MARRIAGE OF INCONVENIENCE
Eight years after his second title, Fernando Alonso must wonder if he’ll ever win a third. We examine what went wrong
between Alonso and Ferrari and ask: are they stuck with one another?
Late in the summer of 2007, Fernando Alonso had a big decision to make. Although only partway through the rst season of a three-year contract with McLaren, his relationship with the team was already in tatters as a result of fall-out from the ‘Spygate’ scandal. When it all came to a head at a cataclysmic Hungarian Grand Prix, it was clear he needed to nd another team for 2008. He had two offers on the table.
Should he return to Renault, the team he’d left for McLaren, where he had won two world titles, and knew what to expect? Or should he move to Red Bull – young, rich and ambitious, but at that stage still 18 months away from their rst win?
Renault were offering him a one-year deal; Red Bull were insisting on two. It would be worth it, they said. The rules were changing in 2009, and Adrian Newey already had a few ideas up his sleeve about the best way to approach them. But Alonso was determined to sign for one year only. A Ferrari drive at some point in the future was a given – and Ferrari’s record over the previous eight years had been much more impressive than Newey’s before he left McLaren for Red Bull.
Alonso wanted exibility, and Red Bull would not give it to him. Having reached an impasse, he went back to Renault and the Ferrari seat duly opened up at the end of 2009.
But how different would the historic landscape of F1 look now had Alonso plumped for Red Bull? Even as team-mate to Sebastian Vettel, as must be considered likely, Alonso might already be at least a four-time world champion, whatever your view of their relative abilities. With Alonso’s
experience, he would almost certainly not have made the mistakes that stopped Vettel beating Jenson Button to the title in 2009. And he could well have beaten him again in 2010, when more errors from Vettel so very nearly handed the title to Alonso in his rst Ferrari season.
But having opted for the Renault-Ferrari route, Alonso ought to be a four-time champion by now anyway, and Vettel merely a double winner. Only two twists of fate stood in the way of it – a catastrophic Ferrari strategy error in Abu Dhabi in 2010, and Romain Grosjean’s ying Lotus at the start of the 2012 Belgian GP. With Alonso’s fth season at Ferrari now well under way, the third title he craves looks as elusive as ever. Who would have predicted at the end of 2006 that the new yardstick in F1, an intense and brilliant two-time champion – the youngest ever – would still be searching for his third title eight years on? Even fewer would have thought at that stage that Alonso might never win another. And yet, as Ferrari continue to lag behind F1’s pacesetters, that now looks all too possible.
With new rules, new engines, and reduced aerodynamics, this was supposed to be the year Ferrari got it right. So it’s ironic that after years of Ferrari president Luca Di Montezemolo demanding F1 be less focused on aerodynamics and more relevant to the road cars his company makes, with engines and mechanicals more important, the new formula is exactly that – yet Ferrari are as far away as ever in the Alonso era.
What’s even more ironic is that it is their engine that is causing them the most trouble. The Ferrari F14 T– as much as it can be separated from its motive power – is the most competitive chassis to come out of Maranello for some time. The GPS overlays now available to all the teams suggest it is one of the fastest cars in the eld through the corners: only the Red Bull and the Mercedes are better, and only by small margins.
Had Ferrari done as good a job with the engine as Mercedes, Alonso would likely be up there battling with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, instead of hanging on by his ngernails trying to fend off the straightline speed of Force India, Williams and McLaren.
It doesn’t stop there. Mercedes’ superiority stems from a unique innovation in the engine, separating the compressor from the turbine, which has a number of benets to do with
engine and electric power, packaging and chassis dynamics, that add up to the one-second advantage they have over Red Bull and Ferrari.
But Ferrari also had this idea – their compressor is similarly separated from their turbine. But instead of the two being either end of the cylinder head, with the compressor up front, Ferrari have moved theirs only a third of the way along. So the benet is not as signicant.
This accounted for two of the three failings of the F14 T in the early stages of the season. The engine does not produce as much power per unit of fuel as the Mercedes and lacks top-end grunt because the motor-generator unit attached to the turbo cannot produce enough energy to keep the supply going to the end of the straights. That’s partly because more of its power is needed to spool up the turbo to operating speeds before the driver gets on the throttle. Meanwhile, a benet of the Mercedes design is less inherent lag, so more electrical power is free to drive the wheels.
On top of this, the power delivery of the engine out of corners is far from ideal, creating a drivability problem that exacerbates the car’s lack of traction. This last niggle will be familiar to seasoned Ferrari watchers and to Alonso himself – poor traction has been a bugbear for some years now and Ferrari seem unable to address it.
That is one example of what seems to be a historic weakness in Ferrari’s chassis design department. There have been mitigating circumstances though, specically problems with their windtunnel, which was producing data that did not correlate with the car’s behaviour on track. This is an issue for all F1 teams to one degree or another, but Ferrari seem to have been particularly badly aficted in recent years.
Ferrari went to the lengths of closing their windtunnel last year to x the problem. That work is now complete and Ferrari are pleased with the results, condent that the windtunnel is now doing what it is supposed to do – although its impact on the design of the 2014 car will have been minimal. That the F14 T seems to be not far off a Red Bull as far as cornering performances is concerned, is something of a triumph, and further reason to be optimistic for the future.
James Allison, who joined Ferrari as technical director in September 2013 after leaving Lotus that May, has necessarily had limited input into the design of this year’s car. He is not Adrian Newey, but is probably the next most highly rated aerodynamically trained technical leader in the sport – and he has been given pretty much carte blanche to change the team as he wishes.
Allison worked under Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne in the early 2000s, before returning to the UK to join Renault, where he was deputy technical director on the cars with which Alonso won his two titles. He has insisted publicly that there is no reason Ferrari cannot return to the sort of dominance they enjoyed during his previous spell at the team. Privately, he says the same thing – but with the caveat that it will not happen overnight. He believes he will need a season or two to turn things around to get them the way he wants.
The problem for Alonso is that time is not on his side. At 32, he is at his absolute peak as a driver, but he will be 33 in July and probably has only another couple of years before the effects of age begin to creep in. Even so, Alain Prost did not win his fourth title until he was 38. Nigel Mansell was 39 before he won his rst. But Alonso has already been in F1 for 13 years and does not want to wait that long for another title, even if he could keep up his fabled motivation and consistency.
The third championship is extremely important to him. He admitted only last November that he would be “sad” to leave F1
with only two titles. He wants more titles, and his frustration at not getting them has started to show.
It is now well known that last summer he had serious conversations with Red Bull about joining them for 2014 – only to be rejected in favour of Daniel Ricciardo. The ramications of those talks have been signicant. Fearing they could lose Alonso was one of the reasons the then team principal Stefano Domenicali insisted Ferrari signed Kimi Räikkönen last summer – they could not afford not to have a world champion in the team.
But they did not lose Alonso, and bringing in the Finn did not go down well with the incumbent, who did not trouble to deny that he would have preferred Felipe Massa to stay on.
At that time, Räikkönen joining Ferrari was perceived to be a threat to Alonso’s position as the main man at Maranello. But in the early stages of the season it did not work out that way. Räikkönen was not comfortable in the car, and Alonso effortlessly outqualied and outraced him in both Australia and Malaysia. Räikkönen was ahead of him on the grid in Bahrain, after Alonso’s engine lost power through qualifying, but Alonso passed him at the rst corner, despite starting four places behind. By lap 40 of the race, one lap before the Safety Car came out, Alonso was 18 seconds ahead of his team-mate. In China, the gap turned into a chasm; Alonso nished third, a troubled Räikkönen eighth – more than 50 seconds adrift.
The relative performance of the two men may change as Räikkönen becomes more at ease with the car and it will probably uctuate from track to track. But so far it seems as if Alonso will hold on to his position as Ferrari’s number one, through the sheer force of his on-track performance.
Off the track, it may be another matter. The events of last summer harmed the relationship between Alonso and Ferrari. One seasoned Ferrari watcher, with contacts at the very top of the company, likens their relationship now to that of “a couple whose marriage is on the rocks but are forced to live in the same house”.
Alonso admits Ferrari’s competitive position is “not good” but says they can close the gap to Mercedes in time for him to mount a title challenge.“It is not possible to catch them in this rst part of the championship,” he says, “but there is a long way to go. We saw Brawn dominating the rst six or seven races in
James Allison believes Ferrari can return to dominance – but says he will need a season or two to turn things around
2009 then they struggled a bit at the end of the year. We have the resources, we have the potential.”
Already, the paddock is bubbling with gossip about where Alonso will go if Ferrari cannot make progress. Three races in, their progress was already considered bad enough for Domenicali to resign. Alonso is contracted until 2016, but no company can force an employee to work for them if he does not want to, no matter how valuable he is. And with a salary of a reputed £23million – more even than Lewis Hamilton’s £19.7m Mercedes retainer – Alonso is certainly that.
And where would he go? Red Bull have already said no. McLaren were courting him last year, but that was when Martin Whitmarsh was in charge. Now, even if Alonso could be convinced McLaren’s chassis department was a better bet than Ferrari’s (and it doesn’t look it), sources say Ron Dennis won’t have him back. As for Mercedes, why break up Hamilton and Rosberg – a marketing dream, manageable off track and effective on it – to recreate the combustible mix of Hamilton and Alonso?
“Ferrari are doing 100 per cent,” says Alonso. “We will work day and night to improve because no one is happy. We are united.”
Whether out of necessity or desire, in reality, Ferrari are Alonso’s best bet and he theirs. Together, they have to make it work.
The F14 T has been unable to match the pace of Mercedes-engined cars, such as the W05 (above left) and the Force India (above right) as a result of an
opportunity being missed when separating the compressor from the turbine in the Ferrari engine
Poor traction and a malfunctioning windtunnel mean the Ferrari F14 T is not quite the car it could have been