There have been an increasing number of rumours about Ferrari drivers from Italy and although the team’s blogger – known as The Horse Whisperer – has been quick to dismiss much of the talk as “twaddle” there is sometimes a grain of truth hidden in such things. One thing that is clear is that the team negotiated a contract recently that few demands recently that nails Fernando Alonso into a contract until the end of 2016. That move seems to have been part of a bigger strategy to secure key elements of the World Championship for the Exor/News Corporation alliance as it grinds ever onwards towards buying out CVC Capital Partners and the other shareholders in the Formula One group.
But what did it take to achieve that signature? Money is obviously a part of it, but Alonso is still hungry to win and in order to do that he needs a better car. He has struggled for two years and wants better results. Logic dictates that when looking for the right people to help him achieve his goals, Alonso will delve into his past and be in favour of those who helped him on previous occasions. Thus the Spaniard is very keen on the likes of Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, who helped him win two World Championships while at Renault F1 in 2005 and 2006, but who both came unstuck in Singapore in 2008 when they connived to get Nelson Piquet Jr to crash his car to bring out a Safety Car that enabled Alonso to win the race. Alonso did not share the blame for that incident as no-one could prove that he knew what was going on, although to be quite frank, everyone in F1 thinks he was involved, whether that is right or wrong. The suggestion that is coming strongly from Italy at the moment is that Alonso wants his own crew back together again, much as Michael Schumacher did when he was in Maranello and the team hired Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne.
In theory this is not possible until January 2013 as Briatore undertook “to abstain from having any operational role in Formula 1 until December 31 2012”, following the overturning of a lifetime disqualification from the sport which was the original punishment. That decision was overturned by a French court, but only because the federation screwed up as the World Council does not have the power to make such judgements.
As part of the settlement agreement Briatore recognised “his share of responsibility for the deliberate crash” as team principal of Renault F1. He expressed regret and presented an apology to the FIA. Later he issued a press release which said that he “confirmed his acceptance to bear his share of responsibility in the Singapore events in his capacity of managing director of the Renault F1 Team, at the time they happened, without any admission of a personal guilt”.
The stain remains on his career, whether he has expressive imaginative lawyers or not.
In order for Briatore and Symonds to join Ferrari next year – if the rumours are true – there would need to be an agreement from the FIA and that would undermine the authority of the federation – which is already battered following the Bahrain Affair.
However, it may serve the purposes of the FIA and Ferrari to want Briatore on their side at the moment. If one considers the current political situation in F1, Briatore is not as insignificant figure, despite not being around on a day-to-day basis. He remains a close ally and confidant of Bernie Ecclestone. Without the Italian as a supporter, Ecclestone’s position would be weaker, even if there is a danger that Briatore might try to sway Ferrari towards Ecclestone’s arguments. Against a background of a high-level bid to buy the sport by Ferrari parent company Exor and News Corporation, such a move might be considered palatable, if not entirely desirable, to split Ecclestone and Briatore.
Briatore would, in any case, be answerable to whoever is running the main Ferrari company and it is not clear who that might be, as there continue to be rumours that current chairman Luca di Montezemolo will be moving into Italian politics as soon as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi falls from power. That moment is getting ever closer following his defeat in a June 12-13 referendum over water privatisation, nuclear power stations and a law that in effect placed the Prime Minister above the law and prevented him from ever coming to trial. This came after the defeat of the ruling party in local elections in May, in which Berlusconi’s coalition lost control of important cities such as Milan, Naples and Trieste. What is clear is that Fiat will decide on the identity of the new Ferrari boss, and Fiat is run by John Elkann, who is also the man in control of Exor.
None of this takes into account the public perception of such a manoeuvre, although F1 has proved many times that it cares little for how the sport is viewed by the world – notably in the recent mess over Bahrain.
The Horse Whisperer may come out and say that this is all twaddle as well, but the problem is that I have tried to ignore the stories for a couple of weeks (on the grounds of taste) but they just keep coming back…