ABU DHABI – When the 2013 Formula 1 season came to a rainy end in the November of last year, it was seen as the end of an era. Gone were the V8 engines and technical regulations that had existed in F1 since 2005, with 2014 marking a new dawn for the sport.
And yet one year later, we are saying the same thing. This Sunday’s race will mark the end of an era for Formula 1, for we are about to see one of the greatest shake-ups to the driver market since the days of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the early 1990s. With a number of other movements behind-the-scenes in terms of personnel and engine suppliers also taking place, the landscape of Formula 1 is set to change for 2015.
If last year marked the end of the era for the technical side of F1, we are about to embark on the sporting revolution. The winds of change are blowing through the sport right now.
Today saw two of the biggest rumors – perhaps even open secrets – in the sport finally become fact. Sebastian Vettel has been confirmed as a Ferrari driver for the 2015 season, following in the footsteps of Michael Schumacher and making the move across after huge success with his second team. As a result, Fernando Alonso has confirmed that he will be leaving Maranello at the end of the year. To quote him: “as of Monday, I am a supporter of Ferrari”, most probably ‘cheering’ (or not) from the seat of a McLaren car in 2015.
Let’s start with Vettel. The similarities to Michael Schumacher are clear for everyone to see: a young, German star that comes in and shakes up the sport by winning, but then turns his back on the team that gave him the success by joining an ailing Ferrari with a long-term plan to return to the top. This was a big factor in Vettel’s decision to leave Red Bull, the team that has, in many ways, made him the man he is today.
Vettel’s association with the Red Bull brand began in 1999, when he was just 12 years old and racing go-karts. By the time he was 19, he had already taken part in a race weekend, and was a grand prix winner at the age of 21 when he claimed a shock victory for Toro Rosso at Monza. It was a titanic result that firmly announced his arrival on the world stage. A move to Red Bull soon followed, with four championship wins between 2010 and 2013 establishing Sebastian as an all-time great in the sport.
So perhaps that is the driving force behind Vettel’s decision to quit Red Bull: he has done all he can and proven all he can with the team. Driving for Ferrari is often seen as the pinnacle for drivers in F1, something all of the greats must do at one point. Schumacher did it, Prost did it, Lauda did it, and even Senna probably would have done it if he had the chance.
Vettel now has a chance to firmly put himself up in the same realm as these drivers. If he can lead Ferrari back to the very top of Formula 1 and lay down a Schumacher-esque record, few could dispute his status as a great.
However, he enters Ferrari with the same kind of kick in his tail as Alonso did back in 2010. Much like this announcement, it wasn’t much of a surprise when his departure from Renault was confirmed, and Alonso was predicted to be the team’s savior after a disastrous 2009 campaign.
It so nearly came good at the first attempt, with the Spaniard losing the championship at the final race of the year to – of all people – Vettel. The same thing happened in 2012 in a year that saw Alonso battle with the troublesome F2012 car and win three races, only to fall three points short at the final race in Brazil.
Since then, a state of stagnation set in at Ferrari. Now without a win in eighteen months and showing few signs of a breakthrough any time soon, big changes were needed. Gone is Alonso, gone is former team principal Stefano Domenicali, and – perhaps most importantly – gone is marque president Luca di Montezemolo. The Ferrari at the end of the 2014 F1 season is very different to the one that started in Australia in March.
Alonso is widely expected to move back to McLaren for 2015, having spent one turbulent year back at Woking in 2007. The arrival of Honda engines is expected to reinvigorate the team and give it a fighting chance of winning the championship once again, having gone over two years without a win.
It may seem strange that both Vettel and Alonso are taking steps down in terms of the F1 pecking order, but both are hoping that they can be the final piece in jigsaws at their new teams in a bid to become world champion once again. This weekend’s race in Abu Dhabi will be an emotional one for both drivers, but a brighter future may be on the horizon.
One man whose future is foggy at best is Jenson Button. The 2009 world champion will finish the season without knowing whether he will remain in Formula 1 next year, meaning that it could prove to be the final race in an extraordinary career that has taken him from the front of the grid to the rear, and then back again, enjoying dizzying heights with Brawn just months after plummeting with Honda.
And it would be a shame for his career in F1 to end without a proper send off. Button is one of the most respected individuals in the sport, and he deserves better than to be left in dark. If he were to retire from Formula 1, it would only be to the sport’s detriment. The third-longest career in the history of the sport would come to an end, and so would another era. The only drivers left from the early 2000s would be Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa – it’s enough to make you feel old.
Besides the drivers though, a big era is ending for McLaren. Just as Ferrari has been overhauled in the past few months, so has McLaren, with the process starting far earlier. The removal of Martin Whitmarsh as team principal after a disappointing 2013 campaign set the tone for the rest of the year, with Ron Dennis’ return to the top of the team making one thing abundantly clear: failure cannot be tolerated any longer.
2015 is meant to be the year for McLaren, not least because of the arrival of Honda. The Japanese manufacturer returns to F1 after six years away, exclusively powering McLaren for the first year at least. Despite reportedly being behind schedule, the first Honda engine was available for a filming day at Silverstone last week, and the interim car will run again in Abu Dhabi at the end-of-season test.
However, this move does mark the end of a long-term partnership with Mercedes that started way back in 1995, and brought great success to Woking. Drivers’ championships were won in 1998 and 1999 with Mika Hakkinen before Lewis Hamilton’s victory in 2008, and until the arrival of the works Mercedes team in 2010, McLaren was the main focus for the Silver Arrows. Yet again, another long era is ending in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
Stretching back just as long is Renault’s partnership with Team Enstone, now known as Lotus. The Enstone base has run under a variety of different names since first putting a Renault engine in the car in 1995, but was then known as Benetton and had Michael Schumacher behind the wheel of the car, powering to his second world title ahead of his move to Ferrari. Two titles followed for Fernando Alonso in 2005 and 2006 when the team was a Renault works outfit, but as Lotus, it is now set to switch to Mercedes power for 2015.
All of this is enough to make one rather nostalgic. We are being treated to a superb title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg that will be settled once and for all under the lights on Sunday, and it is a race that should go down in the history books as a great title decider.
However, be sure to recognize the wider impact of this race. Just as this year’s Australian Grand Prix marked the start of a new era for Formula 1, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix sees several come to an end.