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.

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3 thoughts on “Alonso, Ferrari and McLaren: Decyphering the multicultural soap opera

  1. Even though you have been essentially correct all this time by claiming the Alonso to McLaren link, I have to say that I find several inaccuracies on your article/analysis (at least in my opinion).

    Alonso is very well known for being utterly irrational. He is emotional, very easy to get into his head, and most paddock insiders agree that when the time comes to make decisions in his career, he has usually made bad ones. This is one of the fundamental reasons why, to date, he only has two championships.

    He let a rookie that was beating him straight get into his head, all while listening to the ill advice of Briatore who wanted him back at Renault (or else he risked getting his budget pulled by Ghosn), and he alone destroyed his chances of winning the championship at McLaren. Had he kept his head cool he could have won not only the 2007 WDC but also potentially the next one in 2008.

    Then he had the option to go to RedBull, but wanted to commit only to one year because he wanted to go to Ferrari. What happened next is history. Had he gone to RedBull you could argue by now he could have had even more than 7 WDCs. Then he went to a Ferrari team that was obviously in decline (and it was obvious for everybody to see, except, apparently, for him).

    He has been trying to leave Ferrari since 2012 but couldn’t because his contract was pretty much watertight (at least that’s what the real insiders claim, and it makes total sense).

    He brags and likes to think that because “everybody says I am the best” then that means “everybody wants me”. The truth is that most teams actually don’t want him because he is highly disruptive and not a real team player, not to mention that he demands a very high salary.

    He claims his “mind was set 3 or 4 months ago”. Ironically, around 4 months ago he was telling the BBC that he was “definitely was ending his career with Ferrari”. He was, of course, uttering his usual bulls…. because even though what he really wanted was to leave and go to MB, he knew at the time he could not leave because of his contract (and because there were no openings in the market either).

    People like to think (and you guys seem to also think this) that it was Alonso who played everybody and is a master at poker. Nothing could be further from the truth. Alonso actually DID corner himself, and he significantly diminished his bargaining power by, as always, being irrational.

    He insulted Mattiacci in a meeting at Fiorano (showing his usual low class in the process). It is amusing to see/read that almost nobody thinks that it was actually Mattiacci that played him masterfully and got him to get angry (which, in the case of Alonso, it only takes about 60 seconds to do so).

    The F1 circle apparently likes to dismiss Mattiacci as a guy that “doesn’t really know anything about F1; hence, his is pretty useless”. It only takes 5 minutes in listening to the guy to realize that this perception is highly incorrect. Most likely after Mattiacci arrived at the team and did his initial assessment he realized that, more than an asset, Alonso was actually a liability. And, most importantly, he realized he wanted to get rid of him (his statements in an interview with Sky about “I am not here to make Alonso happy” were a clear indication of this). It was Mattiacci, not Alonso, who played a very good hand in that meeting. He wanted Alonso gone, and what better way to achieve this than by causing him to insult the boss 🙂

    So Alonso told Luca that “he wasn’t in it anymore and wanted to leave”, and apparently Luca agreed to do so. This, apparently, was what triggered Alonso’s movement. If you guys don’t think that starting to plan his future and next moves without an actual formal contract release signed by the only person that could now sign it (Marchionne) is not stupid then that’s probably why you think he is actually good at poker.

    I have followed Marchionne’s career for several years now, closely, and this is not a guy to mess with. The Sunday night right after the Monza race, when he publicly scolded Montezemolo on the press for his comments earlier in the day about “I will be the one that decides when to go” prompted me to post in forums that Marchionne was going to fire him in a matter of hours. And I wasn’t wrong.

    Apparently you guys think that just because Luca told Sergio that “Alonso doesn’t really want to be here anymore, let’s just be cool and let him go” then Marchionne would just accept with no fuss. Ha…. Marchionne is the type of guy that, with Luca gone, would say something like “bring the lawyers, bring the contract, crack-open it, dissect it, and tell me exactly what it means for this guy to stay or go in terms of money”. And, if he realizes that there are monetary losses for Ferrari if they just release Alonso from the contract then he won’t easily go for it. Especially in light of the extremely high salary that apparently they have offered Vettel.

    Most likely the reason why no announcement has been made, either of Alonso leaving, or of Vettel joining, is precisely because of this. It is not due to “respect for Alonso, giving him time to settle his own matters first” as some people believe.

    Horner and RedBull pulled another master hand in poker by immediately closing the doors fon Alonso (and all the potential speculation around it). I firmly believe Horner is way smarter than some people give him credit for, and I think he has been toying with Alonso for quite a while as a strategy to further de-stabilize Ferrari (Alonso basically begged him to join RBR in 2012/2013) but has never had the real intention to hire him at all. In fact, he pretty much confirmed this on an interview in Suzuka where he was asked if he considered ever hiring Alonso and he said “not really”. By pulling the gun immediately and announcing Kvyat not only did they weakened Alonso’s hand, they also de-stabilized the driver’s market and weakened even other drivers’ negotiations (Hamilton included).

    Lastly, agreeing a pre-contract (or whatever you want to call it) with Honda, NOT with McLaren, is not exactly a slam dunk either, is it? Honda is not a McLaren shareholder. As much investment as they are bringing into the team, it would be stupid to think that Ron Dennis has given them carte blanche to do as they wish and have a total say on who drives for the team. McLaren is Dennis’ team, not Honda’s. Obviously Ron is not stupid and most likely he realizes that if Honda really want Alonso then he’s probably willing to forget 2007 and go for it, but not without playing his own hand; and by this I mean that Ron is probably telling Honda: “ok, you want that guy, I don’t want him, I want somebody else; but, if you insist then that’s fine, however, you are going to have to pay his entire salary”. That would also be a very well played hand in my opinion. Ron Dennis did not get to where he is today by being a stupid businessman 🙂

    So, no, Alonso is not an excellent poker player. He actually sucks at it. In the end he might get the McLaren-Honda drive with a very high salary, but that’s just because the Japanese wanted him, NOT because that’s what Alonso wanted (as he brags). What Alonso really wanted was to drive for Mercedes, and that, much deservedly, is NOT happening.

    So, yes, he might win a game of poker and with it a sh…load of money, but he will not win the poker tournament for sure.

    And regarding the announcement, it will be when Marchionne wants, under his conditions, and not the other way around. And he is holding both the Joker and the Ace 🙂

    • If Alonso is as Irrational as you say why is he always joking and laughing with Mattiacci before the races (see TV images of the last races).

      Remember when he got angry with Ron Dennis, he stopped talking with him and ignored him in public as well. I’m Spanish too and when we argue with someone at the level that the papers say we really don’t laugh with him/her in public.

      You talk about poker games, I think that most of us thought that he really did a good movement when he went to Ferrari, they lost the 2010 championship because of the strategy.

      I GUESS that Alonso will stay in Ferrari and maybe will be an important technician who will be hired (Newey??).

      If you hear Vettel and Alonso words both said similar things: “when you know you will think It’s obvious”… and g¡for me going to McLaren is not obvious. What is clear is that Alonso has some power because if it was really true that he is leaving Ferrari and Vettel coming has not too much sense to delay this announcement, they aren’t fighting in the championship. I also think that if he wants to go to Mercedes but if at the end is not possible he will stay in Ferrari and then Vettel goes to another team…

      We will see.

    • And how do you know all this? You are a good friend and know Mattiacci, Marchionne and Ron Dennis and their thinking apparently 🙂 You are merely speculating and making assumptions based on your prejudices

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