By Alan Baldwin
WOKING, England (Reuters) - Fernando Alonso is leaving Formula One after Sunday's season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix but McLaren say they will not hesitate to seek his services again if needed.
The double world champion has not ruled out a comeback, while recognising it as unlikely at 37 years old, but team boss Zak Brown told Reuters on Wednesday the Spaniard would be the first driver he called if there was a problem.
"We certainly wouldn’t hesitate, if we needed a driver that’s not one of our current two, to have Fernando be the first on the speed-dial list," he said.
"(Michael) Schumacher came back, (Alain) Prost came back. I wouldn’t rule that out. We’re very happy with our driver lineup for the future -- that’s what we are very focused on at this moment -- but never say never.
"He’s certainly driving at the top of his game."
Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion who left McLaren at the end of 2016, made a one-off return at the following year's Monaco Grand Prix when Alonso was absent racing in the Indianapolis 500.
Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne also made his debut in 2016 when Alonso was injured in Australia and ruled out of race two in Bahrain.
McLaren have an all-new lineup for 2019, with Spaniard Carlos Sainz joining from Renault and British teenager Lando Norris stepping up from a reserve role.
Two-times Monaco winner Alonso will continue in the World Endurance Championship with Toyota, having won the Le Mans 24 Hours this year, and with McLaren again at the Indy 500 as he chases the "Triple Crown of Motorsport".
Brown said Alonso was sure to attend some Formula One races next year and did not rule out a new role for him eventually.
"He talks about one of these days having a management shirt," said the American. "He loves being at racetracks: when he’s not at a Formula One track or endurance, you’ll find him at his go-kart track. He can’t stay away from racetracks.
"He’s still a McLaren driver. We're doing the Indianapolis 500 together, so I think Fernando has other ways he can influence and help our team."
Brown hailed the Spaniard as one of the greatest of his era and one who could have won many more championships than his two with Renault.
Sunday's race at Yas Marina, he said, would be emotional, if also something of a disappointment.
"It’s a shame that he won’t go out with a chance of victory or podiums -- that’s probably disappointing for all of us because he’s driving the best he’s ever driven," said the American.
"This weekend I’m sure it’ll be tough even to get into the points."
Former champions McLaren are sixth in the constructors' standings with 62 points, 50 of them scored by Alonso, who last won a grand prix with Ferrari in 2013 and has not had a podium finish since 2014.
"Unfortunately, given his long career, he’s only won two championships. Had he been in the right cars over that 17-year career he could be in the same place as Lewis (Hamilton) and Michael (Schumacher) with five, six, seven," said Brown.
Alonso would surely have won a third title in 2007 had McLaren favoured him over rookie team mate Hamilton, with whom he ended the season tied on points while Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen scored one more.
Hamilton then took the 2008 title, while Alonso returned to Renault before joining Ferrari in 2010 -- a year in which he led the championship into the final race at Abu Dhabi before strategy wrecked his hopes.
The return to McLaren, unthinkable after the bitterness of 2007, came in 2015 but also coincided with the team's worst run of form and an ultimately doomed partnership with Honda that ended last year.
TALENT BELIES STATISTICS
Ferrari have also not won a drivers' title since Raikkonen's.
"His statistics probably fall short of his immense talent," said Brown, rejecting talk of the Spaniard being a disruptive influence and highlighting his intensity and hard work behind the scenes.
"I’m well aware of the stories over the years but from my perspective he’s been a fast race-car driver who wants the best equipment and the best out of people, and doesn’t accept anything short of perfection.
"He’s been a pleasure to work with."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Neville Dalton)