When Kimi Raikkonen was ignominiously dropped by Ferrari at the end of the 2009 season, the odds of a future return looked slim, to say the very least.
Yet, this week Ferrari announced that their 2014 driver pairing would be Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, in a blatant change of policy from recent times.
Ferrari have nearly always operated with a clear number one gunning for the driver’s championship with a reliable and co-operative number two in support. In fact, never has this technique been more obvious that in the past three years, with Massa supporting Alonso significantly. The tifosi claim that anything should be done in order to win the Holy Grail – the driver’s championship – but it makes a lot of people uneasy. From Massa being told to allow Alonso into the lead exactly a year since his almost fatal crash at the Hungaroring, to having his gearbox deliberately tampered with so that Alonso would have a better grid slot at Austin last year, it’s a controversial and largely unpopular tactic.
But the reason for the shift towards two equal drivers is not because of this. If Ferrari cared what the media said, they would have changed policy years ago. The announcement instead signifies an even more important change.
To understand why, you need to understand the history. Ferrari signed Kimi Raikkonen as an heir to the departing Michael Schumacher for the 2007 season. He was to be the new number one in the post Schumacher era and he duly delivered a world championship in his debut season in red.
However, things then quickly went astray. After being led by Schumacher for a decade, the team had got used to their driver spending hours in the factory and attending endless technical meetings. But Kimi didn’t.
As the relationship deteriorated so did Raikkonen’s performances until, in a reverse of the previous season, he was ordered to let Massa through as Massa was the team’s best hope of that year’s championship.
Ferrari weren’t impressed and decided to sign Alonso for 2010, actually paying Raikkonen to sit out his last year of his contract. Alonso seemed much better suited to be a Ferrari number one, he spoke positively to the media and he spent time back in Maranello.
The relationship was working seamlessly until last year’s Indian Grand Prix. A team strategy error had blown the 2010 title, and in 2011 Red Bull had a huge pace advantage over everybody, and in the third year of the partnership Alonso led the driver’s championship.
Going in to India however, Alonso had seen Sebastian Vettel win three races in a row and now the pressure was on.
After qualifying, technical director Pat Fry wondered aloud whether his drivers had performed to their best. Some might say he was right, especially after hearing Alonso criticise his car all year.
Yet Alonso was angry and while at the time it appeared to be just a disagreement, now it seems as through the relationship hasn’t recovered.
Alonso doesn’t like seeing Vettel win championship and championship and is aware that his career is nearer the end than the beginning. And the team are fed up of having their car criticised while their driver gets all the credit.
The result: a change away from a focus on Alonso’s championship towards a constructor’s championship. With arguably the finest pairing, Ferrari are probably early favourites. But drivers don’t drive for the constructor’s. They want the driver’s title. Whether Ferrari’s new approach works will be fascinating to watch.