Issue 36: The driver market moves and early indicators for the 2015 season


29 October 2014

Sebastian Vettel announced in early October that he would be leaving Red Bull Racing at the end of 2014. Fernando Alonso and Ferrari agreed to part company at the end of this season.

I can’t resist musing about the recent much-publicised announcements in the driver market and the possible implications for the 2015 season. It is very early to be drawing any hard-and-fast conclusions, but a little speculation now and again is fun…

The driver merry-go-round

Whenever a world champion decides to up sticks and move to a new team it’s big news. When two world champions decide to leave their teams it sends the global F1 community into a frenzy. At the Japanese Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel announced he was leaving Red Bull at the end of this season. At the same time, Fernando Alonso was released from his Ferrari contract a year early. Neither driver confirmed which team they will be driving for next season. However, as has been widely reported, it is almost certain Vettel will be driving for Ferrari. Alonso’s destination is less certain, but conventional wisdom says McLaren-Honda. There are other scenarios too, however, such as both Vettel and Alonso driving for McLaren, Alonso taking a sabbatical or making up with Ferrari to fulfil his contract for 2015.

Two questions interest me about Vettel and Alonso’s moves: (1) On the assumption that Vettel is driving for Ferrari from 2015, can he ‘do a Schumacher’ and propel the Scuderia back to the pinnacle of F1 for multiple seasons? And (2) Could a Vettel and Alonso superteam at McLaren challenge Hamilton and Rosberg at Mercedes in 2015?

1 – Can Vettel succeed with Ferrari where Alonso has failed?

Alonso arrived at Ferrari in 2010 with the aim of winning at least one world championship for the Scuderia. He has failed despite Herculean efforts on the Spaniard’s part in particular. In an era of Red Bull dominance, repeating what Schumacher achieved was a fantasy. Red Bull’s dominance is now over, so perhaps Vettel can succeed in making the Prancing Horse champions again. However, I doubt it for several reasons:

– When he left Benetton in 1995 to race for Ferrari in 1996, Schumacher took several key technical personnel with him. These individuals became instrumental to Ferrari’s success; Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne specifically. So far, Vettel has taken no-one of note from Red Bull with him. In fact, some Red Bull personnel have left to join other teams.

– In the early 2000s, Schumacher was unmatched in terms of driving ability and with the best car underneath him he was unstoppable. Vettel on the other hand, will have to beat drivers better than him, notably Alonso and Hamilton, but Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Rosberg might justifiably argue their case too. Alonso is generally regarded as the driver most able to get the absolute maximum out of the car underneath him. In 2014, he has regularly put his car higher up the finishing order than it should have been. If Alonso couldn’t make Ferrari champions why would Vettel do any better?

– Ferrari’s current top management lacks professional racing team managerial experience. Marco Mattiacci and Sergio Marchionne are not racers. They are automotive executives. They are not the type of personalities most likely to bring racing success back to Ferrari. Red Bull showed the value of employing and empowering racers to make decisions at the summit if F1 teams. Conversely, the recent F1 experiences of Toyota, Honda and BMW illustrate clearly why car manufacturers don’t run successful F1 teams. Mercedes understand this. Do Ferrari’s current management get it?

– It’s been some time since we saw any ground-breaking technical innovations come out of Maranello. This doesn’t inspire confidence that Ferrari have the technical capability to deliver a car good enough for Vettel. In 2014, they are racing with the least successful powertrain and their chassis is probably no better than fourth best on the grid. True, the Scuderia had done little in the seasons prior to Schumacher’s arrival in 1996 and they endured a painful season that year too. But, the best people were being put in place to change that. I don’t see that happening now.

Of course, Vettel could improve as a driver, key technical personnel from Red Bull or other teams might follow Vettel to Maranello and Ferrari might decide to hire a team principal with professional racing team managerial experience, making wins and titles a lot more likely.

2 – Can a McLaren-Honda superteam challenge Mercedes in 2015?

In short, I doubt it. But beyond 2015, quite possibly. With both Vettel and Alonso driving for them, McLaren could at least be sure that their drivers will wring the maximum performance from the car. However, the real keys to a McLaren challenge to the might of Mercedes are the strength of the Honda powertrain and whether McLaren can make its chassis develop more aerodynamic downforce. The Honda powertrain is the wildcard here. The Japanese manufacturer will no doubt have been able to learn from the experiences of Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari in 2014 and integrate the best bits, as far as can be gleaned, into their 2015 powertrain. Honda will also have had the bonus of gaining greater knowledge of F1’s benchmark power unit, which has been powering a McLaren in 2014. Moreover, Honda are a technology company; complex power units that integrate cutting edge energy recovery systems is what they do. And reports say that their powertrain is performing well on the dyno in Japan.

On the flipside, Honda have no real-world data, unlike Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault. Moreover, Renault’s power unit also performed well on the dyno pre-season, but once it was slotted into the back of a Red Bull for pre-season testing in Spain and Bahrain, significant problems quickly emerged.

However, even with the best power unit, McLaren have been nowhere near Mercedes in 2014. Their chassis is weak. They will not win championships if they don’t change this, regardless of whether Honda can match Mercedes. However, a couple of early indicators suggest McLaren can look forward to a better chassis in 2015. The first of these concerns Honda’s powertrain. @ScarbsF1, in his recent analysis of images of Honda’s powertrain, suggested that Honda appears to have produced quite a compact engine with the more complex parts sited at the rear. This means the unit can be moved forward to enable slimmer sidepods and better airflow to the rear of the car. Perhaps this is early evidence of good chassis-powertrain integration. The second indicator is the return of Peter Prodromou, formely Red Bull’s head of aerodynamics under Adrian Newey. Prodromou is well-regarded and will likely make a difference to the way McLaren produces its chassis. He will at the very least bring the experience of working in F1’s leading chassis-design team. Perhaps he’ll even be able to share with McLaren exactly what Red Bull do with the rake of their car that allows the leading edge of the floor to run so close to the track but the diffuser at the rear to run higher off the ground than any other team.

Looking ahead to 2015

Nevertheless, even if McLaren is on the upward performance curve next season with Alonso and Vettel behind the wheel, that is still likely to be insufficient to mount a championship challenge. In fact, the upshot of all of this is that Mercedes will probably be very well-placed to dominate in 2015 because their chief rivals – Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren – will all be in various states of transition. Furthermore, none of these teams will have the benchmark powertrain (as it stands now) nor will they develop their chassis and powertrain as one, with the obvious exception of Ferrari. It’s looking like Hamilton and Rosberg battle resumed in 2015.

The media’s voracious appetite for news – no matter how speculative – has meant that excessive attention has been paid to these driver line-up changes. Yes, fans care about their driving heroes, but my contention is that for the 2015 season at least, where Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso end up will be less significant to the outcome of next year’s world championship.