Given the dominance of Mercedes AMG and the comparative struggles of the teams we would normally expect to be their closest rivals, it is perhaps unsurprising that as we reach the mid-point of the season we should start to see reports of driver dissatisfaction and teams actively courting some of the biggest names in Formula 1.
Mercedes are sorted. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg love the team and the team loves them. Both have long term deals. They’re not going anywhere. But what of their rivals?
The big story today is McLaren’s alleged interest in a pair of drivers with six world championships between them. Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel would create a monstrously strong pairing for the Woking team, but is there any chance that such a swoop might actually occur?
The timing of talk that contact has been made between McLaren and Vettel fits both agendas. For McLaren, or indeed for any team, to have made an approach at this specific moment is a no-brainer. Sebastian has just endured his third retirement of the season. The Renault Power Unit is underpowered and unreliable. The RB10 does not suit his driving style. He is being dominated by his new team-mate. The team has told him to up his game. Adrian Newey, the architect of Red Bull’s success, has been confirmed to be stepping back from F1.
It was in a moment of such uncertainty and disappointment, at Singapore in 2012, that Mercedes and Niki Lauda swooped in and convinced Lewis Hamilton to leave McLaren and move to Brackley. The smart F1 team boss will be trying to convince Vettel to do precisely the same thing right now.
Of course, for Vettel, such leaked stories don’t hurt either. It shows Red Bull that other people are after him and might well illicit a “buck your ideas up” to the team if they wish to hold onto his services.
Vettel has a contract with Red Bull until the end of 2015. At the time of his last extension it was described by Christian Horner as “a formality more than anything else.” Such a formality no longer exists. Vettel’s future is no longer a guarantee at the team that has brought him 38 Grand Prix wins and four World Championships. Whether at the end of 2015, or sooner should somebody stump up the cash to pay him out of the year remaining on his deal, there is a chance that Sebastian Vettel could move. And McLaren, with its Honda tie up next season, just as the magic of Ferrari, will surely be an attractive prospect.
The Alonso question is more complicated.
For years, the Spaniard has been vocal in his belief that he would spend the rest of his days racing for Ferrari. But recently the focus has shifted.
Back in 2011, Alonso extended his contract with Ferrari until the end of 2016. At the time, there seemed no reason not to believe that the momentum would carry him to a title he had narrowly missed out on in his first season with Ferrari in 2010. But in his four and a half years at the squad he has taken just 11 victories and this season just one podium. Questions have long been asked of his will to stay put.
At the start of last season, he was questioned if he would see out his deal.
“Yes, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s the best team in the world, there’s nothing above Ferrari.”
With the new regulations for 2014 expected to see Ferrari back to their highest levels of competitiveness, by September last year the Spaniard was even talking about extending his time at the team.
“I still have three and a half more years with Ferrari that I intend to respect and hopefully to increase a little bit.
“I want to finish my career in the best team in the world, which is Ferrari. At the moment we are not achieving the results that we want but we are working very hard. Next year we will have completely new rules that will open the door to many teams to stop the domination of Red Bull seems to have. We have high hopes for next year’s challenge.”
Those high hopes have been unfulfilled.
The car is not competitive. The Power Unit is not competitive. And the team itself is in turmoil as Luca di Montezemolo has, to all intents and purposes, taken back over at the top. Gone is Stefano Domenicali, replaced by Marco Mattiacci whom many in the paddock feel is little more than a front man for the big boss.
For the first time, Alonso’s vision of the future is not of Formula 1, but elsewhere. His talk is not of finishing Formula 1 with Ferrari, but of where he finishes his career. And, having seen colleagues and compatriots Marc Gene and Pedro de la Rosa and now his good friend Mark Webber move to endurance racing, it is Le Mans that seems to have piqued his interest.
“I will [race at Le Mans], that’s 100%,” he told me in Austria. “I need to wait until I finish Formula 1 probably because it requires some tests, some training, some dedication.
“I’m a person that if I do something, I do 100%, I don’t do 50-50, so first I will try to do some more years in Formula 1, try to win championships, try to help Ferrari, and then one day, of course, I cannot be seated at home in the sofa, so endurance is a category that you can race when you’re a bit older with not big problems, and that will be my intention.”
He also admitted that such a move could even be with Ferrari.
“Maybe, to be honest, with President Montezemolo, we talk about it many times about this matter because he is very enthusiastic about the Le Mans race. He enjoyed a lot the win of the 458 with Fisichella, with Bruni this year.
“I know that there is some thinking about coming back with a big car, but the same as me, it’s not in the short term, because now we need to put in place the F1 project and we need to win here.”
To my mind, then, Alonso seems set on his future. Yes the frustration is there, but he is looking longer term. If he can help turn the team around in F1 over the next two seasons then he will. He wants to win and he wants another championship. Afterall, he always said he wouldn’t quit until he had three titles. His hope, I am sure, is that this title will come with Ferrari, possibly in his final year, before he moves with the Scuderia to Le Mans.
While I’m sure McLaren, just as any team, would love to have Alonso back, I don’t think it will happen. This has nothing to do with what happened back in 2007, but everything to do with the fact that I don’t believe Fernando Alonso is a man who likes to leave things unfinished. I think he regrets the manner in which his relationship with McLaren broke down, and I believe he now realises that if he had just accepted the team’s position he would by now have amassed three, possibly four or more titles and could still have finished his Formula 1 career at Ferrari. Older and more mature, the frustration of seeing some of his best years wash past him in uncompetitive machinery are somehow assuaged by the desire and the need to turn things around and succeed. Not least because there is nowhere else for him to go.
So Alonso stays put.
But will there be driver movement at the end of this year? Yes. I have few doubts.
McLaren has long said it is not in a position of being able to confirm its drivers for next year, although with a huge shift to Honda power the team might wish to continue with the parity of its current drivers. Kevin Magnussen is not doing a bad job at all in his rookie season, and he has been a part of the team for many years as a junior driver. He was at the factory in Woking this morning, and gave a rousing speech to the entire staff, dedicating himself to them and impressing upon them his desire to help get the team back to the front.
As for Jenson Button, to be honest I’m just not sure he’s enjoying it anymore. This will be one of the hardest seasons Jenson has ever had to endure. The car is not as competitive as he would like, and whereas in years gone-by he and his beloved Dad would shrug their shoulders and look to the future, dear Papa Smurf is sadly no longer here to be the voice of solace and reason. Part of me thinks the joy is quickly fading for Jenson, and if he walks away at the end of the season I would not be at all surprised. Even with Honda coming back, I just don’t know if Jenson will.
Is McLaren an attractive enough proposition to lure a Vettel or an Alonso though? Mercedes has the fastest engine but McLaren currently lags behind the factory team, Williams and Force India. The team has clear deficiencies in its aero division, but it is believed some of this is down to systems, processes and a culture at McLaren which is in the midst of a shift under Boullier and Dennis. Some might also point the finger at Button, whom it has long been argued can develop an engine, but has never been that adept at pushing the correct avenue on aero and a car’s overall philosophy.
Perhaps an Alonso or, more realistically (…debatably) a Vettel, might help give the team that final kick towards a different culture and approach.
I also have major doubts over Kimi Raikkonen. To put it simply, he is being blown away by Fernando Alonso. Everyone expected fireworks between the two, but while Fernando continues to provide explosive performances in an off the pace machine, Raikkonen’s blue touch paper appears to have been so dampened that it simply won’t ignite. Right now, it is looking like Ferrari’s gamble has failed. Whether Kimi walks away or whether Ferrari pay him off, right now I can’t see the Finn returning in red next season.
So we’ve potentially got a seat at McLaren. If Vettel moves we’ve potentially got a seat at Red Bull (Kvyat to move up from Toro Rosso? Alex Lynn and Carlos Sainz Jr to race for Toro Rosso? I’d say so if Vettel really does leave). We’ve potentially got a seat at Ferrari. Whither Nico Hulkenberg? Whither Sergio Perez?
Talk is happening. It always happens. What people outside the sport probably don’t realise is that everybody talks to everybody, all the time… on the off chance they just so happen to talk at that one moment of doubt, and get the driver of their dreams signed up. Just as Niki Lauda did back in 2012, and within the space of dinner you’ve convinced one of the most sought after sportsmen in the world to join your team.
This year, perhaps more so than ever, it seems that some drivers have developed very itchy feet. The new engine formula has done more than shake up the competitive order. It’s shaking up the driver market too.