Is Fernando Alonso really about to leave Ferrari and join Red Bull Racing in 2014? That was the sensational question on everyone’s lips on Sunday evening at the Hungaroring.
For the past few weeks, the debate has raged whether the triple world champion team should choose the known quantity that is Kimi Räikkönen to replace Porsche-bound Mark Webber, or stick to its young guns and go for Red Bull junior Daniel Ricciardo. In Hungary, the smart money seemed to be edging towards the Australian, who “acquitted himself very well” in the Silverstone test a week earlier, according to team boss Christian Horner.
But then, during the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, it emerged that Horner and Alonso’s management team had been talking. Was the Spaniard, considered by many to be the most complete F1 driver of the modern era, really considering a switch from Formula 1’s most famous team to the sport’s most successful in recent years?
The short answer is we don’t really know. In assessing the options that Alonso has before him, all we can say is that he is believed to have a cast-iron contract with the Italian team. If he was to make the switch, it would cost Red Bull many millions to buy him out of his current deal. But that alone might not rule the move out, given Alonso’s standing in the sport and Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s incredible financial investment in motor racing.
It is true that the timing of a move at this stage of Alonso’s career would be complicated. He is closer to retirement than he is to the beginning of his racing life, and he has invested so much of himself in Ferrari. He has become part of the fabric of Italy’s national team.
Then consider that James Allison, the highly rated former Renault/Lotus technical director who worked with Alonso during his two world championship-winning seasons, is about to return to Ferrari. Allison, in partnership with Alonso, could be the missing part the Scuderia needs. Wouldn’t Fernando want to stick around to find out?
On the other hand, Alonso is in his fourth season at the Prancing Horse and during that time he has been powerless to stop Vettel notching up three championships – possibly four considering how this campaign is going. Ferrari has failed to give Alonso a car that is worthy of his incredible talent. The temptation to drive an Adrian Newey creation, up against a driver who Alonso will believe he can beat in a straight fight, might well be hard to resist.
On Sunday afternoon, after a Grand Prix in which Alonso had laboured to an unsatisfactory fifth place, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was hardly killing the story stone dead. In fact his responses to questions were phrased in a way that would only stoke the fire.
“We’re in a fortunate position where there is quite a lot of interest in the seat for next year,” he said, when asked directly if Alonso was an option for 2014. “We’ve also been able to take a good look at Daniel at the test last week, so we’ll take a bit of time over the summer to reflect on the options that are open to us and look to make the right decision to put the right driver beside Sebastian next year.”
So that wasn’t a denial that Alonso was an option for the team?
“Any conversations between any of the drivers and any of the parties are always going to remain confidential,” Horner gently batted back. “But of course there’s been quite a few drivers who have expressed an interest in the seat, as you can imagine.”
The question came in once more: was Alonso an option?
“Is he available?” asked Horner with feigned innocence. “I don’t know. You ask him.”
Pushed further, he joked: “I had Nigel Mansell offer his services at Silverstone. He’d be a surprising candidate. We’re going to take a bit of time to make sure we make the right decision. We’ve got some great options. There’s no need to rush.”
But Horner was deadly serious about the criteria Red Bull has in replacing Webber.
“We want to run the strongest team that’s won the world championship for the last three years, and we want to make sure we’re in a position to compete and fight for world championships in future years,” he said. “There’s never been any pressure that we must take a junior driver. It’s a matter of fielding the best team, at the end of the day. Of course the junior drivers are under consideration, but there’s no prerequisite that it has to be a junior driver.
“Obviously you want to put the strongest drivers in the cars, and Mark leaves some big shoes to be filled.”
At this point, Motor Sport chipped in. What would he think about the dynamic of managing Vettel and Alonso in the same team?
“It would be interesting…” he said with a smile. “At the end of the day we have to think about what’s right for the team. Last week I was being asked about Kimi, this week it’s about Fernando. For us we have to make sure that nothing waivers in our mind about putting the right team package for next year, with the two fastest drivers that we can, that will work well together and achieve the best results for the team.”
Was Horner simply stirring? Or is there something in this? Alonso himself said he was “happy” at Ferrari during the course of the weekend. But is he really? How much longer does he have to win that third world championship? New rules are on the horizon for next year. Is Ferrari convincing him that the team will have a competitive package for the new turbo era? Or would a Renault powertrain offer greater potential?
Ayrton Senna moved heaven and earth to place himself in the best car on the grid throughout the 1980s and early ’90s. Alonso is cut from the same cloth. It’s not that much of a stretch to think he might have some big career thoughts to chew over during this forthcoming summer break.
Perhaps Red Bull will confirm Ricciardo as Vettel’s team-mate in the coming weeks. Then again, perhaps the team will go for Räikkönen. But if you had the choice of a driver who would be guaranteed to fight for a championship, who would you choose?
As we head for the August shutdown, the prospect of a move that would be F1’s most significant since Michael Schumacher left Benetton to join Ferrari – or Senna quit McLaren to join Williams – is tantalising for anyone caught up in the sport. Vettel vs Alonso? That’s one duel we’d all want to see.