Fernando Alonso was the man with the key to the 2015 driver market. For over a year, speculation about his future and a possible return to McLaren had been rife, but always something of a joke to the Spaniard. He continually batted away rumors in press sessions, laughing off talk of him leaving Ferrari.
He won’t be laughing now though. In a shock announcement, Sebastian Vettel confirmed today that he will be leaving Red Bull at the end of the season after six years at Milton Keynes. He seems to be bound for Ferrari, replacing Alonso, with Red Bull team boss Christian Horner going on record to say: “He’ll be a Ferrari driver, absolutely”.
Seb has stolen Fernando’s thunder, and the Spaniard’s position is far weaker than it was when he and Ferrari reportedly mutually terminated their contract on Thursday.
Alonso has been caught out by the speed at which this has all happened. After the meeting on Thursday, he looked to have the entire F1 grid bar Mercedes to choose from, with McLaren being the most obvious option. Honda will return to the sport in 2015 as McLaren’s power unit supplier, and was willing to pay whatever it took to get Alonso on board – even if it meant writing off his Ferrari contract as well as putting a huge salary on the table.
We all thought that it was a case of McLaren luring Alonso away from Maranello. Now, he appears to have nowhere else to go – and it’s all Sebastian Vettel’s fault.
This is a story that has caught like wildfire over the past few days. On Thursday, Alonso and Ferrari agreed to part company, albeit lacking an official announcement. Vettel reportedly agreed a new merchandise deal with Red Bull on the same day, only to then inform the team in a meeting on Friday night that he wants to exercise the get-out clause in his contract.
Vettel’s lack of success in 2014 has been the trigger for his departure. His deal stated that if he ranked outside the top three in the drivers’ championship on September 30th, he was free to leave.
According to reports, Vettel broke down in tears when he met Christian Horner on Friday night to inform him of his decision. However, Red Bull did not waste any time – the team had a plan in place, as proven by the decision to reveal Vettel’s move just hours after finding out itself, and confirming that Daniil Kvyat will be his replacement for 2015.
The theory before was that if Vettel were to move to Ferrari, Alonso would move in the opposite direction to Red Bull. By promoting Kvyat, this door was shut swiftly.
Fernando himself reckons it was never a viable option: “Red Bull was never a priority, so it’s not a big worry at the moment. As I said, I know what I want to do, and hopefully I will tell you soon.”
It may have never been a priority, but did give him some bargaining power with McLaren. The possibility of him going elsewhere existed: now, it does not. McLaren won’t be afraid of him bluffing about a move to Lotus or, as Felipe Massa joked, Caterham or Marusssia.
In reality, it’s unlikely Honda will change its stance. Alonso will still get a deal thought to near the $50m per year mark – astronomical figures are being banded about, such is his stock. However, the ink is not yet dry on any deal according to the team’s CEO Ron Dennis, meaning that nothing is certain by any means.
At Ferrari, Alonso has gone from hero to outsider in a matter of weeks. Many argued that he wielded too much power at Maranello, but now he has nothing. Marco Mattiacci and Sergio Marchionne are ready to bring in a new era, with Vettel leading the team’s charge. Even Kimi Raikkonen, who has been subject to so much criticism this season, is looking strong once again.
Alonso may claim that he has a wealth of options, but in reality, there are two: McLaren or a sabbatical. And the latter is one he will want to avoid, given that the whole reason for leaving Ferrari is so that he can win a third world title.
What a day for Formula 1. The sport has not been rocked by a driver announcement like this since Michael Schumacher’s move from Benetton to Ferrari back in 1996.
And we all know how that went.