MAR­RIAGE OF IN­CON­VE­NIENCE

F1 Racing - - THE FEATURES - WORDS ANDREW BENSON

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 benets 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 benet is not as signicant.

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 benet 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, specically 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 aficted 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, condent 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 ramications of those talks have been signicant. 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 out­qualied 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

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