The Formula 1 rumour mill was in full flow in the Hungarian Grand Prix paddock on Sunday with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso linked with a move to reigning world champions Red Bull.
So is this real, what is behind it and what happens next?
The suggestion is that Alonso’s management approached Red Bull on Friday in Hungary about the possibility of driving for them, with the Milton Keynes-based outfit having a vacant seat from next season as Mark Webber is leaving the sport to compete in sportscars.
Alonso told the BBC after the race: “Always in August there are rumours. It’s a good time for rumours because there are four weeks with no F1 race.” When asked whether his manager Luis Garcia Abad had spoken to Red Bull, Alonso said: “No I don’t think so. Not that I know of.”
A photo of Abad with Red Bull boss Christian Horner appeared in German tabloid Sport Bild (above) and this has triggered the chatter. Alonso’s camp say that Abad was talking to Horner about Carlos Sainz Jr, who tested for the team at Silverstone recently.
It’s not unusual for managers to speak to team principals, it happens all the time. For example, Richard Goddard, manager of Jenson Button and Paul di Resta was seen by this website coming out of a meeting with Horner in one of the back rooms of the Red Bull motorhome at the weekend. That doesn’t mean either of his drivers is going to Red Bull. But there is always a conversation to be had around this time of year.
Sources suggest that there has been a conversation about Alonso, but much like the one Lewis Hamilton had with Horner at Montreal in 2011, it is highly unlikely to lead to a marriage. Rather it shows a restlessness and desire to look around. Dangerously for him, Ferrari and the millions of tifosi, it shows disloyalty which doesn’t play well in Italian circles. And with four weeks for it to hang in the air, it creates an unsettled mood at the moment when the team needs to be united to find a competitive package for the second half of the season.
The fact is that Alonso has a five year contract at Ferrari, the team is based around him, he has a high degree of say on how the team is run and in major appointments, like incoming technical director James Allison.
However the clock is ticking for Alonso who celebrates his 32nd birthday today. All the signs are that Ferrari’s 2013 championship challenge is blunted, new developments have not kept pace meanwhile the momentum is now with Mercedes. Next year Mercedes is expected to have a title contending car under the new rules and Red Bull is certain to be the main opposition. The time for Alonso to get his third world title, the crowning ambition of this ambitious driver, is running out. There are question marks about how potent the Ferrari powertrain will be for 2013. Industry insight puts Mercedes ahead of Renault with Ferrari behind. Allison and his clever aerodynamics may not be enough.
It is very hard to imagine Red Bull, which has a very methodical approach to racing, wanting Alonso, for the same reason Ferrari don’t want Vettel alongside Alonso: It’s too inflammatory a situation. It would create great headlines but both drivers would be rattled and it would end in tears.
Raikkonen is a better fit because he is non-political. The problem Red Bull would have with Raikkonen is that he would want complete parity with Vettel on race strategy, rather than first call going to Vettel every time, as – judging from current qualifying form – he would be likely to be ahead on the road more often than not in the opening stint of a race.
Red Bull has a tried and tested formula, aimed at collecting maximum constructors’ points for the team and controlling the race with Vettel. Alonso would upset that formula totally while Raikkonen may ask for things they aren’t willing to give him. It would require them to run the team like McLaren, which has proven less effective than the Red Bull approach or the even more one-sided Ferrari approach.
So we are talking about some fundamentals about the way a team is run and Alonso clearly doesn’t fit.
However, what is interesting about this situation is 1) why has Alonso risked coming across as disloyal to Ferrari and its fans, creating a situation which destabilises Maranello over the long summer break 2) how the various parties have reacted to questions about it.
Ahead of the long summer break, Red Bull boss Christian Horner sees an opportunity for mischief, with no downside for him and his team. He said on Sunday that the team have not yet decided who will fill Webber’s seat, adding that several drivers have been in touch regarding a race drive.
“We are starting to get a clearer picture but then other options pop up. We are in fortunate position where we are not in a rush,” he said. “We have a great deal of interest in the seat and we just want to make sure we get it right.”
Reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel was asked by the BBC if he would like to race alongside Alonso.
Choosing his words carefully, the German said: “I’d prefer Kimi. I need to be careful now, but nothing against Fernando, I really respect him a lot as a driver, but I respect Kimi on track, off track because he has always been very straight with me. From that point of view it would be a bit easier.”
You don’t need a PhD in semantics to read between the lines of that answer. Vettel’s skill with English and the subtlety of nuance in his answers is always impressive.
Alonso started the season strongly with two wins and a second in the first five races, but his championship challenge has since tailed off and Vettel has been able to build a sizeable lead at the top of the standings.
If Alonso is not successful in winning the title this year – his first since 2006 – it would be a fourth missed opportunity with the Italian team.
The Spaniard has made a long-term commitment to Ferrari with his current deal not set to expire until 2016. He might argue that his loyalty over these last four seasons has not been repaid with competitive cars, despite competing for two of the last three world titles to the final race.
There will be get-out clauses in his contract if the car isn’t competitive enough, but Alonso has won twice this year and is third in the championship, with 77% of Vettel’s points, so we are unlikely to be in a position where he can action an escape.
Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali looked calm but irritated on Sunday when he said: “We have a contract with Fernando, Fernando is an asset for the team. “[The rumours] is part of the game in this F1 paddock. We are very used to it. Honestly it’s gone in this ear and gone out that ear.
“For sure [Alonso will be at Ferrari next year] he has a contract.”
He will be at Ferrari next year, no doubt. But what will be the legacy of this episode?