Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne made an unexpected visit to the Hungarian Grand Prix on Sunday. After the race he gave some details of how he sees the renewal of the engine supply deal with Sauber, which decided to ditch the agreement with Honda, signed by previous team boss Monisha Kaltenborn.
“It’s a very positive thing for us; it’s a chance to have a junior team. We have a pair of exceptional drivers we need to run,” he told Italian media.
Marchionne is referring to Charles Leclerc (below) the runaway leader of the FIA F2 Championship and Antonio Giovinazzi, Ferrari’s official reserve driver. Giovinazzi has already done a couple of races for Sauber, substituting for the injured Pascal Wehrlein in Australia and China. Leclerc is due to test for Ferrari this week in Budapest, starting Tuesday.
But will Sauber and Ferrari be able to run both next season?
Marchionne’s scenario for Sauber begs the question on the ongoing role of the Swede Marcus Ericsson, who is linked with the Longbow Finance group that owns Sauber and whose backers provide significant funding for the team. Clearly it means a move onwards for Pascal Wehrlein, who is a Mercedes junior driver.
In a fast changing landscape, there is another motive for this Sauber move, beyond young driver training.
The battle lines are being drawn for the next round of negotiations on the Concorde Agreement, for the period after 2020.
Ferrari and Marchionne have seen the growing influence of Mercedes and Toto Wolff in F1 in the last few years and need to keep their own powerbase of allies in position.
Ferrari supplies engines and technical support to Haas, which is well aligned with the Scuderia. With Sauber, they have three of F1’s ten teams and Marchionne said that he would welcome others, including new entries to F1.
“We are looking to add to the number of customers for our engines, agreeing with Liberty and the FIA to help new teams to come into F1. The more we have the better,” he said.
The more teams Ferrari or Mercedes supplies the greater the control they have over affairs in F1 and the weightier the risk if they get around to threatening either to leave F1 or start a rival series, if the negotiations don’t go well.
Far from wanting to give up their special bonuses, these big teams will want an even greater share of F1 commercial revenues going forward and they are in a strong negotiating position.
It made no sense, with these financial and political battles looming, to let one of their long time allies go to Honda and the engine supply deal neatly provides an outlet for the two young drivers Ferrari wants to bring through.
One of them is likely to replace Kimi Raikkonen in 2019, the Finn having done all he needed to do in the Hungarian Grand Prix on Sunday to earn his renewal for another season. Don’t forget that Marchionne called for Raikkonen to show a higher level of commitment as recently as the Austrian Grand Prix.
Marchionne notably took the opportunity of his visit to the Budapest paddock to spend time at Mercedes with Wolff, whom he described as a ‘friend’.
The rumours of a possible ‘switch’ between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel provide a neat smokescreen for the real conversation going on behind closed doors, the one that Liberty can feel anxious about; where Mercedes, Ferrari and indeed Renault align themselves in the negotiations on F1’s future.
* Marchionne earlier told SKY TV that he was considering taking the FCA Group into Formula E, following the lead of Porsche and Mercedes last week, but that it would be either with the Maserati or Alfa Romeo brand, not Ferrari.
It would also make sense to badge the engines supplied to Sauber next season as Alfa Romeo as this is a great platform to promote the brand in F1 and with young drivers. Watch this space.
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