Caption photo 2: A young Fernando Alonso and younger Lewis Hamilton were McLaren teammates in 2007. Photo / Don Kennedy
Don Kennedy on Formula One
Sebastian Vettel has driven for four different teams since entering F1 in 2007. His debut was a one-off drive with Sauber in the US GP in 2007, where he finished 8th.
Later that year he raced for Toro Rosso and remained with that team in 2008, winning the Italian GP in wet conditions to give the team its first victory. In 2009 Vettel joined Red Bull, and in 2010 became world champion for the first time. He won it again for the following three seasons.
When Daniel Ricciardo joined Red Bull in 2014 and won three races compared to none for Vettel, the German was convinced that he would be better off at Ferrari.
But unfortunately, Mercedes were on the rise and in 2014 Lewis Hamilton won the first of six titles to date with that team, while his teammate Nico Rosberg also took the 2016 title, to make it seven consecutive championships for Mercedes.
Vettel did finish second to Hamilton in the championship in 2017 and 2018, but when joined at Ferrari by Charles Leclerc in 2019, it was case of deja vu for Vettel, as his new teammate outperformed him to finish 4th in the championship, while Vettel was 5th. Last year it was even worse for Vettel, as he was 13th, with just one podium in Turkey.
Vettel learned early in the Covid-delayed season that Carlos Sainz would replace him at Ferrari for 2021.
But Vettel in turn was later announced as the replacement driver at Racing Point, to be renamed Aston Martin for 2021, for Sergio Perez, even though the latter was out-driving Lance Stroll in the team and would go on to win the Sakhir GP for them despite being sacked.
Aston Martin will be the fifth team Vettel has driven for and given what has gone on in his career to date, it is unlikely switching from Ferrari to Aston Martin will have a huge impact on him. The big question for this season is whether he can regain his form and prove wrong the critics who consider Aston Martin have made a serious mistake in not retaining Perez.
Vettel will notice some similarities between the team he has left and the one he is to join, while their respective factories are only half an hour's drive apart. But he believes the main difference in switching teams is more about his personal situation.
"On paper there are certainly some things that seem similar. But I think the situation is different," Vettel said after visiting his new team's factory at Silverstone.
"Mainly because I'm at a different point myself today. At a better point, with far more experience, with a clearer view. Therefore, you cannot really compare the two starting points with each other.
"So far of course there are a lot of new faces for me at Aston Martin, but I am confident it will work."
Aston Martin boss Otmar Szafnauer also thinks it will work out.
"Its hugely exciting for everyone in the team," he told Motorsport.com. "In Sebastian, we have a proven four-time World Champion with experience of helping teams become race-winning and championship-contending outfits. That is why he is such an important signing for us. He brings a winning mentality, and we will all undoubtedly learn a lot from him on this journey."
Vettel's last win was in the 2019 Singapore GP, and Szafnauer is presumably happy to ignore his new charge's 2020 results, while expecting Vettel will be of benefit to Stroll.
"In Lance, we have a young and talented, hard-working driver who enjoyed his best campaign to date last year and really made strides in all areas of his racing. We know if we give him the tools, he's more than capable of helping the team reach its goals."
"We also think Sebastian will bring out the best in Lance, with Lance pushing Sebastian hard in return, so we are delighted with our 2021 line-up. It's the ideal blend of experience, race-winning knowledge and raw talent."
That could also be said about the new driving pairing at Renault. Last year, Esteban Ocon was partnered by Daniel Ricciardo, and the latter's experience and speed proved too much for Ocon. They finished 5th and 12th respectively, but Ricciardo moves on to McLaren, and his replacement is two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso, who won those titles with Renault in 2005 and 2006, before moving on to McLaren, back to Renault, on to Ferrari and back to McLaren, before retiring, temporarily as it turns out, in 2018. Alonso will thus have had two years out of F1 when he returns in the season opener in Bahrain.
Inevitably, 39-year old Alonso is often compared with seven-time World champion Lewis Hamilton, even though they are separated by nearly four years and five titles, while Hamilton has 95 F1 victories compared to 32 for Alonso. It seems to be no contest, but the comparisons are made because they were McLaren teammates for one acrimonious season in 2007, with Hamilton the rookie taking on Alonso, who was looking to make it three titles in a row. They ended up with equal points, but Kimi Raikkonen in the Ferrari went one point better to deny them both.
Alonso was recently asked who he thought was the better driver between himself and Hamilton. "It's difficult to compare times, difficult to compare drivers in the same time because you need to have all the things and all the ingredients together to have a fair answer," Alonso said on a WFT podcast.
"It's true that having the same car and the same team in one year, that is a good opportunity to compare drivers and the final score was 109-109 in terms of points. So that's already one answer."
"It's true that people say it was his rookie year and it was not my rookie year. At the same time, I can say it was a change to Bridgestone, like a GP2 tyre of that time, compared to the Michelin and the Bridgestone that we were running in the past. My first three or four races and all my winter testing was very compromised for this tyre and I had to re-adapt a lot of things on my style."
"Luck factor is also an important thing. Lewis had the pit-lane entry in Shanghai at the penultimate race; that was a bad moment for him. I had two issues with the gearbox, starting 10th in two races. I had one of the most unfair penalties in Hungary with the pit-lane block, it was pole at the time, and from pole position you start 10th in Hungary."
"So 109-109 I'm happy, and I see now Lewis's success, and in Formula 1 it is difficult to compare Michael [Schumacher], Lewis, [Ayrton] Senna. They have all been great in different eras and a lot of victories, but for sure you need a car and a package that Lewis has at the moment and he's delivering."
So why did Alonso quit F1 in 2018, after 18 seasons in the sport?
"I had other things on my mind, and my head was busy on IndyCar and the 'Triple Crown' goal. I wanted to win the World Endurance Championship, I wanted to complete the second Le Mans, I had Daytona, the Rolex 24 with Cadillac on my mind as well. I had the feeling I could try Dakar again also in 2020. I had too many things in my head that were not F1. F1 was not appealing at that time for me, it was not offering what other series were offering at that time."
"So, I thought 'look, its better to stop here, I don't know if I will come back with the new regulations in 2021 or not, so let's say this is my final race."
As we now know, Abu Dhabi 2018 won't be his final race, but why is he making a comeback, given Schumacher wasn't able to recapture his winning form after retiring for three years and returning with Mercedes in 2010 for an unsuccessful three-year stint?
"After I completed some of those challenges, missing only the Indy 500, I thought this was the right time to come back, even if the new regulations are for 2022," he added.
So, what does this 'young driver', given the FIA deemed him eligible to take part in a young driver's test in Abu Dhabi last year at season end, think of his chances at making the podium, yet alone win a race during his third stint with Renault, who will race as Alpine this year?
"I feel good, I feel young, I feel sharp, so let's try again," he optimistically says.
Alonso's 2021 teammate, Esteban Ocon, who finished second in the Sakhir GP last year for his first F1 podium, believes Alonso will be a tough teammate.
"Fernando will be a tough opponent. I will give everything I have to fight with him," he said. "But in the end, we are competing for the team and we need to score as many points as we can between the two of us. But yes, I will push on."
Pushing on is something both Vettel and Alonso will need to do if they want to return to their glory days, but Mercedes are unlikely to fall from grace given the regulations are essentially unchanged for 2021. Which means it is 2022 that the two former world champs really have their eyes on.