Ferrari and Alonso: Great promise never materialized

Alonso joined Ferrari in 2010 in what appeared to be a match made in heaven

It was a partnership that had been years in the making. And when it was finally announced that Fernando Alonso and Scuderia Ferrari would join forces for the 2010 Formula One season, the prospect of Alonso bringing multiple wins and championships to Maranello seemed if not a foregone conclusion, then certainly a more than plausible scenario.

As you likely know, it didn't exactly work out that way.

Granted, it wasn't a total failure either. In five seasons, the Spaniard won 11 Grand Prix, finished second in the World Championship standings three times, and turned numerous memorable drives. But ultimately a partnership that began with so much promise would conclude with a non-descript ninth-place finish in Abu Dhabi and zero world championships.

Nor would either party cover itself in glory off the track.

Late last week, Alonso and longtime manager Flavio Briatore tweeted pictures of Briatore smoking, in what appeared to be a childish reference mocking Ferrari and its boss Maurizio Arrivabene, a former Philip Morris executive. As for Ferrari, the man Arrivabene replaced, in Marco Mattiacci, noted that his parting gift to his former employer was 'a driver with passion for Ferrari,'� referencing Alonso's replacement Sebastian Vettel, in a classless, not-so-subtle, back-handed swipe at the Spaniard.

Of course such petty childishness will soon end, and everyone will move on, Alonso almost surely to McLaren, with whom he so acrimoniously split after the 2007 season. While Alonso will lead Honda's much publicized return to Formula 1 its probably safe to say, the expectations of Alonso going to McLaren are not near what they were upon his arrival at Ferrari in late 2009.

Today, AutoRacing1 will take a look at the five-year partnership between Alonso and Ferrari. We'll start by going back to 2009, to review what brought the two together. From there we'll outline the reasons lofty expectations were never met, some simple, others more complicate. Then, we will show how what seemed at one point to be a fairy-tale romance slowly unraveled to where the relationship continuing, was an untenable scenario.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]2009

Let's begin by acknowledging this simple fact: the climate in which Ferrari and Alonso said 'I do,' was different from the one in which the marriage would unravel.

Ferrari, of course, had won the World Drivers' Championship five consecutive years to start the millennium. They won the championship again in 2007 with Kimi Raikkonen, and lost out on a tiebreaker with Felipe Massa in 2008. Essentially, for the better part of the decade preceding Alonso's arrival at Maranello, Ferrari was an annual contender for the World Championship. Granted, that was not the case in 2009.

Ferrari found itself at a competitive disadvantage to start 2009, as teams such as Brawn and Toyota had the benefit of the trick double-diffuser. Brawn, of course, would go on to secure the Drivers' and Constructors' Championship in the team's first and only Formula One season.

Ferrari's forgettable 2009 would be characterized by a mere one victory, the injury to Felipe Massa, the failed Luca Badoer experiment, and a nasty public fallout with Raikkonen.

The Anti-Kimi

Now, the whole Raikkonen-Ferrari 2009 saga is a story unto itself, which I cannot do justice in this space. However, part of Alonso's appeal to Ferrari in 2009 was simple: he wasn't Raikkonen.

Of course, whatever Raikkonen's talents happen to be, they are accompanied by some well-documented personal idiosyncrasies. And for a company that one could say has a tendency to indulge in its own self-reverence, outward expressions of reverential awe are to put it mildly, not in the Finn's DNA. No, when 8 words are sufficient, Raikkonen is likely to give you no more than 4.

That said, whatever you might think of Raikkonen, it's hard to question his authenticity. Keep in mind, when the relationship with Ferrari began to deteriorate, Raikkonen did not abdicate nor crawl back to Ferrari with promises to change his ways. Rather, the notoriously brooding Finn had the stones to say he'd rather go parade a rally car through the mud somewhere in Finland than genuflect at the altar of the Prancing Horse. He managed to not only stick to his guns, but negotiate a $20 million buyout settlement in the process. This, of course, left the door open for Alonso.

After driving a second-rate Renault for years, Alonso was headed to a team that had aside from 2009 spent the last decade-plus contending for the World Championship. He spoke openly and romantically about the storied history of Ferrari. He wanted his name to be synonymous with Schumacher, Lauda, Ascari and the other near-mythical figures synonymous with The Prancing Horse.

Plus, in contrast to the moody Raikkonen, Alonso embraced everything there was about being the face of Ferrari. Throw in the fact Alonso was a supreme talent theoretically entering his prime years, and this absolutely had the makings of one glorious romance.

Germany 2012: Alonso won races with Ferrari, but never the title

Which for a time, it was

Although there were no championships, it's hard to deem Alonso's first three seasons at Ferrari a disappointment. He won nine races, finished second in the championship twice, and turned in some stirring drives. Sure, missing out on two titles by a total of seven points was certainly a disappointment, but it also validated the ability of driver and team.

In short, Alonso's performance 2010-2012, in which he emerged as the undisputed face of Ferrari, extended the honeymoon period, if you will. No, they hadn't achieved their ultimate goal, but they had on two occasions come painstakingly close. And the prospect that better days were ahead seemed, a realistic one.

Those better days never came

What began to play out in 2010-2012, and would reach its zenith in 2013, was something Alonso likely didn't foresee in 2009: the emergence of Red Bull Racing as the dominant team in Formula 1.

Yes, Red Bull had enjoyed a break a breakout season in 2009, with Sebastian Vettel winning 5 races. But the notion that Vettel, legendary aerodynamicist Adrian Newey, and Red Bull would dominate F1 to the level they did was implausible when Alonso signed with Ferrari in late-2009.

Or was it?

Newey, after all, had designed dominant cars during his time at Williams and McLaren, which had powered Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen to championships. Newey and Vettel would assert their supremacy further in 2013, as Vettel thoroughly dominated, winning thirteen races and finishing an astounding 155 points ahead of second-place Alonso in the championship. The Newey/Vettel combination rewriting the F1 record book also revealed what was in hindsight Alonso's greatest failure at Ferrari: not aligning himself with the top engineering talent of the day.

This of course, is something Ferrari great Schumacher had done so successfully before, bringing his Benetton World Championship engineer Ross Brawn to Ferrari with him. Schumacher insisted on having the best engineering and aerodynamic people surrounding him, something other great drivers have placed a significant premium on. Remember, Prost came out of retirement in 1993 to drive the Newey-designed Williams. Ayrton Senna would switch to Williams in 1994 to drive the Newey car.

In what is something of an overlooked narrative over the past two-plus decades is that the majority of championship winning cars (including all of the last six) are if not Brawn/Newey designs, then have the fingerprints of one of the two somewhere on them. Alonso for all his accomplishments and all his maneuvering amongst teams, has never managed to align his genius behind-the-wheel with technical genius of Newey or Brawn a la Prost, Senna, Schumacher, and Vettel.

Perhaps, this ability to construct a championship team of engineers is as much a defining characteristic of the drivers mentioned above as their talents behind-the-wheel. With the benefit of hindsight it probably was naive on Alonso's part to presume the team and/or his driving ability was enough to carry the team to championships.

Brazil 2011. No one doubts Alonso's ability behind the wheel, but he failed where it really counts

Speaking of ability behind the wheel

Alonso's on-track performance during his time at Ferrari was by all accounts, exceptional. In fact, in 97 Grand Prix with Ferrari, Alonso beat his teammate (Massa from 2010-2013, Raikkonen this past season) get this: 83 TIMES!!!!!

That's good right?

For Alonso's reputation, it was definitely good. Logically one would think that would be of value to Ferrari, but there's context to consider.

See, Alonso's performance relative to his teammates, served to reinforce the narrative that Alonso was a supreme talent, who seemed to be maximizing the capabilities of his equipment. Think about how many times during his Ferrari tenure Alonso would say 'we did the maximum today,' after say a fifth-place finish?

Because Alonso was so outstanding, again relative to teammates, he became almost immune from criticism. The prevailing wisdom was that Alonso was getting the most out of what Ferrari was providing. Niki Lauda, for one, noted during this year's Singapore weekend, 'without Fernando Alonso, Ferrari would be nowhere."

Now, the notoriously direct Lauda wasn't intending to take anyone to task. He was simply restating a widely held belief: Ferrari was not maximizing what it had in Alonso, not the other way around.

And herein lies the rub

The more Alonso kept burying teammates (yet simultaneously failing to bring championships to Maranello), the more the perception became ingrained that he was maximizing the potential of a less-than-stout technical package. As a result, the notion that Ferrari wasn't building a car befitting of Alonso's talent became a widely accepted narrative. When results didn't meet expectations it was the Ferrari engine's lack of power, or the Ferrari chassis' lack of grip that were cited. Whatever accomplishments Alonso happened to achieve were in spite of Ferrari. Contrarily, the fact Alonso had not won a championship was deemed a Ferrari failure.

Fair or unfair, and despite the fact Alonso himself did nothing to directly perpetuate this notion, a reality had emerged: Ferrari was in a no-win situation with Alonso. Any successes were viewed as validations of Alonso. Failures, however, were attributed to the shortcomings of Ferrari.

Where things were at the end of 2013

What had emerged by the end of 2013 was a clear scenario in which Alonso had to realize Ferrari lacked the technical resources and personnel to bring him championships. As for Ferrari, the situation had reached the point where Alonso's continued success was not bringing glory to Ferrari, rather reinforcing a narrative that:

  1. Alonso was a supreme talent and
  2. Ferrari had failed to deliver a package befitting of said supreme talent

The Divorce

2014 was the final straw that broke the camel's back for Alonso at Ferrari

The technical changes introduced for 2014 theoretically provided a glimmer of hope for everyone that the Vettel/Newey express could be derailed. For teams like Ferrari, the slate was wiped clean so to speak.

However, as early as preseason testing it became clear Mercedes had a distinct advantage. To make matters worse with an engine freeze currently in place, Renault and Ferrari-powered teams were facing the prospect they would remain at a disadvantage going forward. Knowing this, Alonso began to plot his exit strategy from Ferrari. Or perhaps more specifically, Alonso began to look for a way get into a Mercedes car.

Of course, as Alonso is known to do, he seemingly engineered something of a complex scheme with a third party (in this case McLaren) to pressure Mercedes. In October, I argued that Alonso essentially overplayed his hand, as he didn't account for the role his current team would play in his latest theatrics.

This came to a head during the Japanese Grand Prix weekend at Honda-owned Suzuka in October. As Alonso was openly flirting with McLaren and Honda, a bombshell was dropped on the F1 world: Vettel was leaving Red Bull after 2014. Although it would not be made official until just recently, Red Bull boss Christian Horner accidentally let it slip that Vettel was headed to Maranello. In what was supposed to be a weekend in which Alonso would be showered with attention, Ferrari stole the show. And in hindsight, maybe we should have known there was no chance the prideful Ferrari was going to sit idly by while their driver openly flirted with McLaren and Honda.

With Vettel, Ferrari ironically got exactly what they did with Alonso in 2009: a multiple-World Champion following a difficult season, and potentially entering his prime years; a driver with a keen sense of history, willing to talk openly about his 'passion' for Ferrari; a man who ironically comes to Ferrari full of the enthusiasm for the team, which once characterized the man he replaces.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]In conclusion

As we can see, there were clearly circumstances which brought about the Alonso/Ferrari divorce unforeseen when the marriage was consummated. Yes, the benefit of hindsight reveals failures on the part of both, such as the previously mentioned failure by Alonso to insist on top engineering talent within the team, and/or Ferrari to provide it.

But at the end of the day the simply reality for Alonso became clear: Ferrari was no longer a place Alonso believed he could win championships. For Ferrari, the presence of Alonso had unraveled into a rare scenario in which Alonso's accomplishments only brought disrepute to the proud, iconic company.

By the middle of 2014, whatever fairy-tale romance this may have once been, had run its course. And if either Ferrari or Alonso wanted to ascend to new heights, it was clear that was never going to happen together.

Brian Carroccio is a columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.

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