Graham Keilloh  |    |   30  |  31 October 2018

Feature: Why Ferrari ditching Fernando Alonso cost it two titles

The Mexican Grand Prix as expected was one of resolution; Lewis Hamilton got over the line for his latest world drivers’ championship. And the many implications of this – what this tells us about Hamilton’s skillset; where he fits in Formula 1’s historical pantheon – were pored over.

Yet one implication largely escaped comment, to do with the vanquished runner-up Sebastian Vettel. For his Ferrari team it now will be 12 years at least without a drivers’ title; most probably it will be at least 11 without a constructors’ crown (it’s currently 55 points behind Mercedes with 86 available).

It’s not quite Ferrari’s all-time drought of 21 years between Jody Scheckter’s 1979 championship and Michael Schumacher’s in 2000, nor the 16 without constructors’ titles between 1983 and 1999. But it’s going that way. Lest we forget this is F1’s most famous and likely its most lavish team.

What makes the numbers even more striking is that Ferrari alone has been ‘up there’ for pretty much all of that period. Mercedes only leapt to competiveness in 2014; McLaren fell away; Red Bull since 2014 has been hamstrung by its engines. Ferrari of course doesn’t have that excuse. Furthermore in recent years it’s effectively been in a championship of two. Almost by law of averages you’d expect it would have nabbed a crown at some point.

Vettel and Ferrari’s situation remains immeasurably better than that of the guy Vettel replaced at the Scuderia at the end of 2014, whose final acts as an F1 driver are entering the farcical. For Fernando Alonso, the McLaren in Mexico again was nowhere even though the altitude meant its Renault power unit for once was the thing to have. Alonso hauled his mount to 12th on the grid, but for the second time in a week his race was over almost before it started.

For Ferrari it now will be 12 years at least without a drivers’ title; most probably it will be at least 11 without a constructors’ crown

Sympathy for Alonso is hardly universal of course; we hear repeatedly that he has brought all this on himself.

Yet are we looking down the wrong end of the telescope? Rather than Alonso denying himself opportunities for success, is it not the case that Ferrari has denied itself two world championships by chasing Alonso out the door?

As for all that Vettel can with justification point at Ferrari being left behind by Mercedes in the development war at a crucial part of this season, it’s equally undeniable he compromised his chances with mistakes. More so than you might think, as a recent analysis eliminating Vettel’s errors had him leading the table by a whole 24 points heading into the Mexico round. Add the Mexico result and he’d be 30 clear with 50 remaining. The title would be his with two trouble-free runs.

Of course such things don’t have 100% efficacy; we can never say with certainty what would have happened in an alternate reality. But it can work either way – who’s to say Mercedes and Hamilton under this additional ‘scoreboard pressure’ may not have dropped more points?

Last year too there was a similar tale. Vettel lost the title by 46 points. He again can legitimately point at Ferrari being left behind on development in the autumn; that time there was unreliability too. But his notorious Singapore startline error cost him a 32 point swing at least, probably more given it also accounted for two cars that likely would have finished between him and Hamilton, while his Baku error cost him 13.

A recent analysis eliminating Vettel’s errors had him leading the table by a whole 24 points heading into the Mexico round. Add the Mexico result and he’d be 30 clear with 50 remaining

Martin Brundle and David Coulthard both take the view that Alonso in a Ferrari would have won the 2017 title; presumably similar goes for this year’s. Alonso’s not completely beyond mistakes of course, but his relentless maximising of results is a key part of his reputation.

“Sebastian’s a great driver,” a Ferrari insider told Nigel Roebuck at Monza, “but he’s not Fernando...”

Plus for all the ‘he brought it on himself’ trope takes Alonso’s ditching by Ferrari as read it’s also worth asking what exactly Alonso did to merit being dropped? On closer inspection it’s not at all clear.

Various suggestions were floated at the time – that Ferrari wasn’t happy with his wandering eye; or with his reluctance to commit long-term; or with his bigging himself up (more than he bigged up his team) in his public pronouncements. But even if it’s any or all of these they hardly strike as an insurmountable problem. Perhaps, some suggested less flatteringly to Ferrari, it was a political play by the short-lived Ferrari team boss Marco Mattiacci to demonstrate that he, not the ‘de facto leader’ Alonso, was in charge.

So with all this the bottom line could be said to be that Ferrari’s given up two world championships because it decided Alonso was ‘a bit difficult’ internally. It’s beyond me how anyone can think this is a smart move. It strikes me instead as a dereliction of duty.

Sebastian’s a great driver, but he’s not Fernando... - Ferrari insider

F1 it appears in recent times developed an immensely reductive definition of how a driver should be. Polished; polite; PR-perfect; unfailingly team-orientated. But is this really the best way? What about the resultant waste of talent, and by extension the extent that teams are compromising success in the aim instead of what should be a secondary consideration of off-track harmony?  Particularly as the relationship between talent and having a tricky personality likely isn’t coincidence, given getting that good is likely a corollary for having an independent personality in the first place.

It wasn’t always this way either. Rewind to the early 1990s when Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell were two of the three drivers who ruled the F1 roost (the other was Alain Prost, who also wasn’t above politicking). Both astonishingly skilled; both a nightmare to coexist with.

“His continual criticism of the team while out of the cockpit...was irksome in the extreme,” observed scribe Alan Henry of Senna at the end of the 1992 season, during which the thrice world champion had been extremely vocal that he should be allowed to ditch McLaren for Williams. “Ayrton was so driven, so insecure, so paranoid and so everything else,” added Gordon Kimball, who among many other things was a McLaren engineer in Senna’s time. “Ayrton accomplished a lot but he was a very difficult character.”

Then there was Mansell. “It’s not breaking any new ground to say that the guy is hugely confrontational,” said Patrick Head of his then-charge. “That was part of what made him so good, but he wears his competitiveness on his sleeve – doesn’t rein it in, in any way at all. It’s there the whole time.

The bottom line could be said to be that Ferrari’s given up two world championships because it decided Alonso was ‘a bit difficult’ internally. It’s beyond me how anyone can think this is a smart move

“He also has a very strong persecution complex, and thinks everyone is trying to shaft him at all times. So you had an environment of strain whenever Mansell was around, and on a day-to-day basis that became extremely wearing. However, that was his way of getting the job done, and that he undoubtedly did.”

It didn’t stop anyone employing them either. Then the attitude, as outlined, is that you took the talent and the results and dealt with the rest. And you know what? That strikes me as the most sensible way. Even the only sensible way.

Other sports also wrestle with this question of how to handle the talented but not all that team-orientated. It was discussed on a recent cricket podcast that I listened to, and there was near unanimity on the best approach. “You have to somehow put the ball in their court and make out as if they are guiding the team themselves and part of the decision making themselves, and not ostracise them,” said former England captain Nasser Hussain.

“You do have to give your mavericks a little leeway and let them be. [Mike] Brearley handling [Ian] Botham was a classic case of that, he let him be, let him be Ian Botham and he delivered on the field for them.”

And on the question of what to say to team-mates who questioned why this one person should get special treatment, Rob Key retorted, “I’ll tell you why Ian Botham’s allowed to do that because he’s that much better than you, and performs better than you.” Though they did accept that such dual running was harder to sustain when times were bad, as in those circumstances people tended to then point at it as a problem.

Cricket has its own high profile recent example of the England team early in 2014 ditching Kevin Pietersen as more trouble than he was worth – individualistic, egotistical, outspoken, unwilling to accept authority – even though he remained to the very end the team’s top run scorer.

You do have to give your mavericks a little leeway and let them be. [Mike] Brearley handling [Ian] Botham was a classic case of that, he let him be, let him be Ian Botham and he delivered on the field for them - Nasser Hussain

“They were a happier side, definitely,” Hussain noted of England post-Pietersen. “Were they a better side? Have they ever replaced Kevin Pietersen?” Indeed – the consensus since is that England’s test batting strength has never recovered.

There are problems with the Alonso-Ferrari alternate universe of course. Were Alonso still at the Scuderia his stint would by now have lasted nine years, a stay that would out-stretch all Maranello stays aside from Michael Schumacher’s – which had consistent success to sustain it. In that time there would have been plenty of opportunities to fall out, particularly given the driver and team we’re talking about. As previously discussed Ferrari has always felt it necessary to dump its lead drivers periodically, for reasons that only have vague acquaintance with the said driver’s ability or results.

But still for all we wonder whether in his final F1 career throes Alonso looks back and regrets his career decisions, you wonder if his former employer should as well. Two titles in exchange for a little more internal aggro seems a swap any F1 team should take.

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