Alonso's title hopes on the line in China as future grows uncertain

SHANGHAI, China -- It's all but certain that either Lewis Hamilton or his Vodafone McLaren Mercedes teammate, Fernando Alonso, will win this year's Formula One Drivers World Championship.

What's a lot less certain is if they will remain teammates in 2008, even though both have contracts with McLaren for next season.

While Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen still has a mathematical shot at winning the Drivers World Championship, the battle now is really between the McLaren duo. With two races to go, Hamilton has a 12-point lead over Alonso. If by the end of Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix he has at least an 11-point advantage over Alonso, he will clinch the title. If the spread is 10 points or fewer, the battle will go down to the season finale Oct. 21 in Brazil.

The relationship between Hamilton and Alonso is so strained right now that the former has publicly said he would prefer the latter not be his teammate next year.

"No, I don't," Hamilton said when British newspaper reporters asked him if he thought he and Alonso should remain teammates in 2008. "I mean, if the team wants to keep him they keep him, but I'm here to stay as long as they want me.

"This season has helped reconfirm in my mind where I want to be, where I want to live out my career, and that is here," he added. "I'm really happy and comfortable here. So long as they want me, there's no reason to move anywhere else. It's up to the team."

Alonso is in the first year of a three-year contract with McLaren. Here in China, he said this season has been a lot more difficult and aggravating than he anticipated, and that he is looking forward to the Monday after the final race "a lot!"

Asked about his future, Alonso said it was not the time to talk about that and he wanted to concentrate solely on the last two races.

McLaren team boss Ron Dennis also is sidestepping questions about his drivers' futures.

"Both of our drivers have contracts that are valid for several years, and we are focused on the next races," he said at the Japanese Grand Prix, where Hamilton won and Alonso crashed Sunday. "If there are any changes in those contractual relationships, they will only be discussed after the last Grand Prix. There is, at this stage, nobody engaged in any dialogue whatsoever."

Alonso clearly is unhappy at McLaren. He naively believed the team would give him extra support because he is a double World Champion while Hamilton is in his rookie season. What Alonso and his manager somehow overlooked is that McLaren always puts in a massive effort to ensure both its drivers get absolutely equal treatment and equal equipment right up until the moment one of them is mathematically eliminated from the championship chase.

It also has been difficult for Alonso, who was new to the team this year, because Hamilton has been a McLaren protégé for a decade. Alonso's relationship with Dennis has been strained, too, ever since Alonso revealed to his boss that he had e-mails on his computer that could (and eventually did) implicate the team in the McLaren/Ferrari spy scandal.

So the question is, what's next for Alonso? Once he gets through the last two races of this season, what does he focus on for 2008?

Several drivers' futures depend on what Alonso decides, and the F1 driver market has stalled pending his next move.

Alonso has ruled out taking a sabbatical in 2008. He insists he will race.
But with which team?

One rumor had him going to Ferrari next year. The trouble is, Felipe Massa has a contract for 2008, and Raikkonen has a contract for 2008 and 2009.

So is there any chance of Alonso moving to Ferrari next year?

"No, zero percent, zero percent, zero," Ferrari team principal Jean Todt said. "We have two fantastic drivers, Kimi, Felipe. We are very happy with them, and they are under contract.

"As I said before, I will respect a contract for a guy cleaning the floor, so you can imagine that I will respect a contract. If we have contracts, we will respect them."

Speaking of contracts, those of Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen at Renault expire at the end of this season. Renault is keeping both drivers in limbo about renewals.

Alonso won both his championships with Renault, and the team would love to have him back.

"I told Fernando that the moment he is free from McLaren, we would be pleased to have him back," Renault team chief Flavio Briatore told the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. "It would be stupid to deny that."

Renault, however, is in a slump this season with only one top-three finish.
Can Alonso risk returning to his old team?

There is an open seat at Toyota, since the team and Ralf Schumacher have confirmed they will part company at the end of the season. Toyota has lots of money and lots of potential. But it has yet to realize that potential. Again, does Alonso want to take the risk?

I told Fernando that the moment he is free from McLaren, we would be pleased to have him back. It would be stupid to deny that.

Flavio Briatore, Renault team chief

After that, there aren't many options left for Alonso.

Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button will be back with Honda next year; Mark Webber and David Coulthard have deals with Red Bull; and Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica are confirmed at BMW Sauber.

Williams has Nico Rosberg under long-term contract. The team's second driver, Alexander Wurz, may or may not be invited back next year. As a private team with no links to an auto manufacturer, Williams doesn't have the kind of money Alonso would command. And the team has not won since 2004.

You can rule out the small teams: Super Aguri, Spyker and Scuderia Toro Rosso. He has no interest in them.

So Alonso's options are slim indeed.

One possibility might be Prodrive, which enters F1 next year. The plan is for Prodrive to be a sister team with McLaren and have virtually identical equipment. But the F1 teams are arguing over the definition, legality and commercial payouts of "customer cars" for 2008, so the Prodrive deal is in limbo.

And that brings Alonso full circle, back to McLaren. Can he put up with a frosty relationship? It might be worth it, given that he would have a car capable of winning races and championships. But if the McLaren relationship has soured beyond repair, then Renault seems to be Alonso's best option.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.