Thursday, 18 October 2012

Mover and shaker? Thoughts on the Sebastian Vettel to Ferrari rumour

It's almost like all of F1's juicy driver stories over recent times had been saved up somewhere private far from our view, with us all being oblivious of the fact. And now its container has got over-full, suddenly exploding the stories in every direction. For years it seemed not much was doing in the driver market. No one was moving, not among the front teams anyway, and there didn't even seem much prospect of it. But now we're being spoiled. No sooner had Lewis Hamilton dropped a bombshell by confirming that he will indeed be leaving McLaren for Mercedes for next year, with the reverberations still being felt the BBC reminded us earlier this week that, according to sources, Sebastian Vettel has a deal in place to join Ferrari for 2014.

Sebastian Vettel - looking to the future?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
It’s a rumour that’s been about for a while, since around the time of the Monaco race this year indeed, so it's not clear what new was in the BBC's report (perhaps its success over calling Lewis to Mercedes went to its head a little). No sooner had BBC reported this than Ferrari President Luca Montezemolo was pouring cold water on the idea, but also without completely ruling it out. And apparently the story comes from ‘well-informed sources’ close to the Scuderia.

On the face of it though, Vettel to Ferrari doesn't make a great deal of sense. For one thing, Red Bull has been the sport's technical standard bearers consistently over recent times, being ahead of the pack for much of the previous four years, much more so than Ferrari. So, competitiveness-wise it would appear a risk to give that up for Ferrari, whatever the usual lure of the Scuderia. And if that wasn't enough Seb would all the while experience a very public comparison with the mighty Fernando Alonso, and on his home turf.

Further, outwardly at least, one cannot sense any obvious reason for Seb on a personal level to leave the Milton Keynes outfit. Sebastian Vettel appears the perfect final link in the Red Bull chain, a driver who somehow seems an ideal fit in the collective he's part of, possibly more so even than Alonso is at Ferrari. And in any case Red Bull is convinced it has Seb under (performance-related) lock and key for 2014 anyway. Seb himself is being rather quiet on the subject.

My instinct however is that, given the persistence of this rumour, the alleged seniority of its source plus that Felipe Massa has been signed for an additional year only in what, with all due respect to Felipe, has a strong whiff of a year's stop-gap move, there is something behind all of this. Plus it all has a rather 'crazy enough to be true' quality - like Lewis to Mercedes the concept doesn't have the characteristics of something invented out of thin air.

But my instinct is also that the something in question is much more likely to be some kind of option for 2014, and one that Seb can wriggle out of if necessary, rather than a firm contract. Indeed, James Allen's sources close to Ferrari say this, and indeed even say that the agreement's not necessarily for 2014 either.

In many ways establishing this sort of agreement would make sense for Seb. For one thing, it would increase Seb’s ability to extract money from Red Bull in future contract negotiations. Also, new engine regulations are on the way in for 2014, but Bernie Ecclestone (for various reasons) is trying to block the change, and if he does succeed in blocking them then it’s thought that Renault could well pull out of the sport, thus leaving Red Bull scratching around for an engine supplier. If Seb is anything he is very smart, so as a smart cookie he could well be hedging his bets on this. In any case, assuming that Seb's side has worded whatever the agreement is with sufficient care so not to commit him to Ferrari against his will then it's difficult to see what he has to lose by all of this.

And thinking more broadly about what Seb's motivations might be, perhaps Seb is experiencing something akin to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In other words, now that he's won everything there is to win in F1 he's beginning to think about loftier matters: such as legacy, self-actualisation etc etc. Even though Seb's records are stellar, there are plenty who persist in placing a 'yeah but he did it in a dominant car' asterisk next to it all (as Jackie Stewart did recently). Is he therefore keen to 'flee the nest' from Red Bull and prove himself elsewhere? And if so where better to do it but alongside the driver who is by common consensus the best in the sport right now, and on his own patch? Remember that Seb, more than many F1 drivers, seems to be particularly minded of legacy. Many consider the potential move to be career suicide, but many thought the same when Ayrton Senna joined McLaren to partner Alain Prost (and indeed when Jenson Button joined the Woking team to partner Lewis Hamilton). And while I absolutely do not under-estimate Fernando Alonso, I also suspect that Seb in comparison with him as his team mate would get much closer to him than many think.

How would Vettel and Alonso co-exist in the same team?
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
To be honest though, I’m struggling to believe that the Seb to Ferrari switch will happen in the end, mainly because of what Montezemolo calls ‘two roosters in the same hen-house’; it's fairly likely that Alonso and Vettel would not co-exist very peaceably. Would Ferrari want the strife which seems an inevitable by-product of such a driver pairing? Would they also risk defying the wishes of its star player Fernando Alonso, and potentially those of sponsor Santander, and with it disrupt the careful 'plan' for Ferrari-Santander-Alonso supremacy? Ferrari in any case historically have invariably reacted better to building a team around a 'number one' driver (see Schumacher, Lauda, Ascari, and now Alonso) rather than having two drivers squaring off. And as we saw in 2007 Alonso doesn't always react well to intra-team warfare.

Of course, in recent years past both Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen found out that the Scuderia is not afraid to make its own arrangements when it comes to making sure it'll be in a strong position in its drivers' line up in future years, regardless of the current lead driver's wishes, but this scenario is different. Alonso is under contract to 2016 and committed to a long term spell with the team (which Schumacher wasn't) and the team is happy with him (and it wasn't with Raikkonen). Nevertheless, part of this rumour is that Alonso has given his blessing to Seb joining him.

And if it does happen, what does it mean for Seb's current employers? Somehow, it's very hard to imagine Red Bull without Seb, him seeming a fixture there rather akin to Jim Clark at Lotus. And the stakes of Seb leaving may be high to Red Bull. Without wishing to be pejorative, while you'd likely bet everything you own on McLaren or Ferrari being in the sport in 15 years' time in the case of Red Bull most of us wouldn't be nearly as sure. After all, Red Bull does not go racing as its raison d'être, it goes racing as part of a global company's marketing activities. And the experience of Benetton after Michael Schumacher departed, another team owned by a company as part of its marketing who traumatically lost its linchpin driving talent who'd delivered unprecedented success, may be worrying. The team splintered and went into decline, the parent company apparently losing interest, before departing the sport altogether. Is there a risk of Red Bull post-Vettel experiencing similar? It's not beyond possibility, and as things stand the other drivers in F1 of similar quality to Seb, who may have plugged the gap nicely, seem now committed elsewhere for the foreseeable future. And there are currently no obvious new Sebs on the Red Bull young driver conveyor belt. If nothing else, the Red Bull team's transition to life beyond its talisman would need to be handled carefully. But as long as it has Adrian Newey on its pay roll you'd think it has a reasonable chance.

But all this threatens getting too far ahead of ourselves. Will Vettel to Ferrari happen? Ultimately, my instinct as mentioned is probably not. But certainly I would not dismiss this idea. And also just remember that everyone was similarly disbelieving when the Lewis to Mercedes rumour was first reported. In F1, never say never.

5 comments:

  1. I'm struggling to find anything new here, these views are shared by many. I know it's intended to be a balanced piece but it's very on the fence.

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  2. I only recently discovered your blog.. it's fascinating, thanks muchly!

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    1. Thanks very much - very glad you like the blog :)

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  3. Vettel to Ferrari in 2014.
    How's this for a motive:Get him out of Red Bull and neutralize the threat.
    The Red Bull-Vettel thingy is turning into a dynasty of sorts,provided he wins it again this year.
    So perhaps Ferrari may very well feel that their best chance of winning is buying off their nemesis.
    As far as Vettel is concerned, sure, his legacy will most certainly be a deciding factor to his decision to leave Red Bull, and so will Ferrari's name.
    He's already said so, he wants to race for them.
    However you shouldn't forget the requirement to accept a definite #2 role next to Alonso.
    It's kinda hard to build a legacy when you've signed you will accept second place isn't it?

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    1. Thanks very much for your comments. Yes, I don't doubt that it's not escaped Ferrari that were they to sign Vettel as well as strengthening themselves they would be weakening a rival. I don't think it would be their main reason for chasing Vettel, but it would have been a factor at some level.

      I'd find it astonishing if Vettel signed as number 2 to Alonso, either explicitly or implicitly. There's no way Vettel would accept that role, and in any case I think generally that the talk in F1 these days of 'number 1/number 2' is over-stated. The days of resolute number 1/number 2 contracts, and of there being big technical differences between the car given to a number 1 driver and number 2 driver, are very much in the past. Indeed, I'd be surprised if even the contract signed recently by Felipe Massa made any reference to him being number 2.

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