What big F1 news story broke one year ago today? Have a guess…
It was Fernando Alonso’s shock switch to McLaren for 2007 – a move that caught most, if not all, F1 followers completely unaware.
Of course it’s not the first time in F1 history that a shock driver or team move has caught everyone by surprise. Here are ten of the biggest bombshells that shocked the sport.
Moss & Ferrari team up – almost
In 1961 Stirling Moss famously trounced the vastly superior Ferraris at Monte-Carlo in a privately entered Lotus run by Rob Walker. This did not fill the Ingegnere with pleasure and he sought to bring Moss into his team so as not to suffer a similar humiliating defeat again.
“Tell me what kind of car you want and I’ll make it in six months,” was his offer. But Moss had the words of his mentor Fangio ringing in his ears: “By all means drive the cars but never, ever sign for Ferrari.”
So a compromise was struck – Moss, after years of driving British machinery, would pilot a Ferrari. But Walker would take over the running of it and it would be entered in his team’s dark blue colours.
At least, it would have done but for a crash in a Lotus at Goodwood in 1962 that prematurely curtailed Moss’s career. A Walker-backed Ferrari might have been his best chance of winning the championship.
What the hell is a Copersucar?
Fittipaldi’s goal of steering a Brazilian team to victory was arguably an even greater challenge than Schumacher’s mission to reinvigorate Ferrari. He stunned the Grand Prix world in November of 1975 announcing he would drive for Copersucar, a tiny team backed by the Brazilian sugar co-operative of the same name.
It proved a blow to Fittipaldi’s career which, in Formula One, never recovered. But it was the making of James Hunt who slid into the vacant McLaren and, aided by Nika Lauda’s near-fatal crash at the Nurburgring, won the 1976 championship.
Lauda’s megabucks comeback
Lauda won two titles at Ferrari. In that time he nearly died at the Nurburgring and went ten rounds with Enzo Ferrari after pulling out of the last race of ’76. Little surprise then, that he switched to a new team, Brabham, in 1978.
But he grew frustrated with Bernie Ecclestone’s team and at the end of 1979, having been chased all season young by a rapid rookie named Nelson Piquet, he quit abruptly.
That would have been the end of the Lauda story in F1 but in 1982 he made an astonishing return with McLaren, thanks to new man at the helm Ron Dennis, with a whopping salary funded by Marlboro. Two years later, he was champion once again.
Honda pick a winner – and a loser
Williams-Honda drivers Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet got in each other’s way more than once in 1986 – so much so that, although Williams won the constructors’ championship, the canny Alain Prost nicked the drivers’ title at the final round.
Engine suppliers Honda resented the loss of the championship and, it was suggested, lost confidence in the Williams operation after figurehead Frank Williams was confined to a wheelchair following a road accident.
The latter worked out well – McLaren won 15 of 16 races in 1988 and stormed both championships. But Lotus fared not so well – in fact they never won a race again.
Standoff at the Villa d’Este
Eddie Jordan’s fledgling team took a blow when their talented driver Bertrand Gachot was arrested in 1991. But a rapid replacement was quickly found in debutant Michael Schumacher.
Unluckily for Jordan he did not get the young Schumacher signed onto a sufficiently watertight contract. After a mammoth legal battle between himself and Flavio Briatore of Benetton (with Bernie Ecclestone officiating, of course), Schumacher was prised from the Irishman’s hands.
A healthy wad of cash helped ease the pain for ousted Benetton racer Roberto Moreno, which he then used a portion of to buy himself a Jordan seat for the rest of the year. A classy touch.
The Mansell Saga, Part One
But when he discovered that former Ferrari team mate and arch-rival Alain Prost bagged himself one for ’93, Mansell went into a huff par excellence and flounced off to Indy Car racing with the Newman-Haas team.
Fortunately he saved face by winning that title first time out making him a simultaneous champion in both disciplines – an exceptional and still unequalled achievement.
The Mansell Saga, Part Two
The shocking death of Ayrton Senna left the sport bereft of former champions in 1994. Ecclestone made representations to Frank Williams to drag Mansell back from Indy Car racing where it was all starting to turn sour.
He rounded off ’94 with the team and won the final race in Australia. It would have been a fitting end to a marvellous career.
But he shocked the paddock yet again by signing for McLaren for 1995. It was destined to be a dismal year for the team in the first year of their Mercedes partnership.
On top of that Mansell didn’t fit in the new car and, once it had been remodelled to accommodate him, he did only two races before pulling out of the partnership and calling time on his career.
Briatore deserted, Part One
Aside from the controversies of Imola, Schumacher and Benetton drew criticism for an alleged illegal traction control system, tampering with their refuelling machines, ignoring a black flag at Silverstone, running the car too low at Spa, and finally, crashing into Damon Hill at Adelaide.
If Schumacher felt guilty by association with Benetton, two further developments didn’t help. The German press adopted a nickname for him – ‘Schumel Schumi’, implying underhandedness. Then he was disqualified and reinstated at the first round of 1995 over a fuel infringement.
The opportunity to race for Ferrari, with a gargantuan salary, the adulation of the Tifosi, and carte blanche number one status within the team, was impossible to refuse. Benetton team boss Briatore would need another young charge.
Newey’s bullish move
Lured to McLaren in 1997, five years later he made a bid for freedom in the direction of Jaguar, but team boss Ron Dennis moved quickly to keep him at the 11th hour.
Whether a single designer can still have as great an impact on a car as Newey did with the famous Williams of 1991-3 is debatable. The 2007 RB3 could provide a compelling answer to that debate.
Briatore deserted, Part Two
Flavio Briatore must have had a strong sense of deja vu when, one year ago to the day, the news broke that Fernando Alonso would be driving for McLaren in 2007.
After a season with Minardi in 2001 Briatore had placed Alonso in the Renault test team, before promoting him into Jenson Button’s place for 2003. It proved an astute move as Alonso claimed the records for youngest pole sitter and youngest winner that year.
Together they were champions in 2005, but despite the visible closeness between driver and team, privately Alonso was unsure about the future of Renault. They had not committed to the sport beyond 2006.
Following the Brazilian Grand Prix, where Alonso had been beaten by both McLaren drivers, he confirmed to Ron Dennis that he would be driving for the silver team in 2007.
Briatore promoted Finn Heikki Kovalainen to Renault tester, where he would learn from Alonso in the Spaniard’s final year with the French team. “With Kovalainen,” Briatore said, “I hope to find the anti-Alonso.”