On Sunday Sebastian Vettel was asked in front of the world about Ferrari. The question was carefully phrased – deliberately so – by my pal Dan Knutson, who has been around long enough to know how racing folk can perpetrate deniable falsehoods. Could Seb set the record straight, Dan asked, “Is there any arrangement, agreement, talk between you and your people and Ferrari?” A pretty catch-all question.
The reply was as follows:
“No, there’s nothing, nothing to tell you, nothing I’ve signed. Nothing has changed. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t read much, so it’s quite a surprise when you get to the circuit and get all these questions. Nothing to report. As I said, I can’t be happier at the moment, I’m very happy… Actually, there’s one thing I would like to say about this. It’s hard to speak to every single person in the team, so if there’s – sorry to say – some bullshit in the press, obviously there might be some concerns back in the factory. I’m 100 percent behind them as I feel they’re 100 percent behind me. Therefore I want to get this straight: there’s nothing to report and I’m very happy at Red Bull Racing.”
Ferrari is making similar noises at the moment, saying that the whole idea is in the minds of some of the F1 media. Perhaps it is. Vettel’s denial is fairly comprehensive. If he is lying, then he is doing it comprehensively.
So why is there a story at all? The answer is that there are sources that know Ferrari inside and out and some of them have been 100 percent reliable for longer than Sebastian Vettel has been on this earth. The source I know is so confident that he says that the deal was agreed as long ago as September 2011. So the question boils down to whether a totally trusted and proven source is more reliable than a racing driver and a team, both of whom have good reasons not to tell the truth.
When one encounters such stories it is always worth remembering that F1 people do have a passion for pork pies at moments of stress. I am often reminded of this when I pass the bar of the Sheraton at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Back at the end of 1996 I was wheeling a baggage trolley past the window of the Sheraton bar when someone inside caught my eye. I knew the hairline and I carefully turned my trolley around and made a second pass, taking a second look, but without drawing attention to myself. Inside were Alain Prost and various members of what one day would become British American Racing. At the time Prost was tipped to be about to take over Ligier and looking for money and the BAR gang was looking for a team. Everyone denied it but I knew. Because I had been there. You should never have a secret meeting next to a window!
Anyway, back to the present day. On the face of it a Vettel-Ferrari deal makes no real sense in the short term. Sebastian is winning with Red Bull Racing. Why would he throw himself up against Fernando Alonso at Ferrari? Why would Ferrari want to destabilise its primary asset; And why would Vettel want to walk away from Adrian Newey? The argument I have heard told is that Vettel will soon have won three consecutive titles with Red Bull Racing and might want a new challenge.
Do racing drivers get bored of winning to such an extent that they make lives difficult for themselves? No. That argument does not work for me. They move somewhere because they want something more than they have. Jenson Button won the World Championship with Brawn GP and then moved to McLaren because he figured, quite rightly, that the team he had been with would not do it again. He also knew that Lewis Hamilton was not unbeatable, the two having raced against and alongside one another since they were both very young. So Button was moving to McLaren because he knew he would be in a more competitive situation; would have a better financial arrangement; and that being competitive and beating Lewis would increase his value. So that does make sense, even if at the time it did not.
In this case, Vettel can stay at Red Bull for as long as he likes, he can be paid plenty of money. He can keep himself sharp with team-mates who are hungry and while he might like to one day be seen in Ferrari red, and might perhaps dream of beating Alonso (who gets a little edgy when he has a very fast team-mate), it would be easier for Seb to bide his time and then maybe try to convince Adrian Newey to go to Ferrari with him, to crown both of their fabulous careers. Adrian is not a man who has ever shown any desire to follow drivers around, nor has he ever wanted to move to Italy, despite being heavily courted on several occasions. He knows that it is his cars that make champions, rather than the drivers dragging his inventions to world titles.
Ferrari has been down this road before. A generation ago the team was so keen to sign John Barnard that it TWICE paid to set up engineering companies in England so that it could enjoy the benefits of JB’s abilities. The first was called Ferrari Guildford Technical Office (GTO) and operated from 1987. It produced the ground-breaking Ferrari 640 (with which Nigel Mansell won races in 1989) and its development the 641 (with which Alain Prost challenged for the World Championship in 1990). Barnard had departed by then, lured away to Benetton with big promises but he soon fell out with Flavio Briatore and after working on a secret project designed to lure Toyota into F1, he rejoined Ferrari in 1993 with a new technical office in Surrey called Ferrari Design and Development (FDD). This designed F1 Ferraris for several years, but success was somewhat limited and in the end it was agreed that this was not the right answer and Jean Todt set about building a different kind of Dream Team, featuring Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn. Even then it took a lot of work before Ferrari team finally became dominant. Would Ferrari do the same thing again to get Newey? Back in the early 1990s Barnard was the master of innovations that no-one in Italy knew about. These days there is much more knowledge around and Newey’s expertise is hemmed into a relatively small, but hugely important envelope.
Ferrari might be smarter to argue that F1 needs less aerodynamics and thus negate the Newey Factor by a political route, or perhaps offer Adrian a deal by which they will NOT go down that path if he agrees to join them!
Right now, however, Alonso is 31 and is at the height of his considerable powers. He is working diligently to turn Ferrari into a winning team. He says that he does not care who he has as a team-mate, but know one thinks that the leopard will have changed his spots. Fernando showed weakness when at McLaren in 2007 and that reputation has stayed with him. His contract with Ferrari runs until the end of the 2016 season, four years from now. This was signed early in 2011. Most top drivers tend to ease off a little in their mid-thirties, and they make up for the lost speed by using their experience to keep them attractive. Michael Schumacher did this with Ferrari but even then the team shovelled him out of the way at the age of 37, back in 2006. So Ferrari knows that by the end of his contract the chances are that Fernando will want different things in life, particularly if he wins a few titles in the next couple of years.
So one is at Ferrari and looking into the long-term future, one can see that the Alonso generation, featuring Fernando, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, Heikki Kovalainen and Timo Glock will likely be fading out of F1 by 2016. There is a clear gap between these guys and the next generation that features Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Pastor Maldonado, Nico Rosberg, Paul di Resta, Romain Grosjean, Kamui Kobayashi, Sebastien Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg. There is another clear gap to a third generation, which features Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez, Charles Pic and Jean Eric Vergne, with more to follow. Red Bull has its eyes on a couple of the youngsters, McLaren has taken a risk on Perez. But for Ferrari, the period after Alonso remains undecided. Vettel, at 25, will be a perfect candidate for Ferrari as his career peaks in five years. So it makes sense for the team to think about him in the long term, even if it does not make much sense for Sebastian to throw away what he has, unless it all falls apart.
Vettel signed for Red Bull Racing back in March 2011. That deal should keep him at Red Bull Racing until the end of 2014. The contract is reputed to be a complicated document, which lays out a payment plan that guarantees a steady increase in earnings, rising for $11 million a year in 2011 to 13.8 million in 2012 and ultimately to $16.5 million in 2014. The Red Bull people have said loudly that there are no options, nor opt-outs. This may be true, but did anyone ask about “lock-in” clauses which mean that Vettel has to stay for the next season if he achieves a certain level of performance each year. Red Bull might, therefore, be able to argue that Vettel has to stay until the end of 2014, but could be dissembling over the terms of the deal if they do not deliver a suitable car.
Ferrari and Vettel might have some kind of verbal agreement, but this is risky in a world where people are not always trustworthy. It is more likely that there would be a heads of agreement, some kind of a non-binding document that outlines a potential future partnership, which only becomes enforcible when one or both parties agree to go ahead. Such a document would be stuffed full of confidentiality clauses and everyone in F1 knows that if you do not deny a deal, half the paddock believe that it exists. Thus telling a lie is perhaps a better option, if you are given to mistruth. In such a case there is anyway plenty of plausible deniability and shredders make light work of little agreements. So, as and when such a thing emerges, the parties can always say “when I said that it was not the case” and who can prove them wrong?
Thus it is possible that Ferrari might have a deal that would give them first call on Vettel’s services in 2014, but only if he fails to meet the lock-in clauses in his Red Bull contract in 2013. However he would be free to join Ferrari in 2015, whether Alonso likes it or not.
It really all boils down to a question of who we believe – until the point at which the truth will come out.