RACING

OPINION: Aston’s statement of intent that helps Alpine (and Ferrari)

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The fallout from the Hungarian Grand Prix was as deflating as it was predictable after Ferrari once again damaged its championship chances with poor strategic choices.

But before the race, the biggest news was far from predictable, as Sebastian Vettel had announced his intention to retire from Formula 1 at the end of the season. Then Aston Martin went to do Ferrari a favor by confirming Fernando Alonso as Vettel’s replacement on Monday morning.

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The reaction of many was a surprise, but I can’t say I was shocked. For starters, a team principal had told me right from Canada that he believed Alonso would join Aston and Vettel would retire, which solved a problem for Alpine in the process. Not everyone at Alpine was fully behind keeping Alonso in the long term due to the potential cost. Not in financial terms, but because his presence risked putting the team at risk of losing Oscar Piastri.

The Australian was so impressive in the way he followed up a Formula Renault championship with a Formula 3 title as a rookie in a COVID-hit season, and more so in winning the F2 championship last year for do three in a row, but there was no place for him on the F1 grid. The promise made was that there would be some 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 contract, Alpine was potentially going to have to find another solution.

Many quarters claimed a deal with Williams had been reached – even some at Grove thought the move was all but certain – but Mark Webber advises Piastri and knew it wouldn’t necessarily be the best move.

That’s not to say it would be a bad one, but given a chance to race for Alpine (where he’s signed up and testing regularly) or Williams (where he has no knowledge of a team bottom of the constructors’ championship) , it is obvious which is the preferred movement. Piastri’s failure to join mid-season when Nicholas Latifi’s seat was in question can be attributed to concerns over whether catching Alex Albon in a car rarely able to escape Q1 constituted a risk to the Australian’s career momentum.

And while Alonso delivered, the lack of a confirmed deal at the start of the year suggested Alpine was trying to work out a solution to the welcome problem of having three hugely talented drivers on its books. So Piastri continued to wait in the wings.

Then came the announcement of Vettel’s retirement, delivered to Aston Martin on Wednesday. The team had made a firm offer to the four-time world champion, but also wanted a decision so they could finalize options elsewhere if necessary.

Alonso knows Lawrence Stroll and talks of a future collaboration will have taken place long before Vettel makes his final call, such was the speed of the deal over the weekend. But Aston Martin insists the deal was only made after Vettel informed the team of his intentions.

Alonso’s decision clearly paves the way for Piastri’s move to F1 with Alpine next year. Alexander Trienitz/Motorsport Images

Additionally, the timing of Vettel’s announcement allowed Aston to receive expressions of interest from other drivers ahead of the summer break, should he then have a big decision to make like Alpine.

Instead, this decision became easy. When another team principal asked who I thought would get the Aston seat on Friday night and I suggested Alonso, the idea was laughed off. The response was that Alonso would shake Lance Stroll’s cage too much and is not a long-term signing, plus Alpine is more competitive than Aston so not worth the switch.

Mick Schumacher was suggested as the favorite instead, due to his name and the fact that he would be less of a threat to Stroll.

But that underestimated both Lawrence Stroll and Fernando Alonso. The first is extremely ambitious and has quadrupled the salaries of employees of some rival teams to bring them to Aston. It’s a project that will never run out of money, but also targets the really big names, as Vettel showed in the first place. Replacing him with Schumacher simply did not match this ambition.

And those financial aspects – both in direct salary for Alonso and investment in the team – were highly unlikely to be matched by Alpine. The French constructor is on a positive trajectory, but Alonso bet on Aston having the potential to advance faster, safe enough knowing that Alpine won’t be winning races regularly in 2023.

Aston were also willing to give Alonso a multi-year contract which Alpine were more reluctant to provide, given their situation with Piastri. That situation is now resolved, assuming it makes the obvious and gives the 21-year-old his much-deserved chance.

While losing Alonso’s talent, experience and stature is a big blow, Alpine also knows he’s not quite ready to win just yet. Losing such a big name isn’t always so damaging when it will allow Piastri and Ocon to grow even further – just as McLaren did by opting for Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, or Ferrari with Sainz and Charles Leclerc – for a potential future when in such a position.

The training impact is on Williams, where Piastri would have been welcome but Jost Capito wants to feed his own drivers, so a seat became a realistic target for a wider pool than at Alpine or Aston.

Nyck de Vries has been linked if Mercedes releases him – as Toto Wolff suggested he was ready to do – and the Dutchman was set to drive a year ago. But Logan Sargeant is already a young Williams driver, is closing in on his Super License with a place in the F2 championship top three on the cards, and has been pushing Piastri hard for the F3 title as teammates in 2020.

Sargeant will need a strong end to the season, but RACER understands he will also get an FP1 to impress later this year, and his first half of 2022 has given him a realistic chance to make the move, which is a good one. news for the US, following good news for Aston, which could inadvertently become good news for Alpine.

Oh, and we’re not talking about Ferrari’s strategy anymore.

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