So, let’s get this straight. Ferrari gets rid of a driver who wants to be there and has been the consummate team player over eight years despite not being overly fast for four of them. Ferrari re-hires a driver to whom it paid $28 million to go away four years ago, doesn’t want to do anything other than drive cars very fast and get paid a hefty wedge for his services, and will be 34 years old next month. Ferrari has an incumbent driver who, to most experts’ eyes, is the most complete on the grid, is incredibly frustrated by not having won a championship in seven years, and has a poor track record in dealing with a teammate who is anything but a subservient number two or doesn’t have the ability to get in his way on a regular basis. And this is the way to halt the seemingly-unstoppable combination that is, in order of importance, Adrian Newey, Red Bull Racing and a 26-year-old named Sebastian Vettel? Am I missing something?
A word on Felipe Massa. Nice guy, true professional, 11-time Grand Prix winner. But results talk, and getting rid of him was the right thing to do. Probably was last year too or the year before that when Ferrari entertained the idea of Mark Webber as Alonso’s teammate, which would have been fascinating to see. Hopefully Massa finds a drive elsewhere to reward the class he’s shown in his career as a proper, decent human being in a sport that’s not exactly overflowing with them.
But Kimi Raikkonen? Ferrari changes its drivers very rarely, remember: since 2000 we’ve only had Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, Massa, Raikkonen, Giancarlo Fisichella (briefly) and Fernando Alonso in red overalls (like you, I’m not counting Luca Badoer, who might just be finishing the 2009 European GP in the next 10 minutes). The team has operated with a very clear principle of all of its eggs in one basket ever since Schumacher came to Maranello in 1996. Nearly 20 years on, we know the way to win in F1 is to have a defined number one driver and someone who is either contractually-bound to be a team player or who is either not quite quick enough to win or not allowed to participate in a fair fight despite repeated claims to the contrary (filed under ‘Webber, Mark’). So what exactly are Ferrari trying to achieve here other than trying to enrage Alonso to the extent that he’ll leave? It can’t be for succession planning, obviously: as it is, Raikkonen will be the oldest driver on next year’s grid, Alonso (if Massa doesn’t find a new home elsewhere) the third-oldest.
A disgruntled Alonso usually means one thing: change, and decisive change at that. This is a man who brazenly negotiated his 2007 McLaren drive while on the podium celebrating his 2005 title success for Renault at Interlagos, and one who ran back to Renault as soon as he could when things went sour at McLaren alongside a fast rookie teammate named Lewis Hamilton. To think that he wouldn’t be, as corporate PR-speak would call it, “considering his options” in the wake of Raikkonen’s signature is naive. But maybe this is Ferrari’s brilliant long-term plan after all.
Given his current level of frustration and the tension with senior management, It’s hard to imagine Alonso being at Ferrari after the end of the 2015 season. It’s hard to imagine Raikkonen being in the sport full stop by then. Which leaves one obvious way of how to stop the juggernaut that is Red Bull Racing and Vettel – which is by signing the German himself. The one way to stop someone beating you is to cut your losses and make sure he joins you, right?
Quite why Ferrari chose to go down the same path it trod years ago with Raikkonen remains to be seen, but from this writer’s perspective, the Finn’s signature for two years makes it all the more transparent what Ferrari have planned for 2016 and beyond. Who else does Ferrari have waiting in the wings? Finished thinking yet? Exactly. Which means your Ferrari line-up that takes to the grid in Melbourne or whatever cashed-up Middle Eastern destination coughs up the most dosh to host the season opener in 2016 could well be Sebastian Vettel and Jules Bianchi. An established star with pedigree, and a solid number two on 10 per cent of the salary who is happy to be there, is capable of scoring points and sweeping up behind the team leader on the rare occasion he drops the ball, and ensures the team is in the constructors’ championship fight year after year. A bit like Ferrari used to be, basically.
Signing Raikkonen could be seen as the first step in a long-term plan to ensure success in Ferrari’s future – a future in which neither of next year’s drivers will likely feature.