Looking for a winning line

Sebastian Vettel heads to Ferrari while Fernando Alonso steps out, with common goals in mind

Looking for a winning line

Although it was not announced until the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, the Ferrari team’s change of drivers for 2015 had been expected since Red Bull said in early October that Sebastian Vettel, its four-time world champion driver, would be leaving the team at the end of the season.

Behind the scenes, in fact, things had been in crisis mode, as Fernando Alonso, the two-time world champion driver for the Italian team, was in discussions to end his contract two years ahead of its expiration. And Ferrari needed time to find a new driver of the same calibre as the Spaniard, who is considered by many to be the best driver in the series.

The change is nonetheless an acknowledgement of five seasons of spoiled promise for Ferrari and Alonso, who was at the peak of his skills during those years but failed to win a title. In the same period, Red Bull and Vettel rose to dominate Formula One, with the German winning the title in four of them and Alonso finishing second in three.
So now Alonso has decided to move on.

“It’s a new chapter in my career, and I felt it was a time to find new projects, new motivation, and it was not an easy decision to make,” he said. “I was in talks last year already, and we had the new cars, and I felt around the summertime it was time to move.”

“I learned so many things from those years, and I am not the same driver I was in 2009,” he added. “I am better now, and better in all the aspects of driving skills.”

Few would dispute that Alonso was a better driver than the car he has had since 2010 at Ferrari. He won the world title twice at the Renault team, in 2005 and 2006, and then, after a tumultuous season at McLaren in 2007, switched to the most celebrated team of the series, as Michael Schumacher had done after winning two titles at Benetton in the 1990s and then following up with five titles at Ferrari in the 2000s.

But Alonso’s timing was off: It was precisely those years of domination by Ferrari and Schumacher, from 2000 to 2004, that had set the stage for an inevitable decline.
The dream team put together by Jean Todt, the team’s sporting director at the time — the designer Rory Byrne, the technical director, Ross Brawn, and many other leading engineers — fell apart slowly after Schumacher left the team in 2006.

The momentum continued with a somewhat lucky drivers’ title won by a single point by Kimi Raikkonen in the last race of 2007. But it then dissolved, particularly when the Vettel-Red Bull powerhouse began its domination.

The 2014 season was the last straw for both the team and Alonso. Ferrari failed to meet the new hybrid engine specifications with a design as good as the Mercedes version. And with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg driving, the German team went on to dominate the season, winning both the constructors’ and drivers’ titles.

Vettel, who had been nurtured by Red Bull since he was 12 years old, decided to move to Ferrari much as Alonso had done. Red Bull finished its four-season domination of the series last year, winning all of the drivers’ and constructors’ titles since 2010, but, with its new Renault hybrid engine, it was incapable of beating Mercedes this year.

“It was a very difficult decision to make because it was not against the team, or against Red Bull, but for my future,” Vettel said. “Those decisions are not easy to make, but you have to listen to yourself and listen to your heart and go with that.”

There is another subtext to Vettel’s move to Ferrari: the story of Schumacher, Vettel’s compatriot and boyhood hero.

“It’s a childhood dream,” Vettel said. “When I was growing up myself — but also for a lot of kids at the go-kart track in Germany — Michael was our hero. He moved to Ferrari, took on a massive challenge back then in '96, and got very close the years before but made it happen in 2000.”

“When you think back, it’s always Michael in the red cars,” he added, “so I think it will be a very special journey and I’m very much looking forward to it.”

Whether he will be able to succeed will of course depend on how much Ferrari is prepared to invest in rejuvenating the team. But it also depends on whether Vettel will show Schumacher’s character in helping the team grow: Schumacher was patient and uncomplaining, acting as a federating force for the team. Still only 27, Vettel has plenty of time to attempt to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps.

Alonso, meanwhile, is 33 and is likely to return to the McLaren team, which is starting a new era next season with Honda’s return to Formula One as an engine provider. Honda is likely to either succeed immediately against Mercedes, or join the ranks of the vanquished.

Brad Spurgeon
New York Times News Service

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