Why the Alonso and Vettel moves are good news for Formula 1
It has been a long time simmering, but now the top end driver market has burst into life on this tumultuous weekend in Japan, with some driver move...
It has been a long time simmering, but now the top end driver market has burst into life on this tumultuous weekend in Japan, with some driver moves which change the landscape of the sport.
And in many ways these are the right moves to re-invigorate the competitive picture and there are some strong business reasons in the background, which is always a spur for action in this sport.
Continuity is good in sport, look at Michael Schumacher's ten years with Ferrari, but sometimes it is important to recognise that a change of air is good thing too. Lewis Hamilton felt it in 2012 when he left McLaren after six years to join Mercedes, clearly a team on the up. He is now leading the world championship.
Fernando Alonso has taken the plunge and left Ferrari after five frustrating seasons, which have failed to bring a historic third world championship. With the clock ticking on his career, he needed to shake things up and he's taking a gamble that McLaren and Honda will give him a championship winning car in 2016 and 2017.
Sebastian Vettel has taken the opportunity of Alonso's unsettled mood to make a change of air too; after seven years with Red Bull Racing. His move has a few echoes of Schumacher's decision to join Ferrari. Interestingly he will be exactly the same age, 27, as Schumacher was when he started racing for Ferrari in 1996.
Schumacher's move was motivated partly by the need to distance himself from Benetton and some of the allegations floating around the team over launch software and fuel-filter irregularities in 1994. Also Ferrari had been in the doldrums for almost 20 years and that was bad for the F1 business as a whole. Bernie Ecclestone knew that Schumacher and Jean Todt would make Ferrari winners again and so it proved.
A strong (but not dominant) Ferrari is important for F1's global appeal, it can cut through in wider markets more than any other factor.
So Ecclestone needs Vettel at Ferrari now for business reasons; the viewing figures in Germany remain stubbornly low and the German market is one of the most important from a revenue point of view. The hope is that with the Ferrari 'glitter' on Vettel, his image will improve and things will rally, as they did in the Schumacher years. Likewise in Italy the TV audiences are struggling because Ferrari is doing badly, so something needed to be done.
Schumacher could take the risk in 1996 because he had no-one else on his level to beat at that time, he once told me that. Vettel and Alonso's situation is quite different. They have plenty of top drivers around to beat and there is a dominant force in the sport at present which is Mercedes.
So these moves are also about trying to plot which team will be the next major force. With Adrian Newey's influence diminishing on Red Bull's design, it is arguably a good moment to step off and to align with Ferrari, which has all the necessary resources, a talented technical director in James Allison and a new factory under construction. The politics are the big question mark and could wear him down, but he has to take a positive view.
Vettel will find fresh motivation there after a year in which he will have asked himself some awkward questions about why he is being beaten by Daniel Ricciardo more comprehensively than Jean Eric Vergne was 12 months earlier.
Althugh the deal is not yet done and there are some negotiations still, Alonso, with his samurai quotes and tattoos (above) and his relentless competitive spirit is a dream signing for Honda, whatever his baggage with McLaren's Ron Dennis. Honda want Alonso to act like a great champion, crack the whip with them and make them into winners again. That is how they work.
He will do the former, but some questions linger about his ability to do the latter after five years as leader at Ferrari. Alonso always gives 100% on the track and rarely has off days, but teamwork and 'driver leadership' are about raising the team to the highest level and he wasn't able to do that with Ferrari.
F1 is all about change management, it's like real life on fast forward, and these changes will be absorbed very quickly. But for the sport's wider appeal it has to be seen as a real positive.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section belowAre Vettel and Alonso's moves good news for F1?
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