Some time in August the sun was shining bright in Maranello but the atmosphere was still as frosty as a freezing December afternoon. Gone are the sizzling evenings of intense romance between the Reds and a certain Alonso, aggravated by seasons full of disappointments and promises never kept. How did the rot behind the relationship start, what lead to the divorce of a dream couple and where are we right now in this saga?
Sources close to Ferrari say Alonso made his intentions clear in August: too long has he dragged limping horses up the same hill and too long has he tolerated press negativity leaked by people within the very team he adored and aspired to take to the top. Montezemolo was no longer the judge, jury and the executioner of this situation – he was limited in decision making and lacked authority as the season moved on and his exit drew closer. But even on an informal level, Ferrari’s departing president kindly asked Fernando to reconsider his thoughts of jumping ship. It was a little too late, because as Alonso specified in a recent interview, he had made his mind up and was heading for the door.
Realizing that in times like these Alonso needed actions instead of words of convincing, Montezemolo stopped pursuing the matter. An agreement between the two was reached in that moment but the process of terminating an existing contract required a presidential signature and it was no longer in Montezemolo’s authority to sign the dotted line. Alonso was kept waiting. Underneath the corrosive skin of the Ferrari-Alonso lovestory, cracks became visible and McLaren jumped at the wounds with an offer on the table. It was a substantial sum of money during a time when the Spaniard still needed a whole lot of convincing despite the broken marriage. He looked at the details of course but as time passed and temperaments cooled down, he was unsure whether he’d actually make a move now, wait for the James Allison project and stick to what he has before possibly switching to Mercedes in case Hamilton spills his beans.
The season of slight peace lasted little. Before the Singapore GP, nasty rumors were emerging from Italy – Alonso is creating negativity within the team, he is a bad personality, he is leaving the team, Vettel was on his way, etc. He was informed by his engineers about the latest stories and decided “no more”. During the week after the Singapore race, Alonso held his final meetings with Marco Mattiacci. Extremely vocal about the internal dynamics and leaks from certain members, Alonso threw offensive words at random and the glass suddenly became full - the inherent realization that this partnership was no longer functioning struck as a revelation for both sides. If there was any doubt of Alonso heading for the door, it was eradicated in that very moment. The only thought that went through his mind as he slammed the door behind him was related to the McLaren offer.
Prior to the Japanese GP, the fuming Spaniard held meetings with senior management from Honda. A three-year deal was prepared (two plus one extendable option with clauses). However, it would have been illegal for Alonso to sign a full-blown contract with another team while his current one still has him bound to Ferrari for 2015. Therefore, Honda drafted a conditional agreement – after Alonso is released from Ferrari by Marchionne, the preliminary deal turns into a full-term contract with McLaren with the length and all the details of the original document. Signed, stamped and most importantly: legal.
Before Alonso made his own future, Mattiacci was already on the phone. He was dialing a number obtained by none other than Domenicali about 2 years ago: Ferrari’s future vision in the form of Sebastian Vettel. It was like a calling of great divinity – Vettel, slightly overwhelmed by his adversary and teammate Ricciardo, saw it as the perfect opportunity for a change. He was offered Alonso’s vacated spot at Ferrari and hesitated not even a minute. However, with Alonso still locked in and waiting for Marchionne’s debut as president so he can sign the termination papers, Vettel also agreed to a preliminary and conditional deal of similar nature to the one Alonso engaged in with Honda.
Now with both futures settled in a conditional manner, they will start blooming as soon as Marchionne lays the pen down on the termination papers – a mere formality. Already sources suggest that it took place two days after the Fiat Chrysler merger debut at the NYSE.
To separate fact from fiction, we will deal with the most echoed version of events reported by several journalists. Alonso was not backed into a corner, as some speculate. The Spaniard wasn’t caught off guard by Vettel’s announcement of leaving Red Bull and he most certainly wasn’t ousted by Red Bull opting for Kvyat. He had committed to McLaren-Honda before that and his recent interview stating he made his mind up two-three months ago suggests that perfectly.
In fact, consider the following question: would Alonso have quit Ferrari without settling his future? Formula 1 is a cutthroat world where if you’re caught napping you risk your career. And a driver of Alonso’s caliber, with a management team that secured him seats at former top teams like Renault, McLaren and Ferrari, ensures he has a plan B before dumping plan A.
Plan A has always been McLaren after his fallout with Ferrari - insiders say he’s been shown some vague amount of information about the Honda PU and he was satisfied with the figures. The offer has always been a 2+1 deal and that part was non-negotiable. There are some tight clauses in there as well, which made the whole matter incredibly risky for a driver approaching his mid-30s. That’s why there was always a plan B in the form of Mercedes. Wait it out and hope for a clash of interests in the team’s negotiations with Hamilton. However, the team made it clear to Alonso that Hamilton’s signing will be a priority and he will only be considered as a last resort in case something breaks down. Plan B looked riskier than plan A because if Hamilton indeed extended his deal, Alonso would have been caught out not just on a sabbatical but an entire retirement.
Fernando Alonso has been called out as a bad poker player in light of the recent events and some media living under the illusion that he’s been left in no-man’s land. However, the real situation is that he’s an excellent poker player – kept his cards close, waited for the chips to fall in place and went all-in on a three year commitment to his previous dream team. Will the gamble pay off is a matter we should discuss at another time.
Where is the announcement? We have been told and we were expecting Ferrari to announce Alonso’s exit and Vettel’s arrival on October 13th when Marchionne stepped in as new boss. However, in wake of the entire Fiat-Chrysler phenomenon, the newly appointed president spent a good amount of time on the deal and left Ferrari matters for a later date, including the termination paper signing, which in the meantime he alreday settled. Word is there will be a board meeting at the end of October but we might get an announcement even earlier – around the time of the U.S. GP. However, don’t take our word for it.
Why are McLaren delaying their announcement? The situation at McLaren is a bit more complicated. While Alonso’s seat is secure, there is a delicate situation in the leadership of the team. Ron Dennis’s position is at stake and he’s looking to buy more shares in the company. The current dilemma is holding up the second driver signing. And while Jenson Button is likely set to make room for Alonso, Magnussen’s seat isn’t completely safe either. Our understanding is that Honda management want nothing to do with the current line-up and are looking to secure another big name from the market. Who could that be is up for grabs but there’s not many big names available out there: Grosjean?
Is Vettel going to McLaren? Vettel already has his 2015 seat at Ferrari. Currently the question is whether he will get to test with the team in the post-season Abu Dhabi test. There are ongoing negotiations between Ferrari and Red Bull for an early release, but Milton Keynes has made it clear Vettel is only free to go 5 days after the last race, which is after the post-season test.