Vettel rocks F1 driver market

Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport – only the best drivers in the world get a regular crack at driving a Formula One car. For the teams involved the drivers are arguably the single most important person in the whole operation, so the driver’s market is a key chapter in the long story that is a Formula One season.
The first big player to announce his intentions for 2015 was four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel, who dropped a bombshell on the weekend of the Japanese Grand Prix by confirming that he would be leaving the Red Bull Racing at the end of the 2014 season. The most successful product of Red Bull’s young driver programme, Vettel has amassed all but one of his 39 wins with the team, forming a formidable partnership with the Adrian Newey-designed mounts to score an unprecedented nine consecutive wins as he cruised to the title last year.
Having found himself in the strongest car for each of his four championships, Vettel has often been the subject of conjecture suggesting that, in order to truly validate his driving ability, he must win another World Championship with a different team. Only two drivers have won the Driver’s Championship more times – Michael Schumacher (seven) and Juan Manuel Fangio (five) – both of whom achieving that feat with more than one team. Red Bull moved swiftly to announce Daniil Kvyat as his replacement alongside Daniel Ricciardo after just a single season at Red Bull’s sister team Toro Rosso.
The man Vettel will most likely be replacing at Ferrari, Fernando Alonso, is also on the move. The Spaniard, a double World Champion with Renault in 2005 and 2006, has been plagued by uncompetitive machinery since joining Ferrari in 2010, but transcended the limits of his car to take the title down to the wire in both 2010 and 2012, finishing runner-up on both occasions by less than five points.
Having originally planned to see out his career at Ferrari, the 33 year-old’s relationship with the Maranello has dwindled in recent years, with criticisms of the team becoming increasingly vocal. After the Hungarian Grand Prix, a reporter asked Alonso what he wanted for his birthday, to which he replied, “somebody else’s car”. Instead, Alonso received a scathing reprimand from Ferrari, a very proud institution in the F1 paddock who don’t receive public criticism well in any circumstance, least of all from their own drivers. After all, they famously fired a certain Alain Prost, then a three-time champion, for the same misdemeanour in 1991.
With both Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton set to remain at Mercedes for 2015 at least, Alonso’s most likely destination would appear to be McLaren, whom he left after a single acrimonious season in 2007. The British team will reignite their hugely successful partnership with Honda, with whom they won four drivers and four constructor’s championships between 1988 and 1991 as they look to put two uncompetitive seasons behind them.
The Japanese manufacturer is known to want Alonso, who is widely regarded as one of Formula One’s biggest talents, but there will be no guarantees that the new engine package allow him to challenge for the third title he so desperately craves. Alonso could even opt to take a sabbatical until a seat at Mercedes becomes available – echoing Prost’s decision to sit out the 1992 season before winning the title on his return with Williams in 1993.
But should Alonso choose to put his faith in the McLaren-Honda package, the British team will be left with an agonising choice between their current drivers Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen. At 34, Button is reaching the twilight stages of his career and has been linked with joining Mark Webber in the World Endurance Championship, but has a good working relationship with Honda, having driven for BAR-Honda between 2003 and 2008, which could prove crucial in the programme’s early stages.
Rookie team-mate Magnussen has acquitted himself well and steadily improved over the course of the season, but although his qualifying performances have generally been the better of the two, Button has shaded him in the races, crucially outscoring him by 94 to 49. The Dane has unquestionable potential, but whether Honda can afford to be patient with him remains to be seen. Button is desperate to “go racing” next season, but with whom (and in what form of motorsport) is still up in the air.


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February 2021
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