Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne was at the Austrian GP on Sunday and in the wake of his visit, the extent to which Ferrari is at the centre of things with regards to future moves on engines and drivers, has become clearer.
Marchionne said that Fernando Alonso would not be returning to Maranello, but did give Kimi Raikkonen another hurry up, asking for more commitment from the Finn. He also said Raikkonen needed to “do a great job now if he is to protect the possibility of winning the championship.” He didn’t specify which, but the way he was again used on Sunday as a strategy spoiler against Mercedes to help Vettel indicates that Marchionne was thinking about the Drivers’ championship, rather than the Constructors’.
But on the rumour of an agreement with Max Verstappen from 2019 onwards, Marchionne was more enigmatic, saying only that “we have not signed anything.”
Sebastian Vettel got (another) dressing down from Marchionne after his behaviour in Baku, as he had after last year’s Mexican Grand Prix, but Marchionne said that the option to stay in 2018 lies with Vettel. The question is how many years that extension might be. This could well coincide with a move to install Verstappen, if Ferrari succeeds in prising him away from Red Bull.
What is clear is the increasing influence of Marchionne on F1 politics. He intervened in the post Baku events, has removed the head of Ferrari’s engine programme and continues to promote Mattia Binotto, the current technical director whom some Italian colleagues are now seeing as a future Ferrari team principal.
Marchionne is set to become an even bigger fixture in F1 in the coming years as he scales down his role with FIAT Chrysler Automobiles and resolves around his role at Ferrari. He motivated the moves that have put Ferrari technically on a level to lead the world championship and is steering them through the transition of ownership from CVC and Bernie Ecclestone to Liberty Media.
He also has a dream to promote Alfa Romeo, an FCA brand, in F1 and there is talk in Gazzetta dello Sport today of the Haas engine in 2018 being branded Alfa Romeo. Haas is proud of its Ferrari connection and its technical collaboration but a thorough evaluation will tell them and Ferrari of the relative merits of rebranding the rear end of the car to Alfa. It seems an obvious opportunity.
What is more interesting in the Haas- Ferrari relationship is how they bring on Ferrari’s young drivers. With Sauber switching to Honda next year, Haas is the only place for Ferrari to bring youngsters through.
They made a mistake taking Esteban Gutierrez, when he was a Ferrari reserve driver. The other driver Jean Eric Vergne would have been much better but he didn’t have the backing. Now Ferrari has Antonio Giovinazzi who did a 50% good job in his two substitute Grands Prix with Sauber in Australia and China, but more excitingly they also have Charles Leclerc, who is dominating F2 (the former GP2) in his rookie season, reminding everyone of Lewis Hamilton in 2006.
He looks like one of the rare talents, clearly deserving of an F1 opportunity in 2018 and Haas is the most likely place, but they have Kevin Magnussen on a contract with another year in it and Romain Grosjean, who for all his complaints about brakes and balance is still capable of stunning results, such as his 6th place ahead of the Force Indias in Austria on Sunday.
A Magnussen-Leclerc line up would be interesting with Magnussen a good benchmark for Leclerc to measure against.
Haas is evaluating both; it ran Leclerc several times in Friday practice last season and is running Giovinazzi this weekend in Silverstone. As Force India found with its evaluations of Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon in 2015 and 2016 you can arrive at a strong picture of a driver from these tests and that’s how Ocon got his chance this year, which he is repaying in spades.
McLaren approach Ferrari. Red Bull or Williams long term option for Honda?
Meanwhile Italian colleagues were briefed that McLaren had approached Ferrari about a supply of engines for next season, although their preferred option remains Mercedes. McLaren’s management and Honda both ruled out the idea of a temporary split while Honda sorts itself out with Sauber and then pressing on together again in 2019.
This divorce would leave Honda available for a Red Bull or a Williams to swoop in 2018 or 19 and establish Honda as a long term partner, something both teams desperately need. It is the main weakness in Red Bull’s F1 proposition and it keeps on coming up and costing them, as it has since 2014. There were hopes that Audi would be that partner, but the VW emissions scandal blew that up. Whether that is temporary or permanent, time will tell.
The VW Audi Group is constantly evaluating an F1 presence with one of its brands, especially if F1’s new owners succeed in their plans to increase the F1 audience and engage with younger fans.
We are moving towards the early adoption of louder and simpler hybrid engines, possibly as soon as 2020, if Ross Brawn has his way. This would be a clever move as it would come a year before the manufacturer teams bilateral agreements end, so any threats to leave by Mercedes or Ferrari if they aren’t getting what they want from F1 financially would be tempered by the need to redo the engine a year before departure. There is no doubt that both giants are ready for a fight and there are various tactics going on behind the scenes where both are showing how strong are the levers they can pull in F1. As Wolff said in the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva last month, “I wouldn’t want to be in Chase’s (Carey, F1 CEO) shoes.”
The early move to the simplified engines will also help Honda a lot to reach competitiveness sooner. Their mistake was to empower inexperienced engineers too soon on this F1 project, underestimating the scale of the task and they have taken steps to remedy that. Sticking it out and winning is the best way for Honda to show what it is made of and both Liberty and the FIA are very keen to keep Honda in the F1 fold.
After Red Bull found itself struggling to find an engine in 2015, the FIA amended the engine regulations so now the manufacturers are obliged to supply teams, which is why Ferrari would perhaps supply McLaren if push came to shove. McLaren has a long history with Mercedes, albeit one with the ‘spy gate’ scandal of 2007 and subsequent $100m fine at the heart of it.
The boss of Mercedes F1 engines back then Ola Kallaenius, is now the heir apparent to the CEO Dieter Zetsche and is apparently minded to work with the executive committee at McLaren of the Bahrainis and Mansour Ojjeh, while Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda remain opposed to Mercedes supplying McLaren again.
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