Time for change

Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – Russian Grand Prix – Preparation Day – Sochi, Russia

The 2014 silly season is one for the ages. There has been no official confirmation by any party, but it appears that Fernando Alonso is on his way to McLaren and will be replaced in Ferrari by arch-rival Sebastian Vettel.

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On the surface, the moves do not make a lot of sense. Why replace Alonso, the only component of the Ferrari machine that is actually working? And why would Vettel leave Red Bull for a team that has not finished ahead of the quadruple world champions in the constructors’ standings since 2008? The moves are strange but there are enough reasons for both and they are not only monetary.

1)         The right time

Ferrari is rebuilding. They need a driver that will commit to them while the internal restructuring takes place to reap the rewards afterwards.

Given the power unit advantage of Mercedes, Ferrari can hardly expect to challenge for the title before 2017. This is time that Alonso does not have. The Spaniard is already 33 years old and cannot afford to sacrifice another two of his best years to a project that might ultimately be unsuccessful. And in the five seasons he has spent with the Scuderia, the double world champion has seen more than his fair share of failed “back to the top” projects. It is only natural to lose faith. Yes, McLaren’s partnership with Honda might also not end up with a world championship, but the risk of leaving seems less than the risk of staying.

Alonso’s fairy tale with Ferrari seems to be over and now it is Vettel’s turn to take the mantle of emulating the most successful driver in the history of the sport.

Vettel, on the other hand, celebrated his 27th birthday not that long ago and he is already a four-time champion. The German can wait. He can afford to hang around for a few years before his next title or not get one at all. Vettel can commit to Ferrari for the long haul. And the time to leave Red Bull Racing is now, because there are changes in the 2013 champions too. Adrian Newey’s involvement with the F1 team is gradually decreasing, while the heads of the aerodynamics department are leaving for McLaren. Given Renault’s considerable power unit problems, a less than magnificent aero is the last thing Vettel would want to struggle with in 2015. Yes, the party is not over at Red Bull, but it does not look promising for the future.

2)         The myth

Articles about both contracts mention outrageous numbers. Honda are about to break the bank for Alonso and Vettel will earn more than Schumacher did at Ferrari. I, however, am not convinced that the monetary incentive is the primary cause behind either move. There is more to it.

From Vettel’s perspective, it is about driving for the myth “Ferrari.” Ferrari is both the most successful and the most popular team in the sport. Despite his considerable success, the German has not really felt the love of the fans (even before the “Multi 21” debacle). Red Bull has no legacy in Formula 1 and this has hurt Vettel’s own popularity. The story would change considerably if the German starts winning for Ferrari.

Alonso, on the other hand, is probably motivated by another myth: the “McLaren-Honda” one. This was the partnership that brought the great Ayrton Senna his three world titles. The Spaniard would enjoy nothing more than matching the Brazilian’s record with McLaren. And then there is the ghost of the past. Alonso joined McLaren in 2007 hoping to achieve great things, but ran away quickly after a clash with Ron Dennis and Dennis’s protégé Lewis Hamilton. Now, Hamilton is gone and the Spaniard seems motivated to prove that he has matured and that McLaren’s new prodigy Kevin Magnussen does not scare him (if the rumours about Jenson Button’s retirement are true).

3)         The shadow of Schumacher

Michael Schumacher is the standard against which every Formula 1 driver has been measured in the last 20 years. Alonso and Vettel, in particular, have often been hailed as the heirs to the great German.

The tifosi have not failed to notice the similarities between the careers of Alonso and Schumacher. Both drivers blossomed in Formula 1 under Flavio Briatore and won two world titles for the Italian’s Enstone-based team before joining Ferrari. But this is where the likeness ends. Schumacher led Ferrari to eleven titles (5 WDC and 6 WCC), Alonso has up until now led them to none. Not that not having a championship winning car is the Spaniard’s fault in any way, but the rank and file at Maranello was probably expecting that Alonso would attract engineering talent as Schumacher did when he convinced Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne to follow him on the way out of Enstone.

Alonso’s fairy tale with Ferrari seems to be over and now it is Vettel’s turn to take the mantle of emulating the most successful driver in the history of the sport. Then again, the German was forced to wrestle with the “Baby Schumi” moniker and the expectations that go with it since his first days in Formula 1. The four-time world champion has handled it very well by putting his own name in the hall of fame of grand prix drivers. Replacing Schumacher in the hearts of the tifosi would be a monumental task but Vettel seems to know what it takes. The young German himself was one of the tifosi a few years back. An RTL documentary from Vettel’s early days in karting shows a giant Ferrari poster hanging in the young driver’s room, just above his bed. Vettel has admitted repeatedly that Schumacher is his idol. Those are ties not easily broken, even after 15 years in the Red Bull family.

4) The dream

In a way, driving for Ferrari appears to have always been Sebastian Vettel’s dream, while Fernando Alonso’s greatest desire is to win the world title at least one more time. Only the future will tell if winning and driving for Ferrari are mutually exclusive events.

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