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Last week I was in Rome for an exclusive interview with Luca Montezemolo that will appear in the April issue of Motor Sport. We covered many subjects in the allotted 90 minutes about his time as Ferrari’s boss and, before that, as its team manager in the 1970s. But one specific point I was keen to get his take on was the sequence of events that led to Fernando Alonso being replaced in 2015 by Sebastian Vettel, one of the most controversial developments in the driver market in recent years. You may recall that this actually happened a few weeks after Montezemolo had departed. But that was merely the playing out of the pieces that were already in place behind the scenes. Controversy continues to rage over who left who and why.
Understanding Ferrari’s predicament is essential in understanding the highly complex and nuanced answer to that question. Montezemolo’s explanation of his part in it forms a crucial backdrop.
I arrived the day before the interview and checked in at the hotel suggested by Luca’s PA, just a few minutes’ walk from where it would take place. At first I didn’t really know where I was geographically, for this was not in the city itself, but in a pretty smart suburb to the north. Taking a look at Google Maps I saw I was in a place called Parioli. It rang a bell somewhere in the back of my head, some racing-related thing. So I googled further – ah, there it was! Parioli hosted the Rome Grand Prix from 1925-27, initially on roads around the hills at the far side of town, latterly through the streets of the town itself. The last race run through there saw the first major race victory (in cars as opposed to motorbikes) for Tazio Nuvolari, who triumphed in his privately-entered Bugatti Type 35, thereby initiating one the sport’s greatest legends.
From the Archive: “Grand Prix de Rome” (July 1927).
Part of the Nuvolari legend was his tempestuous relationship with Scuderia Ferrari. When they split from each other the first time, in 1933, a bone of contention was the level of control Nuvolari sought over the running of the team. He suggested some changes that were absolutely unacceptable to Enzo Ferrari, including re-naming the team to Scuderia Nuvolari-Ferrari. There were certain parallels to the relationship of Alonso and the Scuderia seven decades later. Frustration at the competitive limitations he was experiencing at one point led Fernando to stipulate that he wanted a veto over technical recruitments, a point confirmed by a source inside Ferrari in 2014. But probably of more significance in this case was the atmosphere the driver’s frustration was lending to the team, regardless of how hard he was working.
“I had the feeling that Fernando had got it into his mind that he could never win with Ferrari,” said Montezemolo, “and that if he was in a Mercedes he could win with one hand and this was very demotivating for everyone. Let me be clear: I believe Alonso is probably the best driver in the world even today – certainly on a Sunday. Maybe not in qualifying, where I think Hamilton and Vettel are maybe faster over one lap, but in the race he is unbelievable – a machine. But we needed motivation and it made me think what we needed for the future. I recalled that when I was trying to convince Michael [Schumacher] to return with us after Felipe’s injury in 2009 he was saying, ‘the guy you need for the future is Vettel’.”
From the archive: “In the race itself, Alonso is the best” Andrew Frankel interviews Luca di Montezemolo (May 2013).
Vettel’s occasional informal contact with Ferrari over the years had been with Piero Ferrari and Stefano Domenicali rather than Montezemolo. Now, late 2013, Luca wanted to meet him for himself – even though Alonso’s contract with Ferrari ran until the end of 2016 and Vettel’s with Red Bull ostensibly ran until the end of ’15. “Domenicali brought him to my house – and he brought with him as a present some Swiss chocolates. He was very intelligent, very positive and I was convinced he had what we needed as a team. He said Ferrari is my dream, I have a contract but I have options. So I said listen if we can do it, let’s try.”
That was the broad brush backdrop to why it happened. The specifics of how it actually played out had everything to do with the trigger in Vettel’s Red Bull contract that allowed him to be free one year early if he was below a certain position in the championship at a certain time – and how that impacted upon the ongoing discussions between Alonso and Ferrari. Unbeknown to Alonso and his manager Flavio Briatore, it was an uneven negotiation, as only one side was in full possession of all the relevant facts. Only Ferrari knew of Vettel’s potential availability. But it was nonetheless in a tricky situation in that it didn’t know until late in the season if that availability was going to be triggered, didn’t know, therefore, if it would need Alonso on board for 2015. In hindsight, this obviously was why that discussion was ongoing for so long – because Ferrari was stretching it out.
From the Archive: “Here comes the son” Mark Hughes interviews Piero Ferrari (November 2014).
For his part, Alonso felt he had had been quite open with Ferrari about his wishes as mid-season 2014 he sought out whether it would be possible to leave short of his allocated contract. Just prior to his departure from Ferrari, Montezemolo made an agreement with Alonso that under certain conditions allowed for his early departure. Fernando probably took this as a little leaving present from Luca, though potentially it made possible Ferrari’s ideal scenario of Fernando leaving of his own choice and Vettel being brought in to replace him. But still Alonso didn’t know about Vettel. That was how things stood as Montezemolo left. So at that point Alonso wanted to leave and Ferrari couldn’t yet know if it wanted him to or not – but couldn’t tell him that.
At some point it became clear to Alonso that there was no possibility of getting into a Mercedes for 2015 – but beyond that was unclear (Hamilton had yet to re-sign). There was a McLaren offer on the table, but a multi-year one. Ron Dennis was unbending on that point. So, it might just be best to stay put at Ferrari for ’15. Alonso’s ideal scenario at this point was to stay at Ferrari for ’15 and then be released from his contract one year early. When he pressed for this, Ferrari (through Marco Mattiacci) resisted (obviously, as that would have left it potentially with three drivers signed for two seats if the Vettel availability was triggered). In fact Mattiacci suggested that Alonso should extend his contract to beyond ’16 (presumably a bluff to keep negotiations ongoing).
When Vettel’s availability was triggered, he had to inform Red Bull before a cut-off date (around the time of the Japanese Grand Prix) otherwise that window of opportunity closed down. He did so and Red Bull chose to go public with his departure immediately. At which point Alonso finally learned the truth.
So who left who? It’s complicated. Essentially they left each other.