Weeks don’t get much more chastening than this.
In around 24 hours Alpine not only lost star two-time champion Fernando Alonso but is now also at risk of waving goodbye to Oscar Piastri, the sport’s hottest young property.
In an instant it’s gone from having three drivers for two cars to having just one locked in for 2023.
It’s not a great look.
Watch Every Practice, Qualifying & Race of the 2022 FIA Formula One World Championship™ Live on Kayo. New to Kayo? Start your free trial now >
But worse than the mechanics of the problem, worse than its abandonment by two drivers coveted by most of the grid, is the optics.
It’s not just that Alonso and Piastri have lunged for the exit, it’s that they’ve done so without the team noticing.
To lose one driver is unfortunate. Losing two looks like carelessness.
So how is it that Alpine, backed by Renault, part of the world’s third largest car manufacturer alliance, has gone from having an embarrassment of riches to being embarrassed by its riches?
ALPINE’S DIFFICULT CONTRACT SITUATION
The genesis of the team’s problem stems from Daniel Ricciardo’s shock decision to leave, made early in 2020 during the pandemic shutdown.
Ricciardo’s was the team’s stretch goal — a credible race winner whose signature was evidence the team was on the up. Losing him was a vote of no confidence it needed to undo.
Alonso was brought in on a two-year deal — with a view to a long-term future if things clicked — and shortly afterwards Esteban Ocon had his contract extended by in unusually long deal that will keep him at the team until the end of 2024.
But its long-term driver lockdown proved its downfall when Piastri dominated the junior categories. It’d been thought that he wouldn’t be ready until 2023 at the earliest; instead he won F3 and F2 and is in the middle of a year on the sidelines.
Managing that upwards pressure is what’s led to this crisis point.
NO ISSUE: Alpine boss opens door to Ricciardo return after Piastri shock
STICK: The options facing Ricciardo as rising Aussie star sends shockwaves through F1
ALONSO OUT: Why champion is moving to the second-worst team on the grid
Fernando Alonso might be 41, but he reckons — and not unreasonably — he’s performing at his peak. He’s also a two-time champion with enormous brand appeal. Ditching him for a rookie, no matter how highly rated, is a massive leap. But with Ocon on such a long deal, Alonso’s was the only seat Piastri could be squeezed into.
So the team offered the Spaniard a one-year deal, at which he baulked, not only for the paltry tenure — he’s in this for the long haul — but for the insult of having his future dictated to him.
Negotiations dragged out, with Alonso not willing to commit to anything before the summer break.
And because Piastri’s future was entirely dependent on whether Alonso stayed or went — he wasn’t just the heir apparent but also the immediate backup — the Melburnian wasn’t locked into a loan somewhere else on the grid either.
In other words, for months Alpine has let time tick down on the contracts of its two most prized drivers.
It’s the complacency that blew up the team’s hand, and the fuse detonated quickly.
Sebastian Vettel decided to retire. He told Aston Martin on Wednesday. It was announced on Thursday, immediately flushing out potential options from the hitherto sedate driver market.
Alonso and Aston Martin’s camps made contact. A package was thrashed out in quiet. It was announced Monday, just four days later.
It took Alpine completely by surprise.
“The first confirmation I had was the press release,” Alpine team principal Otmar said in an astonishing admission, per The Race. I did ask the question [before leaving Hungary] and was told, ‘No, no, no I haven’t signed anything’.
“So, I was a bit surprised.”
There’d been signs Alonso was considering his options, but Alpine didn’t twig that the Spaniard, who has a well-defined history of looking out only for number one, might make the switch.
“Obviously when we’re in the paddock there’s all sorts of rumours,” Szafnauer continued. “I’d heard rumour Aston were interested. And once you hear they are interested there are probably discussions that took place.
“There were some other indications that discussions took place, like walking out of the same motorhome at the same time, all that kind of stuff, which I saw.
“But I was confident that even with the discussions — there’s nothing wrong with exploring — we were very close.
“There were just a couple of minor points outstanding.
“He said his lawyer would get back to us on. And I believed that to be the case.
“Before he left I confirmed with him we would be signing soon, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I haven’t signed with anybody else, we’ll continue this in the next couple of days’.
“And then the next morning I saw the release from Aston.”
Most galling of all is that, despite Szafnauer trying to raise him, Alonso hasn’t picked up the phone since the announcement.
“He’s on a boat, I think, in the Greek isles somewhere,” Szafnauer explained.
Barely hours later Alonso posted on Instagram a video of himself thumbs-upping the camera and tagging his location in his home town of Oviedo in northern Spain.
In a strange way Alonso moving to the ninth-ranked team of the field could be spun as a kind of win for Alpine. Aston is unlikely — you’d think — to outperform Alpine in the medium term, and the fact big Canadian dollars were inevitably part of the appeal gives the whole affair a last-chance-saloon feeling.
And anyway, Alpine had F1’s next big thing on its books to fall back on. Or so it thought.
It’s become something of an open secret that Mark Webber has been chatting up his former Porsche team principal, now McLaren boss, Andreas Seidl, about the possibility of getting Piastri into Daniel Ricciardo’s seat. There was even a rumour of a precontract between McLaren and Piastri — a deal that comes into effect only if certain circumstances come to pass.
Surely Alpine knew this, and Szafnauer suggested he even understood the appeal given the increasing likelihood that the Aussie was going to be loaned to backmarker Williams.
As is the case with most deals in Formula 1, contracts tend to come with trigger dates at which certain freedoms are allowed — for example, when negotiations are no longer exclusive, when the incumbent team no longer has the right to match a deal and when a driver is effectively a free agent.
And there’s a reason driver deals tend to get done around the summer break — it’s when a lot of these trigger dates tend to fall.
Either Alpine over-estimated the Piastri camp’s loyalty given the time and money invested in him, underestimated his competitive alternatives given how vociferously supportive Ricciardo and McLaren have been of one another, or simply let the crucial date lapse forgetfully or negligently.
Whatever the case, Webber and team clearly believe they’re past the point at which they owe Alpine anything.
“Oscar and his camp are considering their options, whatever that means,” Szafnauer said, per The Race, shortly before the team claimed Piastri as its driver for 2023 via press release and Piastri then tweeted that he’d be driving elsewhere.
“[Webber is] in Australia, there’s a bit of a time difference. But I’ve been trying to get hold of Mark and wrote some text messages and some emails to him as well.
“But Oscar’s our number one preferred candidate. That’s what we’re going to do.
“There shouldn’t be any complications.”
AN EMBARRASSING SITUATION
Alpine’s last-chance press release claiming Piastri, only to have its reserve driver deny that he’s got a valid contract for 2023, is extremely embarrassing for the team. But even that public rebuke pales in comparison to the apparent mismanagement of the situation that led to this tension point.
“It’s more than just a financial investment, it’s also an emotional one and getting him ready for what we hope is a successful Formula 1 career,” Szafnauer said before his team issued its slapped-down press statement.
“Not every Formula 1 team does that for an academy driver that’s come through, but we’ve chosen to do that to get him ready. And we’ve only done that with a view of having him race here. In the future.
“We wouldn’t have done that if the view was to get him prepared for one of our competitors.”
There’s still a chance Piastri will drive for Alpine next season, with legal disputes and settlements sure to follow.
The FIA even has a bespoke entity set up to deal specifically with this sort of situation — the Contract Recognition Board, which arbitrates on dual claims to a driver’s services and other related matters.
In 2005 it was called into action when Jenson Buttons signed for Williams only to have his then current BAR team exercise its option on him for the same season. The CRB ruled in favour of BAR, and he was forced to stay.
“I know Oscar is different from Jenson. Hopefully we don’t have to go down that route anyway,” Szafnauer said.
But this only ends in one of two ways, and neither is good for Alpine.
The first is that the CRB rules in favour of the French team and Oscar stays, and in that case suddenly Webber and his management team will be forced to wear some shame for this sorry situation, having attempted to blow up what would have been found to be a legally binding deal.
Jenson Button separated from his manager after the Williams affair, the Briton admitting he’d been badly advised.
But while there’ll likely be no grudge held against Piastri himself — the 21-year-old isn’t doing these deals off his own back — inescapable is that Alpine be fielding a driver who only months before the start of the season was adamant he didn’t want to race there.
But the second possible conclusion — arguably more likely given Piastri’s camp’s apparent confidence — is that the young Aussie ends up leaving Alpine’s orbit and forces the French team to pick up the pieces from an almost exhausted driver market.
And what fundamentally started with the no-confidence vote of Daniel Ricciardo leaving the team two years ago will have ended with two more drivers fleeing Alpine — and potentially Ricciardo returning with a badly battered reputation and having been sacked by McLaren for the driver the team thought it already had under contract.
Whichever way you cut it, this has been a very dark week in Enstone’s F1 history.