Until Jules Bianchi’s terrible accident on Sunday, the biggest news story in Suzuka came from Red Bull Racing, which confirmed that Sebastian Vettel would not be with them in 2015.
Many eyes have been focused at Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso while waiting for an announcement from his camp on where he would be going next year, so to describe Red Bull’s announcement as a surprise would be a masterstroke of understatement.
Less than a year after claiming his fourth World Championship title on the trot, the marriage between Vettel and the Red Bull group is over.
Blind Freddie could see that Vettel has not been a happy camper at Red Bull Racing this year. He’s struggled in adapting to the new technical regulations and has borne the brunt of the team’s in-season reliability issues. Added to that, he’s been thumped by new teammate Daniel Ricciardo all year – he’d finished ahead the Australian just twice this year prior to Japan – and hasn’t looked close to breaking his winless run this year.
Ricciardo, by contrast, has claimed three wins and is in with a shout of claiming the Drivers’ Championship title himself. Vettel has been nowhere.
He exercised his early exit contract clause (which kicked in, we believe, if he was over 100 points adrift of the championship leader by 1 September) and told Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner of his decision to quit on Friday evening. The team moved quickly to cherry-pick Toro Rosso rookie Daniil Kvyat for Vettel’s seat next year and made the shock announcement on Saturday morning, with Horner then letting slip that Vettel would join Ferrari.
The news blindsided Alonso – not that he would admit it – and it also put the career of another driver, Jenson Button, in serious doubt.
Vettel waxed lyrical about his decision to leave the team – no, he wasn’t unhappy; it was high time for a change of scene – but was at pains to stress that his relationship with Red Bull wasn’t broken. Few were really buying it, but everyone was impressed with the skill at which he singlehandedly (he doesn’t have a manager) negotiated a new deal with his new employer.
While the tifosi would deny it loudly, Alonso’s relationship with Ferrari has completely disintegrated.
Team boss Stefano Domenicali quickly fell – or was pushed – onto his sword just before the Chinese Grand Prix and in came his replacement Marco Mattiacci, head of Ferrari’s North American retail arm but blessed with no motorsport experience whatsoever.
All of this was part of a longer term plan to oust Ferrari’s longstanding chief, Luca Montezemolo, who left his post after the Italian Grand Prix.
Yet again, Ferrari has delivered Alonso a terrible car. Changes had to be made.
Alonso has almost singlehandedly carried the Scuderia for the past five years, claiming nine stylish race wins in cars that (largely) had no business competing at the front of the field. To his credit, he rarely criticized the team despite its failure to produce a package capable of adding to his two World Championship titles he earned with Renault.
Now, Red Bull Racing has gazumped him from his position of being the central player in the driver market, the role many had cast for him.
Confirmation that Vettel was indeed Ferrari-bound and that Red Bull would promote Kvyat from within has dramatically weakened Alonso’s bargaining position. The Spaniard’s management team – led by Luis Garcia Abad (pictured above, with Alonso) and Flavio Briatore – had been courting the Milton Keynes team since last year, but that door has been firmly closed: the drinks giant will groom its own stars.
As bruising to the ego as that message is, it also leaves the Spaniard with the only – potentially competitive – prospect of joining McLaren, which, armed with Honda power next year, is a completely unknown prospect. At 33, Alonso can’t afford to waste any more years fiddling around in the upper midfield and scratching for the odd podium finish. He needs a championship-winning car and he needed it years ago.
If McLaren is indeed an option, it would mean taking over Jenson Button’s seat. McLaren is unlikely to dispense with the wild but quick rookie, Kevin Magnussen, as it considers him (along with GP2 Series race-winner Stoffel Vandoorne) a star of the future.
While Honda are big fans of ‘JB’, he’s failed to see off his rookie teammate and his own reputation has taken something of a battering. Alonso has consistently proven that he still has the capability of more titles, and would better suit Honda’s vision.
The thorn in the side of the deal is McLaren team boss Ron Dennis, whose antipathy for the two-time champion is still apparent some seven years after Alonso sold the team out to the FIA in the ‘Spygate’ scandal in 2007. Could the two ever work together if given a second shot?
One other rumour kicking around was that Alonso was considering investing into the ailing coffers of the Lotus F1 Team, striking up a deal to drive for the team (with whom he drove in 2003-6 and 2008-9 in their Renault guise) and ultimately take over the management reins when he decides to retire.
Aside from some interesting photographs of his manager openly chatting with Lotus deputy chief Federico Gastaldi in the Suzuka paddock (pictured right), this story might need more digging.
If a McLaren deal can’t be worked out and there’s not another great shockwave in the driver market – for example a seat at Mercedes or Williams suddenly becoming available – then Alonso might be forced into a sabbatical (a la Alain Prost) to wait a year in the hope that the driver market might come to him. A year is a long time away from the sport…
There would appear to be a great deal more to this story, and it doesn’t look like Alonso holds a particularly great hand in this latest game of poker.
Images via XPB Images