It seems as though whenever a young driver begins to make his mark on Formula 1, rumors begin to circulate that the latest wunderkind will exit whichever team he’s currently aligned with to join Ferrari. Certainly, the Prancing Horse has attracted some of the greatest names in racing.
During the time that I have been actively following F1, we’ve seen the likes of Mario Andretti, Niki Lauda, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso all do their turns as a part of the extended family at Maranello.
And I’m only mentioning world champions. There have been many other drivers who, in the right car at the right time, might also have taken top laurels. In some cases, they chose to be at Ferrari at the wrong time. The name Jean Alesi comes to mind, in particular.
Alesi was a classic seat-of-the-pants driver, who (much like his peer of the era, Nigel Mansell) who hated to test, but often drove with instinctive brilliance when the car was right. When the car was wrong, however (again, like Mansell), he seemed to rely on whining about the car rather than trying to sort it out.
At a key time in his career, Alesi had offers on the table from two rival teams: Ferrari and Williams. This was for the 1991 season, at the beginning of the Adrian Newey era at Williams, during which time that team would take five constructor’s titles. At the time, Alesi’s ultimate choice to join Ferrari might have made sense. In 1990, Alain Prost had been a title contender for the Scuderia. When Alesi joined the following year, however, the car was, in Prost’s words, “a truck,” which showed little promise.
Ironically, Nigel Mansell, who had left Ferrari the year before, having felt that the team was giving preferential treatment to Prost, enjoyed the early fruits of Adrian Newey’s influence at the team. He scored five wins that year, and finished second to Ayrton Senna in the championship. In 1992, he took the title.
Meanwhile, Alain Prost was fired from the Maranello for having publicly compared the Ferrari to a 18-wheeled big rig.
As for Alesi, was he drawn to Ferrari for their history, for the money (more than Williams would have offered), or because of his own Italian heritage? Hard to say. If he, rather than Mansell, had been in the Newey-penned car that year, his career certainly would’ve been different.
But those were the driver skirmishes of a different era. Flash forward 20 years, and today the talk is of F1’s current wunderkind, Sebastian Vettel, trading his Red Bull livery for the Prancing Horse. Vettel has acknowledged that he is not at all immune to the lure of the Ferrari brand, and Ferrari’s Stefano Domenicali has previously stated that there might come a day when F1 fans would see Vettel in Ferrari red, as opposed to Red Bull.
Vettel recently renewed his contract at Red Bull, and the contract is said to have a performance clause that would allow the young German to jump ship should the car turn into a laggard (which, at this point in time, doesn’t seem in the cards). But how likely is it, really, that Vettel would actually pack his bags and head to Maranello?
It seems that most of this speculation, partially fueled by Vettel’s own remarks, has been primarily engendered by the sports media, who, as indicated above, tend to ask every new rising star, “Would you like to drive for Ferrari some day?”
For many fans, Ferarri and Formula 1 are almost synonymous, so posing that question is a natural response to any young driver’s success. But in the end it’s the numbers that tell the story, and while Ferrari money is apt to be much more plentiful than Red Bull money, there are other numbers that are more important to Vettel now: championship points.
Vettel is in the enviable position of being in the right car at the right time. Careers are made this way. Prost, Senna and Schumacher were all undeniably brilliant, but they all shared another characteristic as well: during their peak years, they were in the quickest cars.
I think there are at least three drivers currently who would likely win the championship if their cars had the edge on the field: Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. I might add Nico Rosberg as a dark horse candidate. While I remain a stalwart Michael Schumacher fan, even Schumi seems to be facing the reality of time, conceding recently, “Age 42 is not the same as age 25.”
And speaking of time, this brings us back to the nunbers issue: every driver has a limited window of peak performance. Schumacher has perhaps stretched that window beyond the optimum. Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso easily each have a decade of active racing in front of them. But F1 contracts are measured in clumps of years, and those clumps ultimately determine a driver’s destiny.
Alonso has already stated that he’ll probably finish his career at Ferrari. Hamilton and Vettel are both a bit younger, and have made no such noises regarding their current teams. They both would like to have the best chance of winning driver’s titles during as many years as possible. When cars are slow, drivers get restless for this very reason; but when cars are quick, drivers stay content.
Ergo, it seems highly unlikely that Vettel would leave Red Bull at any time in the near future, unless he gets tired of winning, or unless Adrian Newey suddenly develops amnesia, and forgets how to design racing cars.