by Pete Wadsworth

The future of Fernando Alonso has been one of the most talked about stories in Formula 1 ever since it first became clear, back in Hungary, that the relationship between the young Spaniard and McLaren bosses was falling apart.

With most of the top teams tied up, the double world champ is running out of places to go and, despite persistent rumours that he is set to partner Kimi Raikkonen in the red cars, is it really plausible after this year that Alonso would move to a team that cannot have a clear number one driver?

With the current world champion signed, there's no way that the Scuderia could ask Kimi to play second fiddle to Alonso. In fact, the very idea of it is laughable.

Most pundits and fans see Renault as being the most likely option, and a return to the regie would certainly make sense. They've had a poor 2007, but you don't win world championships by accident, and the engineering talent of the team hasn't simply evaporated out of the Enstone ventilation system.

It seems that most of Renault's problems have been with drivers. A line-up consisting of an out-of-form Giancarlo Fisichella and a slightly wild Heikki Kovalainen simply don't have the confidence, never mind the clout, to knock people's heads together in the way that Schumacher or Alonso might. They seem to not know what they need to ask for or how to ask for it, and the team's performance has suffered as a result. Combine this racing line-up with a rookie test driver and it isn't any wonder that they've had a lacklustre season.

The addition of Alonso would surely bring Renault back to the glory days of the 2005 and 2006 seasons. If they got rid of Fisi, Kovalainen would slot in nicely behind Fernando to play the number two man and, with a world champion in the car, development would pick up. It's highly plausible that 2008 could see Renaults, McLarens, Ferraris and BMWs fighting for championship honours.

Of course, Toyota is another name that has been tossed into the 'who will Alonso sign for' hat, but is the Japanese team ready for a driver of Alonso's talent? Would they actually be able to deliver the car that he needs to compete at the head of the field, regardless of his input? The answer to both those questions is 'probably not', and it's hard to believe that Alonso would move to a team - at this stage of his career - simply because he couldn't see the top of the pile of money they put in front of him. But there is a way for Toyota to get their hands on a world champ, start scoring victories and strengthen the relationship between the company's F1 campaign and its road car range.

There is no doubt that Toyota, the largest car manufacturer in the world, has deep, well-lined pockets, so should they need to come up with a Kimi-beating salary to get Alonso to the table, they won't have any problems coming up with an offer that's hard to refuse. However, if you want to sign a world champion, you need to provide them with a team and a car that can deliver results.

As we know, Toyota's F1 campaign involves a works operation and an engine supply deal with Williams. Rather embarrassingly, Toyota is (as far as we can tell) the only manufacturer whose works team has been beaten on a regular basis by the team to whom they supply engines: indeed, the 2007 championship ended with Toyota on 13 points and Williams on 33.

As it stands, this makes Toyota look, well, a bit silly really - the multi-national uber-corporation being beaten by a team of engineers from Didcot. But I think there is a way that Toyota can turn this 'problem' to its advantage.

Toyota actually has two road car brands: one that carries the company's name (Toyota) and its separate 'premium' brand, Lexus. Toyota's aim is for Lexus to compete with the big German luxury marques like Mercedes and BMW in the premium market - signified primarily by the deeply stylish LS600h and monstrous IS-F, which are so clearly aimed at the Mercedes S-Class and BMW M3 they might as well say so in the brochures - while Toyota-badged cars bring in the money from the 'volume' sales.

Conveniently, the positions in which Toyota and Williams find themselves on the F1 grid fits absolutely perfectly with how their Toyota and Lexus brands are perceived within the road car market.

So here's the plan: Toyota Motor Company uses its piles of money to buy Fernando out of his McLaren contract (they should be able to find enough down the back of the boardroom chairs), while Williams remains an independent team supplied by Toyota, but with engines now branded as Lexus rather than Toyota. Of course, in real terms, this will manifest itself as new badges on the car, the cam covers and team clothing, so that bit is cheap.

Toyota then installs Alonso in a Williams and pays his wages at the team, freeing up some money at Grove which can be used to develop the Williams back into a championship-winning package and making Lexus Williams' title sponsor. Couple this with Alonso's input, and a return to championship contention is almost a sure thing - heck, if Toyota are feeling especially flush, they could even contribute to Williams' development budget and 'borrow' technology developed by the massively-experienced Grove team to haul the full works operation up the grid.

This gives Toyota two legitimate F1 teams, both working hard for their respective brands under the company's umbrella, rather than one lame duck getting regularly thrashed by a privateer outfit which buys its engines.

Away from the track, the advantages become even clearer. BMW and Mercedes (Lexus' main competitors) both use their strong F1 links to sell cars, with BMW's M5 using engines "cast in the same foundry as the F1 motors" and Mercedes airing the excellent Fernando vs Lewis vs Mika advert. Not only would Lexus be afforded the same ties as BMW's 'M' range and Mercedes' AMG cars enjoy for its existing performance vehicles (along with the much sought-after halo effect for its diesels, family and luxury cars), Toyota would be presented with an opportunity to 'invent' its own performance brand for Lexus: Williams.

This would allow the Japanese company to effectively split Lexus again, taking them firmly into M and AMG territory with a brand that is pre-impregnated with the racing heritage that is so important for selling performance road cars. Couple that with an F1 star as an ambassador and Lexus instantly gains the credibility performance brand managers can usually only dream of.

Williams were a championship-winning team and, perhaps, the reason they're not as competitive in today's manufacturer-driven F1 championship is because Frank Williams failed to embrace the resurgence of car makers wanting a slice of the F1 action in the same way that Ron Dennis did - effectively turning his (admittedly massive) independent outfit into a team that, for all intents and purposes, runs Mercedes' F1 campaign on the German company's behalf.

Toyota, on the other hand, are keen to run their own F1 team - to be seen to be doing it themselves - but seem to have failed to embrace the fast turnaround management ethos that is so crucial F1 success.

Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, is a double world champion without a team.

Perhaps 'Lexus Williams' is an opportunity that all three pieces to the puzzle cannot afford to miss.

 

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