The fallout from the Hungarian Grand Prix has been as deflating as it was predictable after Ferrari once again hurt its championship chances with poor strategic choices.
But prior to the race, the biggest news had been far from predictable, as Sebastian Vettel announced his intention to retire from Formula 1 at the end of the season. Then Aston Martin went and did Ferrari a favor by confirming Fernando Alonso as Vettel’s replacement first thing on Monday morning.
The reaction from many was one of surprise, but I can’t say I was shocked. For starters, I’d been told by one team principal as early as Canada that he believed Alonso would join Aston and that Vettel would retire, which solved a problem for Alpine in the process. Not everyone at Alpine was fully behind retaining Alonso in the long-term because of the potential cost. Not financial terms, but because his presence was likely to place the team at risk of losing Oscar Piastri.
The Australian was so impressive in the way he followed a Formula Renault championship with a Formula 3 title as a rookie in a COVID-hit season, and even more so by claiming the F2 championship last year to make it three in a row, but there wasn’t space for him on the F1 grid. The promise made was that there would be in 2023.
But with Alonso performing well and holding an option for next season, and Esteban Ocon still having two years to run on his current deal, Alpine was potentially going to have to find another solution.
Many quarters claimed a Williams deal was done – even some at Grove believed that move was all but certain – but Mark Webber advises Piastri and knew that wouldn’t necessarily be the best switch.
It’s not to say it would be a bad one, but given a chance of racing for Alpine (where he is embedded and testing regularly) or Williams (where he has no knowledge of a team bottom of the constructors’ championship) it’s obvious which one stands out as the preferred move. That Piastri didn’t join mid-season when Nicholas Latifi’s seat was in question can be traced to concerns over whether playing catch-up to Alex Albon in a car only infrequently capable of escaping Q1 posed a risk to the Australian’s career momentum.
And while Alonso was delivering, the absence of a confirmed deal early in the year suggested Alpine was trying to find a solution to the welcome problem of having three massively talented drivers on its books. So Piastri continued to wait in the wings.
Then came Vettel’s retirement announcement, delivered to Aston Martin on Wednesday. The team had made the four-time world champion a firm offer, but also wanted a decision so it could finalize options elsewhere if required.
Alonso knows Lawrence Stroll and discussions about a future collaboration will have taken place long before Vettel made his final call, such was the speed of the agreement over the weekend. But Aston Martin insists that the deal was only closed after Vettel informed the team of his intentions.
Furthermore, the timing of Vettel’s announcement allowed Aston to receive expressions of interest from other drivers before the summer break, in case it then had a big decision on its hands like Alpine.
Instead, that decision became an easy one. When another team principal asked who I thought would get the Aston seat on Friday night and I suggested Alonso, the notion was laughed off. The response was that Alonso would rattle Lance Stroll’s cage too much and isn’t a long-term signing, plus Alpine is more competitive than Aston so not worth the switch.
Mick Schumacher was suggested as the frontrunner instead, due to the name and the fact he’d be less of a threat to Stroll.
But that underestimated both Lawrence Stroll and Fernando Alonso. The former is enormously ambitious and has quadrupled the wages of some rival teams’ employees to bring them to Aston. This is a project that will never want for money, but also targets the very biggest names, as signing Vettel in the first place showed. Replacing him with Schumacher just did not match that ambition.
And those financial aspects – both in direct salary to Alonso and investment in the team – were highly unlikely to be matched by Alpine. The French constructor is on a positive trajectory, but Alonso has gambled on Aston having the potential to move forward more quickly, fairly safe in the knowledge Alpine won’t be winning races regularly in 2023.
Aston was also willing to give Alonso a multi-year contract that Alpine was more reluctant to provide, given its situation with Piastri. That situation has now been resolved, assuming it does the obvious and hands the 21-year-old his very deserved chance.
While losing Alonso’s talent, experience and stature is a blow, Alpine also knows it’s not quite ready to win yet. Losing such a big name isn’t always so damaging when it will allow the likes of Piastri and Ocon to develop even further – just like McLaren did when opting for Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, or Ferrari with Sainz and Charles Leclerc – for a potential future when it is in such a position.
The knock-on impact is on Williams, where Piastri would have been welcomed but Jost Capito wants to nurture his own drivers, so a seat has become a realistic target for a wider pool than at either Alpine or Aston.
Nyck de Vries has been linked if Mercedes releases him – as Toto Wolff has suggested he is willing to do – and the Dutchman was close to a drive a year ago. But Logan Sargeant is already a Williams young driver, is closing in on his Super License with a top three finish in the F2 championship on the cards, and pushed Piastri hard for the F3 title as teammates in 2020.
Sargeant will need a strong finish to the season but RACER understands he is also going to get an FP1 to impress in later this year, and his first half of 2022 has given him a realistic shot at making the step up, which is good news for the U.S., off the back of good news for Aston, which could inadvertently become good news for Alpine.
Oh, and we’re not talking about Ferrari’s strategy anymore.