1 legend. #McLarenDrivers
It IS Alonso! It’s got to be! They’ve re-signed Fernando Alonso!
Can you imagine?! Almost instantly, the full press release would ping into inboxes, igniting an eruption of motor racing fandom young and old across the world.
Soon, there would be pictures of McLaren’s new driver in brand new shiny team overalls, hands on hips, sunglasses glued to his face, and bushy sideburns framing that inimitable Cheshire-cat smile.
The interviews would follow – firstly with Emmo himself, sat relaxedly on his trusty old M23 on the MTC boulevard, then with incredulous pundits and newscasters, still agog at the news. The rolling news sites would be looping grainy footage of Emmo from his previous time at McLaren, which ended in 1975.
I can just imagine their questions…
“Emerson, do you still feel you can really cut it? After all, you’ll be 68 when you line up on the grid in Melbourne in March?”
“What does this say about age and fitness at the top levels in sport?”
“What do your wife and kids (and grandkids) think about you doing this?”
“Emerson, tell us how the deal came about. Isn’t this all a bit… well, incredible?”
“Fuuure sszzhhuuure,” would come the unflustered, laconic reply. “I speak to ther teeem. I like what they doing; they like what I doing. So I say, ‘Emerson, why not do zis?’ It make sense, no? I theenk I still ’ave it. I steell like to drive fast. I luuurve McLaren. I say: ‘Go for it’ and… here we are.”
Before we knew it, we’d all be on a flight to Melbourne, and the typical pre-season scrum would envelope the pretty Albert Park paddock.
The pre-season photoshoot:
“Emerson! This way! This way, mate! Over ’ere! On your left! Emmo, look to your right! Emmo!”
Thursday afternoon’s FIA press conference:
“I liiike the traaack. I never race Formula 1 in Australia before. But, fuuure sszzhhuuure, is niiice country. Niiice people. I feel veeery relaaaxed. Is a goood place to start the championsheeep, no?”
The team’s international media press conference:
“If I can just interrupt… fuuure sszzhhuuure, we talk about safety in Formula 1, but let me tell you – theeess is a veeeery safe track, a safe sport, and, you know, we trust thr FIA for safety. We just here for raaacing.”
In Melbourne, I like to think he’d be devilishly quick and as fearsomely intelligent as ever.
David Croft (Sky Sports F1): “And with the rain still falling, Lewis’s time from the start of Q3 looks pretty safe. But… hang on, Emerson Fittipaldi has just crossed the line in the McLaren. He’s the first to fit the dry tyre… And there are some very dry patches under the trees at the back of the circuit – has he judged it right, Martin?”
Martin Brundle: “He’s looking pretty confident, Crofty. He’s gone green in the first sector, just 0.037s down on Lewis’s best time. Through the middle sector… this is where those tyres could make a difference. And he’s very neat through Turns Nine and Ten, over the kerbs he gets the power down nice and early, just correcting that snap of oversteer.”
Croft: “Yes Martin, through the high-speed corners at 11 and 12, the car looks beautifully balanced and let’s see what the sector… AND HE’S UP! He’s gone purple in the middle sector and he’s currently FASTEST! He’s 0.122s up now! Can he hold it?!”
Croft again, bellowing now: “Through the last sector… a little wide out of Turn 14, but he doesn’t lose too much time. Out of the last corner, has he done enough? Over the line… AND IT’S POLE! POLE POSITION FOR EMERSON FITTIPALDI! It’s his first F1 pole since the 1974 Canadian Grand Prix – an INCREDIBLE FORTY ONE YEARS AGO.”
Brundle: “I’ve never seen anything like that in all my life. This guy is old enough to be most drivers’ grandfather, this – this – is F1 history in the making.”
Sweeping into parc ferme, Emmo would still be limber enough to hop from the car, a theatrical wave to the crowd before pulling off his helmet to reveal his trademark grin. Posing alongside Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, in his inimitable red overalls, he’d be guaranteed front pages right across the world.
Would it happen? Could it happen? In my mind, it’s already happening – and it’s brilliant.
Pour me another glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, will you, old boy.
Buy Emerson Fittipaldi's latest book, 'Emmo - A Racer's Soul' here: http://tinyurl.com/o2xnwer