As the F1 paddock packed down at the Hungaroring on Sunday night, all eyes at Alpine were on a bit of holiday over the summer break and what were expected to be some brief talks to secure a new contract with Alonso.
Team principal Otmar Szafnauer seemed relaxed as he concurred with Alonso’s remark from earlier in the weekend that it would probably take just 10 minutes to sort things out.
“Very straightforward,” he suggested about how he viewed negotiations playing out.
Szafnauer insisted that the big-ticket issues at the heart of a contract (including the length of the deal) were all sorted; and it was only a matter of detail. But there was an intriguing pause when he was asked about whether or not money was one of the main areas that the two parties remained wide apart on.
He responded: “Not just Fernando. Every driver I’ve ever negotiated with, it’s been a question of money. And other things too.
“But yeah, for whatever reason, they want the most money and we want to pay the least. And then we end up in some kind of unhappy place for everyone, or a happy place that everyone’s willing to sign.”
Unknown to Szafnauer though, the wheels were already well in motion elsewhere. In fact, Alonso wouldn’t be continuing any negotiations with Alpine as he was already set on the move to Aston Martin.
After a weekend of intense effort from both Alonso and Aston Martin to keep the deal secret, it was finally announced to the wider team and the public on Monday morning.
When Vettel revealed his intention to retire, Aston moved quickly to secure the best possible replacement
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
Behind the scenes, it is understood that Aston Martin and its owner Lawrence Stroll had been hard at work for several days pulling together a package that was good enough to convince Alonso to commit already, without needing to drag things on until the summer.
It was a dramatic change of plan for the team. For many weeks, Aston Martin’s focus had been on continuing with Sebastian Vettel, but it knew that the German was evaluating whether or not he wanted to continue in F1.
Aston Martin stayed loyal to Vettel for as long as possible but, when the four-time world champion finally informed the team hierarchy on the Wednesday before Hungary that he wanted to retire, it knew it could not sit back and risk ending up with a second -rate choice because other better options were snapped up elsewhere.
That is why, rather than keeping Vettel’s retirement intentions secret until much later in the campaign, the wheels were set in motion to get the information out there as quickly as possible. It served the double benefit of lifting a weight off Vettel’s shoulders but also making it pretty clear to every driver on the grid that there was now a clear vacancy.
In effect, Aston Martin played its hand in flushing out the driver market to find out who was available and what the interest was. Those who wanted the seat would obviously be in touch; and Alonso was one of those.
For the Spaniard, whose talks with Alpine had hit a bit of an impasse and needed settling over the summer, he suddenly found himself in a situation where he went from potentially getting a new contract at Alpine to definitely getting one at Aston Martin. As he had said on Thursday when asked if Aston Martin was an option: “All the teams are an option, as long as they don’t have two drivers signed.
“My priority is to be with Alpine because, you know, we’ve been working and developing this project together for two years now.
“We are more and more competitive. And probably my wish is to stay. But we didn’t, you know, sit down completely and move things forward. So still, everything is going on.”
Alonso had publicly declared his intention to remain with Alpine beyond his current contract, but was interested when Vettel’s Aston Martin seat became open
Photo by: Alpine
In retrospect, the use of that word ‘probably’ is intriguing. It is understood that, at that stage, there had been no formal talks with Aston Martin’s senior management. But, once the Vettel news was out and the possibility of a switch became a genuine option, things moved incredibly quickly.
From Aston Martin’s perspective, it was a no brainer to do what it took to convince Alonso to join – knowing full well that there was a narrow window of opportunity before he might be lost elsewhere. Let’s also not forget there is a little bit of history between Stroll/Aston Martin and Szafnauer….
There may have been more easily available driver options for the team elsewhere – like Mick Schumacher and Nico Hulkenberg – but they did not fall in line with the kind of ambitions that team owner Stroll has for his squad to win world championships. And in the end, while Aston Martin’s competitive fortunes on the track this year are not great, it is the Silverstone squad’s ambitions that probably spoke most loudly in swinging things for Alonso to finally commit.
No other team is undergoing the kind of investment ramp up and infrastructure improvement as Aston Martin at the moment – which boasts new sponsors, more technology partners and is pushing on hard with its new factory and windtunnel plans.
For Alonso, a man who is motivated to win in F1 and not simply race around in the midfield, he knows well that money still buys a lot in the sport and he can see the potential in what Aston Martin has planned for the future. Alpine has already been through its major investment phase since Renault originally came back to take over the squad as a works team, and now it could well be a case of diminishing returns.
Sure Aston Martin may well be a big gamble for Alonso who, at 41, has probably made the last roll of the dice in his F1 career if he really wants to get back to the front. But he was crystal clear in Hungary, in some prophetic words that, outside of the big three teams right now, every driver is gambling on finding the right spot.
“There is not a crystal ball that you can choose,” he said about the need to be in a winning car. “I guess now with this set of regulations, it seems that Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes: they are the only capable teams of winning races.
“So if you have an opportunity in 2023 with those three teams, you will try to join forces. But if there is no opportunity, you just need to trust some of the projects, that they are maybe wishing that they are more competitive next year. That is all I hope.”
Alonso knows Aston Martin is a gamble, but is convinced that its significant investment in infrastructure makes it a more likely winning proposition than Alpine
Photo by: FIA Pool