Fernando Alonso has all but agreed to join Ferrari when Michael Schumacher retires, or in 2005 at the latest, reports say. But his move could all depend on Sauber’s new driver lineup…

Fernando Alonso has all but agreed to join Ferrari when Michael Schumacher retires, or in 2005 at the latest, reports say. But his move could all depend on Sauber’s new driver lineup…

The Spanish and Italian press devoted several minutes of broadcast time and columns of copy to Alonso’s future during the US Grand Prix last weekend. Although the stories have largely been denied by all sides, many newspapers ran headlines suggesting that the rising F1 star and Hungarian Grand Prix winner could slot into the Scuderia's line-up either next year or, more likely, in 2005, depending on when the world champion-elect decided to draw a line under his illustrious career.

Schumacher is widely tipped to call it quits before the end of his current contract with Ferrari (which expires at the end of 2006), the only question remaining whether he will do so at Suzuka early next month – where he is widely expected to clinch a record-breaking sixth world championship - or after one more season.

The latter scenario would probably help to ease Alonso's path into the Italian team, as the Spaniard is currently under contract to Renault. However, the reported R70 million buy-out fee that it would cost to take Alonso to Ferrari would be a small cost to a team used to paying Schumacher's R252-million-a-year salary.

Both Spanish papers AS and Marcha believe that Alonso will be on his way to Ferrari for 2005 - when the team will be possibly looking for two drivers should it not re-hire Rubens Barrichello for the second car. AS also claims that the Spaniard is unhappy with the way he is being treated at Renault, with allegations that team-mate Jarno Trulli - also managed by Renault boss Flavio Briatore - is being given preferential treatment. The Italian finished fourth at Indianapolis on Sunday, while Alonso retired with his fourth engine failure of the year - something the Spaniard himself has suggested does not befit a driver who has scored 55 points this year.

Deny, deny, deny

Alonso's manager, former F1 driver Adrian Campos, said that there was no foundation to the speculation - even though he could see no other viable replacement for Schumacher when the German does finally call it a day.

"I honestly know nothing of Alonso to Ferrari," he told Italian newspaper La Gazzetta della Sport, "To me, it is all just speculation.

"Fernando has a contract with the Renault for another two years, although I certainty do not see who else would be able to justify a place at Ferrari,” Campos added. "However, for now, Fernando is off the market - although from 2005, anything is possible. If someone wants him, they should find an agreement with Renault. Then the final word is the drivers."

Ferrari also issued a denial of the rumour, claiming that Schumacher had not mentioned that he was considering leaving before the end of his contract in 2006.

"The news that Ferrari has had contact with Fernando Alonso is without foundation," the team told to , "Schumacher has a contract until the end of 2006, and he will honour it."

The Sauber factor

Sauber is understood to have released both Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Nick Heidfeld from their contracts for next year, and Peter Sauber, the boss of the Ferrari-powered team, has already confirmed that Giancarlo Fisichella will drive one of the team's cars next year, with Felipe Massa expected to be confirmed imminently in the other seat.

It is expected that Fisichella and Massa will be weighed up against each other in 2004.

The final deciding factor in who gets the seat, however, may not come from either Ferrari, or the three drivers allegedly on its shopping list. Instead, Schumacher's decision as to when and where to retire could tip the balance one way or another.

The suggestion that the German could go out on a high in Japan is supposedly behind the apparent delay in an announcement of Massa's candidature at Sauber, but a “farewell season” in 2004 may also appeal to the German - and allow Ferrari to get its hands on Alonso without having to make room for the Spaniard.

Original article from Car