Alonso, Ferrari and McLaren: Decyphering the multicultural soap opera

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?

Ferrari Formula One driver Alonso of Spain looks on at the end of the third practice session of the Monaco Grand Prix in Monaco

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.

Trivia:

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.

The situation down south: Ferrari’s split calls explained

Trust us, you did not want to be in that Ferrari motorhome on Sunday evening. Amid post-race tension regarding the split strategies that saw Raikkonen end up behind Alonso, various reports have surfaced on conspiracy theories, sabotage stories and other types of fiction. We aim to analyze the situation and clarify the myth. 

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Here’s how the race went down:

Raikkonen was leading Alonso from the get go and was ahead of him until the closing stages of the GP. In the first stint, times were looking similar, but Alonso kept a close gap to his teammate right until the first stop. At this stage both drivers were on a 2-stopper strategy.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

By standard intra-team rules, if both drivers are on the same strategy and running a similar pace, the leading driver gets the advantage of pitting first. Like Alonso stated after the race, he switched to a 3-stopper AFTER the second pit stop. So if they were on the same strategy ahead of the first pit stop, it’s a bit suspicious that Alonso pitted first even though he was behind Raikkonen.

Sure, there were statements concerning faster tyre deg for Alonso and such. Let’s pretend they are true. After the second pit stop for Alonso, Raikkonen stayed out and it became painfully evident he was going to lose out to both the charging Vettel and his teammate since he was more than 2 seconds slower per lap than both of them. Even so, he stayed out for a couple of laps more, which made absolutely zero sense because Alonso closed the gap down to 5 seconds. Herein lies the true problem: why was Raikkonen allowed to stay out for so long when it was crystal clear he was losing a massive amount of time?

So after analyzing the split strategies, we get down to the politics.

Let’s make one thing clear: Ferrari DID NOT sabotage Raikkonen’s race. They didn’t spend weeks of manufacturing tailor-made upgrades for him just to destroy a race where he was finally getting comfortable. They have stated since the beginning of the season that they will help Kimi get more comfortable in the car and based on the amount of upgrades he received so far, they kept true to their word. It’s very rare to follow two different development paths so Ferrari providing Kimi with personalized parts really shows they are eager to get him back to his very best. Sabotaging his race by employing the slower strategy? That makes no sense whatsoever considering the massive support he received from the team so far. Claiming otherwise is just conspiratorial non-sense.

The problem lies on the Finn’s side of the garage. Alonso is accustomed to calling the shots at Ferrari and making pro-active decisions, often switching strategies in the middle of the race. Him and Andrea Stella have been  together for years and have a tendency to work extremely well both on and off-track.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the garage, Raikkonen works with rookie Antonio Spagnolo. We’ve seen a couple of times during live feeds that they have often had communication issues. In Barcelona, they didn’t react to a seemingly obvious situation when Raikkonen just couldn’t cope with the tyres in the second stint. They should have realized immediately after Alonso pitted that Kimi, despite being soft on tyres, could not make them last too long without dropping off significantly. They allowed Alonso to close in fast, which cost them 6th place.

It’s simple, really: Alonso’s garage made a tactical switch that benefited him, while Raikkonen’s side chose to stick to the original plan when it was obvious it was not the right decision, based on Kimi’s times.

Beating Alonso requires a lot more than outright speed (which Kimi had this weekend, by the way). They have to be ready to employ strategic calls mid-race and that requires extensive communication and breaking down some barriers. This is not just Kimi vs. Fernando, it’s one garage against the other.

And if the pace difference is always going to be as minimal as it was in Spain, the outcome will be decided by the side of the garage that calls the right shots.

 

Kimi Raikkonen’s problems at Ferrari explained

It was no surprise to us that Kimi Raikkonen was struggling with the F14-T in Melbourne. Besides the obvious problems on the car (brake balance, traction and top speed), it features a problematic design that could extend Raikkonen’s struggles for a few more races. 

Upon his return to Formula 1, the Finn enjoyed a stable car under Lotus branding: a push-rod suspension that allowed easy tweaks on front and rear end setup. Raikkonen likes a responsive, almost oversteery front end, without having to dial in too much input on cornering. In 2012, the steering precision was a little off for his tastes, so Lotus resolved the matter in a couple of race weekends and in Bahrain he was already on the podium. The E20 was known for its quick response to setup changes, which was mostly down to efficient push-rod packaging.

The situation at Ferrari now is a lot more complicated.

The very nature of the Prancing Horse’s cars after Schumacher’s departure consisted of stubborn understeer throughout the years. Nothing that a few setup changes couldn’t solve, or resources couldn’t handle. Kimi shined at Ferrari in 2007 and, despite a few off moments, was on it in 2008 and 2009 as well.

So what has changed at Ferrari that gave Kimi such a shock struggle in Melbourne this year?

Since 2012, Ferrari decided to develop their cars on the basis of a PULL-ROD SUSPENSION, something that was abandoned by teams at the end of 2010. The solution has its advantages, as it lowers the nose and the suspension, along with the center of gravity. However, the problem lies in fine tuning.

One of the major disadvantages of a pull-rod approach is the limitation on adjusting the car’s handling, which is due to difficulty accessing certain areas of the car. For example, in the case of a rear pull-rod, you have to remove the floor as well as the gearbox to fine tune the rear end because there’s simply no space to operate around the springs.

Therefore if the car’s handling is fundamentally understeery, it’s simply impossible for Kimi’s crew to counter that with more oversteer in two practice sessions. There’s not enough time to disassemble and reassemble the car until Kimi is comfortable with the handling as it’s usually difficult to get it right on the first try. Even if the mechanics are able to find the optimum input, the pull-rod suspension is a stubborn system that usually doesn’t react as precisely to setup changes as a push-rod.

Spending Friday practices in the garage picking apart the front end of the car is not a solution, especially this year when every kilometer counts.  Repackaging the front pull rod would be a solution, but it would affect the overall balance of the car and could make things worse. The quickest way would be to induce oversteer aerodynamically, which is why Ferrari will manufacture new parts for Raikkonen to solve his problems. Even that might take a few good weekends.

Fernando Alonso is able to cope with the system a lot easier, having raced with a pull-rod suspension at Minardi in 2001. Which is probably why Ferrari decided to reinstall the system to make the Spaniard more comfortable in the car.

 

 

 

 

Pastor Maldonado signs for Lotus for 2014

The Venezuelan signed a three year deal with Lotus this evening, according to our sources. The move ends months of speculation regarding the future of Lotus and Maldonado’s career. 

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Quantum Motorsport was set to sponsor Lotus F1 Team, and one of their demands was to have Nico Hulkenberg part of their 2014 line-up. Quantum and Lotus couldn’t agree on the investment details, and the partnership was cancelled on Monday morning. 

The team’s management held a final meeting with Pastor Maldonado and both parties signed a contract on Monday evening. PDVSA is set to become the team’s title sponsor. Rumors are that the sponsorship package includes a $40 million investment, thus securing Lotus’s future in Formula 1, at least for the next three years. 

 

 

 

Raikkonen and Ferrari: Dream Reunion or a Timebomb?

Never go back to an old love, they say. Yet that is what Ferrari have done in signing Kimi Raikkonen to partner Fernando Alonso for the 2014 Formula 1 season.

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For those on the outside, it is an enticing prospect. Two of the four men recognized as the best drivers in the world – the others being Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – will be in the same team. Two completely different characters – fire and ice. Who will come out on top? What a spectacle it promises to be. But the auguries for it ending well are not good.

Ferrari have tended to operate on the basis of having a number one driver and a second who supports him. It’s almost part of the DNA of the team. How will it work now they have decided to shift to a different approach – two drivers of equal status allowed to fight it out, theoretically for the benefit of all?

On paper, Alonso and Raikkonen is probably the strongest driver line-up in F1. In theory, it makes Ferrari a formidable force – assuming their car and, particularly, new V6 turbo engine is competitive in 2014.

But the potential for disruption is clear.

Alonso famously almost brought McLaren to its knees in his demands for priority status when he was teamed with Hamilton in 2007.
He has since made it clear that his problem was not with Hamilton per se, but with the team. Team boss Ron Dennis, it has emerged, had promised him he would be team leader, and then not delivered.

That is now what has happened at Ferrari, too. Worse, in fact. Alonso has been team leader for four years and has now been told he is equal with Raikkonen.

Ferrari, apparently, don’t care how he feels about that, although he has told them he’s fine with it. How will Alonso respond? Will he behave in the manner of, say, Hamilton and Jenson Button at McLaren from 2010-2 and treat it as a challenge to enjoy, and see out his contract to the end of 2016, as he said he would last weekend? Or will he feel betrayed and seethe inwardly until a flashpoint triggers emotions he can’t control?

Most insiders the BBC have spoken to believe Alonso will probably edge the on-track battle with Raikkonen, that he will be faster more often than not. If that’s the case, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario whereby Alonso is ahead on points, but there comes a race in which Raikkonen is in front and Alonso can’t get by. Or perhaps the team mess something up for him. And that becomes the trigger point for a fallout that leads to Alonso leaving Ferrari at the end of next season.

Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen reunite for 2014

Ferrari have confirmed Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen will join Fernando Alonso at the Italian team from 2014 after agreeing a two-year contract.

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Raikkonen leaves Lotus to return to the team which released him from his contract on full pay a year early at the end of 2009 to make room for the arrival of Alonso. However, with Felipe Massa having announced he would not be remaining at Ferrari beyond the end of this season the team has now confirmed Raikkonen will return on a two-year deal.

A statement from Ferrari read:  “Scuderia Ferrari announces that it has reached an agreement with Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn will join Fernando Alonso in the driver line-up for the next two racing seasons.”

Team principal Stefano Domenicali said he was “delighted” to have Raikkonen back at Ferrari.

“I am delighted to welcome back Kimi to the Scuderia with which he was crowned World Champion,” Domenicali said. “I sense he is very happy to be returning to Maranello and very determined to tackle the work that awaits him in the best way possible.”

Although Alonso has been the number one driver at Ferrari for the last four seasons the team is yet to win a drivers’ championship since Raikkonen’s success in 2007. Nico Hulkenberg had also been linked with Ferrari earlier this year, but he is now one of the favourites for the vacant seat at Lotus.

Felipe Massa has confirmed he is leaving Ferrari

Felipe Massa has confirmed he will leave Ferrari at the end of the season, opening the door for Kimi Raikkonen to return to the team.

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After eight years with the team, Massa announced via his Instagram account that he will not be retained by Ferrari next season and is on the lookout for a new team in the hope of fighting for the championship once again.

“From 2014 i will no longer be driving for Ferrari,” Massa wrote on Instagram. “I would like to thank the team for all the victories and incredible moments experienced together. Thank you also to my wife and all of my family, to my fans and all my sponsors. From each one of you I have always received a great support!

“Right now I want to push as hard as possible with Ferrari for the remaining 7 races. For next year, I want to find a team that can give me a competitive car to win many more races and challenge for the Championship which remains my greatest objective!”

Having originally joined Ferrari in 2006 after three years with Sauber, Massa won two races alongside Michael Schumacher in the seven-time world champion’s final year with the team. Massa was then joined by Raikkonen – who won the title in 2007, before he himself came within a whisker of winning the title in 2008 only to lose out to Lewis Hamilton by one point.

However, Massa has failed to win a race since then, missing the second half of the 2009 season after he suffered life-threatening injuries in a crash in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. He was fit for the start of the following year, but has played second fiddle to Fernando Alonso ever since and scored just three podiums in the last three years.

Massa’s announcement comes amid growing reports that Raikkonen is due to re-join Ferrari alongside Alonso next season. Nico Hulkenberg is the other driver who has been heavily linked with Massa’s seat over the past two seasons.