Did Aston Martin sign the wrong World Champion?

Date published: November 9 2021 - Oliver Harden

Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. France June 2021

When Aston Martin and Lawrence Stroll took the decision to replace Sergio Perez with Sebastian Vettel for the 2021 Formula 1 season, they were taking a gamble.

The gamble, in essence, was that the problems Vettel had experienced in his final two-and-a-half years at Ferrari – effectively ever since he slid into the Hockenheim gravel on that dark, damp day in 2018 – were merely a product of his environment.

The car’s lack of rear-end stability and Ferrari’s falling out of love with him against the backdrop of years of underachievement were both perfectly valid reasons for Vettel’s poor performances across 2019 and ’20, in which F1’s youngest-ever World Champion aged almost beyond recognition.

And so the hope was that away from the ghosts of his Prancing Horse past, namely Mattia Binotto and Charles Leclerc, and with a fresh start in a British team with a racing spirit similar to that in which he thrived in the glory years at Red Bull, Seb would be reborn.

But if it remains too early to conclude the gamble has failed, it hasn’t exactly paid off.

From the start the pursuit of Vettel had the whiff of the classic football manager mistake of signing a big name just because they could, because their change in status through a combination of Stroll’s wealth, the Aston rebrand, the team’s emergence as regular podium contenders in 2020 and Vettel’s own downfall made somebody previously deemed out of reach suddenly very attainable.

Invariably – fatally – in such situations, insufficient thought is given to the two pillars of any successful operation, strategy and vision, with little consideration for how the marquee signing may be integrated into the team and, in the case of Vettel, whether they remain hungry and capable.

Simply having them is the most important thing; exactly what to do with them, how they fit, becomes a question for later.

That isn’t to suggest Vettel hasn’t had his moments in 2021, of course, staying out of trouble – quite an achievement for him these days – to finish as the runner-up in June’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix as well as second on the road in Hungary before being disqualified for a fuel infraction.

Perhaps his finest performance of all, the closest he has come to ‘Classic Seb’, came in Monaco, where his blinding pace on old soft tyres allowed him to overcut Lewis Hamilton and Pierre Gasly for fifth place from seventh on the grid.

Still, though, that late Ferrari-era fragility is never far from the surface, his clumsy collision with Esteban Ocon in Bahrain and his party trick spins at Silverstone and Zandvoort all moments leaving you wanting to look the other way out of sheer politeness.

And if we are to disregard the theory that Stroll bought a Formula 1 team simply to make Lance look good, the Aston Martin owner surely did not pay for a four-time world champion to only occasionally out-qualify his own flesh and blood.

It has at times been difficult to watch the decline of a driver once so self-assured, who has scaled such heights, and while the new regulations for 2022 will present an opportunity for yet another fresh start, could Vettel at this stage really be trusted to deliver regularly in a competitive car?

There is an overhanging sense that the fire once burning fiercely within him has been extinguished by the years – and that, deep down, he knows he is powerless to prevent it.

That was the biggest takeaway from Vettel’s fascinating Sky Sports interview with Jenson Button – another former World Champion who spent his final years locked in midfield machinery – in the build-up to last weekend’s Mexico City GP in a conversation that had the air of a counselling session.

“The satisfaction when you cross the line just doesn’t feel the same,” Vettel said of his struggle to find motivation in the midfield having spent so much of his career competing for victories.

“Once you’ve won a race and once you’ve been on the podium and you’ve got this massive boost from the fans afterwards, and in a way confirmation… now you race and you get an eighth or 10th place and you feel you’ve done a really good race, no mistakes.

“But it’s 10th, it’s ninth, it’s eighth – it’s not really what I’m here for. Maybe I’m spoilt [because] I got used to winning and being at the front.”

If there are signs the Seb Vettel of old is never coming back, Fernando Alonso has spent most of 2021 driving like he’d never been away.

Many expressed reservations when the return of Renault’s prodigal son, after a two-year world tour taking him from the Indianapolis 500 to the Dakar Rally, was announced in the summer of 2020, but the 40-year-old with a penchant for magic tricks has found a way to stop the clock.

His sensational start to the sprint race at Silverstone and his defence against Hamilton in Hungary – the old warrior wrestling with the Big Bad Wolf, delaying it just long enough for Ocon to escape to victory – were the acts of a driver operating at or something very close to his peak.

Yet Alonso finds himself in the all too familiar situation of his talent being wasted, with a limit to what he can achieve with the rebranded Alpine team – the destination he always runs to when he leaves himself with no options – whose progress since 2016 has been painfully slow and whose true commitment to F1 has at times been questioned.

A lack of organisation has been reflected in recent reports that Davide Brivio is considering a return to MotoGP less than a year after replacing Cyril Abiteboul and few seriously expect Alpine to be among the biggest winners of next year’s rule changes.

It is, then, tempting to imagine how different Alonso’s outlook would be if he were the one with the might of Aston Martin and Stroll’s millions behind him.

He would, for starters, have almost certainly found a way around 2021’s floor changes to get the AMR21 car dancing to his tune more regularly, for finding performance amidst imperfection is his speciality.

But that would have been nothing compared to his transformational impact on the team’s culture and his ability to harness all that latent potential.

Alonso would have become the point around which the team could be built, the sheer force of his personality providing a sense of purpose and direction currently lacking with an underwhelmed and uninspired Vettel in the car.

It wouldn’t have been pretty at times, for Alonso’s standards and expectations have been deemed too high for some over the years.

But the addition of a competitor of such unflinching ferocity to an upwardly mobile environment would have come with a near guarantee that Aston Martin – having made a series of deeply impressive appointments behind the scenes – would bludgeon their way towards the front sooner than later, by hook or by crook.

In other words, it would have almost overnight made them a team to be feared.

Over the Dutch GP weekend in early September, a report by respected German publication Auto Motor und Sport claimed Stroll had offered Vettel’s seat to Alonso for next year while having lunch with the Spaniard’s manager, Flavio Briatore, in Sardinia during F1’s summer break.

The “credible rumour” was quickly denied by Aston Martin, yet the extended delay to the confirmation of Vettel’s 2022 deal – since Seb had signed a contract for “2021 and beyond” upon his arrival from Ferrari – was curious.

Having taken so many punches since 2018, did Vettel require more time to convince himself he wanted to continue and give the dice one more roll? Or had Stroll indeed seen the writing on the wall and come to the realisation he signed the wrong World Champion?

It would be no surprise if there was some degree of hesitation, for very different reasons, on both sides.

Stroll, the Canadian businessman who rarely misses an opportunity to remind us he’s eventually won at everything he’s ever done, no doubt appreciates the value of a ruthless and high-risk, high-reward approach.

As with Vettel, signing Alonso would have represented a gamble of sorts, but it would have been a far safer bet – and come with the promise of winning big.