By Luke SmithFollow @LukeSmithF1 on Twitter

Upon arrival in China, the majority of the Formula 1 paddock still had a spring in its step despite the long-haul flights that many took to Shanghai, the early flyaways doing little to dampen the new-season freshness and sheen that was felt in abundance in Australia.

But for Fernando Alonso, such positivity has been hard to find. The promise of progress from Honda after an encouraging 2016 proved to be empty, with the redesign of the power unit to mirror the layout used by Mercedes only creating more problems. The ghosts of 2015 are back haunting McLaren again.

A miserable pre-season saw Alonso on the sidelines for much of testing, yet the Spaniard's knack of dragging a sub-standard car far beyond its ability saw him even flirt with the points in Australia. Running P10 for much of the race, Alonso did all he could to keep Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg back, but his efforts proved fruitless in the end when a suspension issue forced him to retire. That said, the fact that drivers from Force India and Renault were left feeling their races had been ruined because they were stuck behind the slow McLaren spoke volumes about where the British team stands right now.

Heading to China, the team's plight looks set to deepen. The more power-hungry nature of the Shanghai International Circuit, particularly with its huge back straight, means that Alonso will get a better picture of where McLaren lies in the pecking order. And it's unlikely to be a pretty one.

"We need to be ready for a difficult and tough race," Alonso admitted on Thursday. "It's difficult to predict because there are some races where you have a lot of expectations on Sunday and you don't deliver and there is the opposite when they look difficult on paper but everything goes well. So let's wait and see. I think we are lacking deployment compared to the opposition, it's just we have less power and our time on the straights is much longer than the rest."

Two races in and Alonso already looks resigned to another year of simply making up the numbers.

It is for that reason that he must quit McLaren at the end of the season if he is to maintain his reputation as being one of F1's all-time greats.

There is little doubt that Alonso is one of the finest drivers ever to grace F1. Had things gone his way at the title showdowns in 2007, 2010 and 2012, he'd be a five-time champion, level with Juan Manuel Fangio. Time and time again he has done the unthinkable with cars that don't deserve to be fighting for world titles; arguably, he is pound-for-pound the best driver in F1 right now, perhaps even this millennium.

The move to McLaren back in 2015 was forced by a number of factors. Clearly relations with the Ferrari regime had become too fractured, with plans already in place for Sebastian Vettel to be lured away from Red Bull. McLaren offered Alonso a chance to be part of a new project, and while immediate success was not expected with Honda, there was a chance to build. By year three, fighting for race wins and world championships was the aim. Instead, the thinking in China appears to be 'what needs to happen to even score one point?' - a drastic deviation from where McLaren-Honda should be.

Alonso has been quick to deny the suggestion that he could quit McLaren - or indeed F1 altogether - midway through the 2017 season, yet come the end of the year, there would have to be a remarkable case to get him to continue at Woking.

Alonso seems tired, and has surely run out of patience. How many more times can Honda say 'next year will be better' before faith is finally lost for good? If he were to stick around and give McLaren his word for another three years, it would feel like Alonso has given up on being one of F1's modern greats - and for a driver with such deep fighting spirit, it's unlikely he'd want to do that.

More than 10 years have passed since Alonso last won a world title, the most recent success coming on a sunny Sunday at Interlagos with Renault. Back then, he was the young upstart who had ended Michael Schumacher and Ferrari's domination and was ready to turn the F1 world on its head in the decade that would follow. Now, much as Schumacher was in 2005, he is the crestfallen champion hamstrung by dud tools.

"I think it's definitely disappointing not to have more championships," Alonso admitted. "But at the end of the day, in 2007 I was third and then another three second places. So yes, missing more title, but that is why I'm here and keep competing, because I want to have more trophies.

"But to have a 15-year career and be considered one of the best for 15 years is probably one of the best things I have in terms of feeling. There are drivers, even world champions, that have been beaten quite hard by teammates in one or two years of their career, which is something that has never happened to me and will not happen."

So has he wasted his time? "No, I prefer to be here than in the supermarket of my hometown!" - it is perhaps unlikely that we'll see Alonso stacking shelves in Oviedo once his time in F1 is up, though...

Lewis Hamilton said ahead of the Australian Grand Prix that he wanted to see Alonso back up the order, relishing the prospect of having the best of F1's current crop going wheel-to-wheel. On the current grid, Hamilton and Alonso stand out along with Vettel. In Australia, we finally got the Vettel/Hamilton battle so many desired - all that was missing was Alonso.

"I think it's good for the sport," Alonso said when the idea of fighting with Hamilton for a world title once again was raised. "We would like to compete and beat the best. It's something we had with Michael when he was here, it was fantastic to win titles when Michael was on the track as well, because if not they don't have the same value."

The final line holds so much insight into Alonso's mentality. He wants his actions to hold value and meaning. He doesn't want to sweep to title after title with ease; he wants to have earned everything he has in F1.

The move to McLaren gave him the chance to do that: taking a new manufacturer and a historic team back to the top of the sport would be one of the greatest feats any driver could accomplish. But the failure of this cause is not Alonso's doing. And for him, there is little value in knowing you're one of the best on the grid without being able to prove it.

So if Alonso wants to give the final few years of his F1 career the greatest possible value and get back in the mix for world titles, staying with McLaren simply is not an option. Be it Mercedes or Ferrari, Alonso needs to do everything in his power to be back in a top seat for 2017.

And maybe then, we'll have the showdown between Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel to settle just who is the greatest driver of the post-Schumacher F1 era.

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