There was some good news in Formula One last week. Alfa Romeo has returned to the sport after 30 years away and that is just the boost that F1 needed. Alfa is about as sexy as brands get in motor racing: old, glamorous, classy and very successful. Alfas were winning grand-prix races before World War Two, powered the first two world champions and triumphed in countless sports and touring car races. It’s great that Alfa is back.
Except it’s not Alfa Romeo as we remember it. The badge is the same but the newly announced partnership with Sauber is really the creation of a Ferrari junior team. Alfa, like Ferrari, are owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and while they have the power to reintroduce Alfa to F1, they can also take it, and more, away.
At the launch of the Alfa/Sauber partnership on Saturday, the CEO of FCA, Sergio Marchionne reiterated his threat to pull Ferrari out of F1 after 2020 if he didn’t like the way the new regulations (both technical and commercial) were heading. Although many observers feel that Ferrari needs F1 more than the other way round, the threat just gained a load more menace.
The power units in the back of the 2018 Saubers will be Ferraris and one of them will be driven by Charles Leclerc, the current F2 champion, future superstar and Ferrari junior driver. If Kimi Raikkonen isn’t on it from first practice in Melbourne in March, expect Leclerc to take his place alongside Sebastian Vettel and another Ferrari Academy driver, Antonio Giovinazzi, to step in at Sauber/Alfa.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the Haas team has a technical partnership with Ferrari that means the American team can use as many Ferrari parts as the rules allow. Marchionne wields a lot of power and if he does carry out his threat to pull Ferrari from F1 in three years that could mean three teams and a number of top drivers no longer being on the grid.
Another consequence of the return of Alfa Romeo is that Pascal Wehrlein is out of a drive. A year ago he was widely touted as a replacement for the retiring Nico Rosberg, but now he is on the sidelines despite being on Mercedes’ books. Toto Wolff, who runs the Mercedes F1 team, is trying to get Wehrlein a seat with Williams, who use Mercedes engines, for 2018, but that is looking increasingly unlikely. Poor Wehrlein, so close to a winning F1 car, is now back in the queue, behind another Mercedes protege, George Russell, who has tested for the Merc-powered Force India team.
Any new regulations for 2021 could also give Mercedes a route out of F1, and that could be another three teams gone.
The return of Alfa is the kind of news that stirs the soul of a fan, but is in fact yet more evidence that the real power lies in the boardrooms of large multinationals and that power is increasing all the time.