F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

How real are Ferrari's hints at a second 'home team'?

Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne recently made noises again about the possibility of a return to F1 for Alfa Romeo, but as a sort of junior Ferrari team, using Ferrari technology. Aside from being historically ironic – given that Ferrari was born out of Alfa-Romeo and that Enzo famously, ‘felt like I’d killed my mother’ when Froilan Gonzales beat the Alfas at Silverstone ’51 for the Scuderia’s first championship-status Grand Prix victory – it’s probably not a notion arising from petrol-headed enthusiasm. 

Aside from the valuable image boost F1 participation could give the Alfa brand, it would also lend the Ferrari group even more political heft at a time when negotiations will be under way with Liberty Media for its continued participation in F1 beyond expiration of the current deal in 2020. With four cars on the grid rather than two and an additional prestige brand, Marchionne could be even more uncompromising in his approach. 

Liberty boss John Malone’s initial conversation with Marchionne apparently carried the message that the Scuderia’s current very special status payments would likely not be continued into any new agreement. Cue the usual discussions about whether F1 needs Ferrari more than Ferrari needs F1. It’s an unanswerable question and they could doubtless each survive without the other. But the relative damage done to each by any parting of the ways would forever remain conjecture. 

Consider also the commercial damage that might accrue from Fiat-Chrysler-Automotive recently falling foul of the US environmental protection agency (EPA). The scale of the apparent emissions ‘cheat’ in certain diesel Jeep and Dodge models is yet to be ascertained and may not be on anything like the scale of VW two years ago. But if it is…

But let’s assume that all gets sorted, that Marchionne and Malone reach agreement and the Ferrari group re-signs for another term of F1. How might a new Alfa team be structured? It would make no business sense to establish a pukka F1 factory, with wind tunnel and state-of-the-art production facilities. The start-up costs would be astronomical. It would surely be done much more in the Haas mould of simply racing cars conceived and built by someone else. Under the current regulations a team cannot sub-contract another team to design or build its car. There’d be nothing to stop an ‘Alfa’ team from contracting Dallara to build it (just as Haas does), but it would need to be of a demonstrably different design to Ferrari’s car, even if it was developed in Ferrari’s tunnel by sub-contracted Ferrari aerodynamicists (as the Haas was).

Done in this way, an Alfa F1 programme could probably be done remarkably cheaply. But unless something extraordinary happened, it wouldn’t produce a car as quick as Ferrari’s. Although other car manufacturer brands in F1, even Mercedes, carry less prestige than Ferrari, there’s nothing stopping them from beating them on track – and they frequently do. Although it’s quite a long time ago now, lowly mass-market Renault used to beat Ferrari to the world championship. But a brand within the same group, done on a relative budget? That’s surely never going to be allowed to be ahead of Ferrari. 

So you may point out that Toro Rosso doesn’t beat Red Bull but still adds value to F1; we’re glad it’s there, putting another two cars on the grid, giving opportunities to the next Sebastian Vettels, Daniel Ricciardos and Max Verstappens, not to mention the next James Keys. But an Alfa Romeo conceived to be beaten before it even starts? Red Bull is a drinks brand and Toro Rosso is simply an Italian translation of the parent company’s name. Alfa Romeo on the other hand would run the risk of its F1 programme lending its cars the image of cut-price inauthenticity beneath a superficially beguiling appearance. Which is rather what they have been trying to get away from for quite some time. Isn’t it?