Back in November 2014 the news of Vettel joining Ferrari was made official. For some this was a shock, even when this was the worst kept secret of the last decade. Vettel had been having his worst season ever, and yet Ferrari was willing to give up Alonso. Who, as you all know, is considered as the best driver of this generation. Even by yours truly. But was there more at play, in F1’s Garden of Eden?
The “Vettel-connection” to Ferrari was there for much longer than many of you might think. Luca di Montezemolo, who was the Ferrari president until October 2014, knew Vettel since the latter‘s karting days. And then there was a certain M. Schumacher, someone with good connections at the Italian headquarters, who had also been on Vettel’s side for a long time too. So much that when Ferrari was looking for a new driver for the 2010 season (during 2007-2008), Michael felt Sebastian would be a good fit. Convincing Ferrari that he was a stand up guy, who was extremely fast. Vettel himself was making his own case by showing promise during his Toro Rosso season. Enough that some even wanted him to drive for the Scuderia there and then. Unfortunately for Vettel, the opposition thought he was too young, and the opposition won the case.
Enter Fernando Alonso, a two times world champion and a perfect fit for the Italian team (or so it seemed). Who in the end, let’s not forget, fought for two titles during his 5 year stint. That he lost both times to Vettel (and both times in the last race of that season) only makes the history juicier. A summary of Alonso’s Ferrari career would be that he was runner-up three times.
–Even juicier thought: If Ferrari had taken Vettel, and Alonso had gone to Red Bull (as Horner has just declared had been a possibility.) Alonso might now have 6 crowns… and Vettel? none…-
Small detail perhaps, but in-between all of this Felipe Massa had his accident at the Hungaroring (2009); knocked unconscious when a loose spring, from the rear suspension of Barrichello’s Brawn, struck Massa on the head. Suddenly Ferrari was desperately in need of a driver. And di Montezemolo tried to convince Schumacher to return. Once again Schumacher said they needed the young Vettel. If not now, then certainly in the future. There was contact between Ferrari and Vettel, both times through Stefano Dominicali. But again the ‘nay sayers’ won.
It’s no secret that Vettel had been dreaming of emulating Schumacher since his childhood. Perhaps a good way to approach your career, since Schumi won 7 titles. It would be worse if he had moulded his career on Taki Inoue. -if you’re reading this Taki, I’m sorry, but it’s true.- After being his idol, Schumacher now became much more, Vettel found a mentor.
Back to Alonso.
When he started driving for Ferrari there was a certain “honeymoon” period, where everything seemed to fit. He liked the team and the team liked him. Furthermore, it seemed like he was fighting for the championship right from the beginning, since he took the win in his Ferrari debut race. But honeymoons don’t last forever…
The first major crack in the marriage appeared after Alonso lost the title at Abu Dhabi in 2010. From Alonso’s point of view Ferrari made a strategical error, and from Ferrari’s point of view Alonso let them down because he could not pass Vitaly Petrov. In reality it was a bit of both. Ferrari gambled on Alonso being able to pass Petrov as easily as Mark Webber had done. And Alonso thought Ferrari would consider every option and go for the best one. Who is to blame more? Well, I will leave that to you…
Alonso created an unusual situation that was to prove disastrous.
A driver openly criticizing his team, through radio messages and interviews, creates a barrier between himself and the team, and driving his heart out on Sundays, and getting results deemed impossible by the hands of another, isn’t enough. Maybe it looked like he was the centre of the “Ferrari universe” to the outside world. But in reality he was driving a wedge between himself and the team. Each race a bit more.
Meanwhile Ferrari made him their undisputed No.1 driver (‘Fernando is faster than you, Felipe’, as prime example). Not that they were wrong to do that, he dominated Massa at nearly every occasion. – It is well-known that Ferrari works better with a No. 1 driver. At least, it has been since the Schumacher days. But they also let Fernando be Fernando; emotional, angry, political and quick. A mix that would turn out to be deadly, just not in the way they hoped.
Sadly enough, for Alonso the pairing of Red Bull Racing and Vettel was stronger, no matter how magnificent his driving was and no matter how good his race results were. In the end he (just) lost out to the Milton Keynes boys. Time and time again…
Each season the relationship between driver Alonso and Ferrari worsened. Why else would Vettel (secretly) go to Bologna during the winter of 2012/13, at the height of his Red Bull success, to talk with Luca di Montezemolo? Ferrari was already planing its next move.
“Domenicali brought him to my house” di Montezemolo would later say. “And he brought with him, as a present, some Swiss chocolates. He was very intelligent, very positive, well mannered. He showed a lot of passion for Ferrari. He was just like Michael had told us. And I was convinced he had what we needed as a team. So I told him why won’t you join us? He said Ferrari is my dream, I have a contract but I have options. So I said listen if we can do it, let’s try. That’s when we learned about his performance-clause.”
It is this clause that would play a crucial role in this Shakespearean Tragedy. The clause was an option that would set Vettel free of his existing contract, one year early, if a certain performance wasn’t met, by a certain date.
Vettel confessed to the Italian newspaper ‘La Gazzetta dello Sport’:
“A while ago I told Michael about the possibility offered by Domenicali and he said that if I agreed I would find a nice atmosphere and a great enthusiasm in Maranello.”
Throughout 2013 Stefano Domenicali would meet several times with Vettel, in Switzerland, to discuss a game plan. A plan that came with high risks. First of all, there was no certainty that the conditions of the clause would be met. In 2013 Vettel was cruising to an easy victory, with an all conquering Red Bull. Something that could not happen in 2014, if Vettel wanted to use his clause to get out of his contract without breaking it. Secondly, Ferrari had to try to retain their No.1 driver (Alonso), who became more and more disillusioned with the cars he got from his team. If Ferrari did not succeed in retaining Vettel, it could not afford to lose its ‘big name’ driver.
However, the upside for Ferrari was that only ‘they’ (di Montezemolo and Domenicali), Red Bull and Vettel knew about the clause. And of those only two who knew about the game that was being played out in the wings. So, while keeping Alonso at arm’s length, Alonso, and his manager Flavio Briatore, went in to every negotiation without ever having all the relevant information. Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight.
This is the main reason why Ferrari and Alonso never reached a conclusion, and the talks were ongoing long into the 2014 season. Ferrari did everything in its power to stall the talks as long as possible.
Fortunately for Ferrari and Vettel there came help from an unexpected quarter. During the winter tests it looked like Red Bull was in for a lot of trouble. It was so bad that when we look at the combined mileage from all three winter tests, only two teams performed worse; Marrusia and Lotus. And to make matters even worse, Lotus had only taken part in two out of three test.
This all meant Red Bull went from four and a half, relatively, trouble free years, to one full of (mainly) Renault failures. It was as if Vettel and Ferrari had been praying for such an outcome, and their wish was being granted. Suddenly Vettel’s task of under-performing got a lot easier.
Not to say that Ferrari’s own season went well. Once again the car seemed unable to win, even in the hands of Alonso. He only managed to get two podium places in the whole season! This ongoing under-achievement would trigger new side-effects that would cause a major plot twist.
The downside of being a big brand like Ferrari is that, unlike in the good old days, the people at the top are corporate businessmen not racers. In Ferrari’s case, which was part of the Fiat-Chrysler group, those businessmen were John Elkan and Sergio Marchionne. When one of the lead actors in this drama (Stefano Domenicali) resigned in April ’14, the Fiat bosses installed Marco Mattiacci to take up the vacant seat as managing director and team principal.
Mattiacci was quickly informed of the secret ‘Vettel plan‘ by di Montezemolo, and in turn he also flew to Switzerland a couple of times to meet with Vettel. From here on out everything moved into a higher gear. There was a final meeting between Mattiacci, di Montezemolo and Vettel to sign a pre-agreement. Now, all Vettel had to do was drive under a certain level, in order to earn his ‘get out of jail free card’. Luckily for him the two Mercedes cars seemed invincible. But when they were beaten it was always by Vettel’s new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.
“Seb didn’t enjoy the regulation changes.” Christian Horner would try to explain the situation. “He didn’t enjoy the new engine, the feel from the new system, the power unit, the brake by wire, the lack of downforce. You could tell he wasn’t happy. He was preoccupied and to compound that Daniel won three races. There was that feeling ‘am I enjoying this as much as I thought I was?’”
Horner would add: “It was like someone had taken his toys away. It took him a while to get to grips with that. It was not something he was used to. He went through a period of disillusionment about the direction Formula One was going in. There was a stage last year when he thought about whether he wanted to stop or not, whether he was getting the same level of enjoyment or not and whether or not he wanted to continue. He went back to basics and drove a kart in the middle of the year to get back to the bare essence of why he was a grand prix driver and rediscovered his passion for being a grand prix driver.”
Of course Alonso could not care less about the bad season Vettel was having. After all, his own season was not better. And he could not have anticipated what was going on behind his back, being preoccupied with his own contract negotiations. And not sure whether he wanted to stay or leave the Scuderia. He even got di Montezemolo to grant him a (verbal) performance clause.
In a 2016 interview di Montezemolo would say: “I had the feeling that Fernando had got it into his mind that he could never win with Ferrari, and that if he was in a Mercedes he could win with one hand and this was very demotivating for everyone. Let me be clear: I believe Alonso is probably the best driver in the world even today – certainly on a Sunday. Maybe not in qualifying, where I think Hamilton and Vettel are maybe faster over one lap, but in the race he is unbelievable – a machine. But we needed motivation and it made me think what we needed for the future.”
But then a second bombshell was dropped in Italy. The long time Ferrari employee Luca di Montezemolo would resign come October, as he could no longer cope anymore with the constant critique of Sergio Marchionne. Marchionne had praised di Montezemolo’s success in leading Ferrari to a successful financial position, but criticised the Formula One team’s failure to win a drivers’ or constructors’ title since 2008, saying: “The important thing for Ferrari is not just financial results but also winning – and we have been struggling for six years.”
At that moment di Montezemolo laid out all his cards on the table, and revealed Marchionne the pre-agreement he had with Vettel. As a sort of ‘going away’ present. His second one, if you think about it, since he also gave Alonso a way out too. Once Marchionne learned about what really had been going on behind the scenes it was arranged to have a three way conference call. The three callers? Marchionne, di Montezemolo and Vettel. Right there and then the pre-agreement was made final, and Vettel would be a Ferrari driver.
This created a Sauber-like situation where the Italian team had more drivers than seats. Which is where the aggressive, and perhaps cold, style of Marco Mattiacci would be of service. He might not have had a racing background, but he did know how to run a business. And that was exactly what the Ferrari F1 team was for him; a business. A business he would save, no matter what. So he had made up his mind about Alonso, and that was not in a positive way. He despised the way Alonso worked. The way he poisoned the team from within.
After the Singapore GP Mattiacci arranged a meeting with Alonso to talk about the future. Unaware of the Vettel situation Alonso went into that meeting thinking he had the upper-hand. After all, he was the one that saved Ferrari from looking even worse than they did. The stats don’t lie! He out-qualified Massa 59 to 18 times. 11 victories to none. 42 podiums to eight. Scoring points when both cars reached the finish line: 58 to seven. And of the current season with Räikkönen, up until then Alonso had only been out-qualified twice. As for race results Räikkönen did even worse, by only finishing in front of Alonso once.
In reality the only person able to see the big picture was Mattiacci. And that was what he made clear to Alonso. There was only one boss, and it was not Fernando. He expected more commitment from his driver. But there would not be any pay raise, whatsoever. Mattiacci was tired of his driver demotivating his staff, and using journalists to help him fight his battle, on the outside of Maranello.
Various of said journalist would later say that Alonso had a similar attitude to Mattiacci as Vettel would have some seasons later towards Charlie Whiting. Only this time there wasn’t any ‘beep machine’ around.
But Alonso’s options were slim. He learned that there was no vacant seat at Mercedes, and the only other offer he had was from McLaren. However, Ron Dennis insisted on a multi year deal, something Alonso felt very little for. The only thing left for Alonso was to suck it up for one more year, staying at Ferrari for 2015 and then hoping to use the clause di Montezemolo gave him.
At this point Mattiacci tried to out bluff Alonso by asking Alonso to extend his current contract beyond 2016. To which Alonso responded that he would agree if he got better conditions than his current contract held. He wanted his exit clause in writing. The same as the one Vettel had. The one Alonso knew nothing about. He wanted to be able to cut the ties with Ferrari if he was below third place in the championship after a certain cut-off date. He wanted a veto over the choice of his team mate. And he wanted an option to choose technical staff.
When Mattiacci declined Alonso’s new terms, the latter got angry. To which the Italian said that if Alonso did not wish to extend his contract, or even continue on his current one, Ferrari would be happy to honour the earlier, verbal agreement between him and di Montezemolo. In an act of ultimate bluff Alonso’s manager Briatore told Fernando to sign an agreement for his release, hoping that it would knock the wind out of Mattiacci’s sails. Not knowing that that was exactly what Mattiacci needed. They made Mattiacci an offer he couldn’t refuse… but Mattiacci refused anyway! With Briatore pushing from behind Alonso jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
Then came the 2014 Japanese GP. Where the final act would be played out.
On that Friday evening Vettel asked Christian Horner and Helmut Marko to join him in his hotel room. There he informed them that he would like to use his performance clause, to leave Red Bull one year early. Something, Marko would later admit, that was unstoppable. The next day Red Bull Racing issued a fatuous press statement, declaring their four-time world champion would leave Red Bull at the end of the year, in order to join Ferrari. Later Horner would say that they suspected something like this was coming for some time, and that they had a contingency plan in place.
When Alonso heard this news he knew he had been hustled. This Bergman-like game of chess, played by Vettel and Ferrari against Alonso had ended in check-mate.
And there was only one loser…
A one-time king, reduced to a pawn.