The first entry in this blog will see me read the future in the tea-leaves of yesterday's empty cup to answer the question—will Vettel win in Bahrain this weekend and mount a title challenge against Nico Rosberg? (The answer is yes.)
Nuvolari’s Ghostly Shadow Signals Alonso’s Grim Winter Years
Fernando Alonso’s return to McLaren has been a cursed affair (you can add an accent to the e if you wish, but it works either way). Remember the Barcelona test in February 2015 which ended in a mysterious accident that sidelined him from the season-opener with concussion and rumors of memory loss? How about racing a car that was, at times, competition only for the mobile chicane that was Marussia throughout 2015? Or his death-defying shunt at last weekend’s Melbourne race that prompted Alonso to Tweet his semi-in-jest photo holding the front page of a local newspaper that crowned him the ‘luckiest man in the world’? All of this echoes the distant memory of another great champion of the past who, through a combination of his own volition and circumstances beyond his control, was side-tracked into an also-ran at a time when he, too, was unquestionably the greatest driver of his era.
When Tazio Nuvolari left Ferrari in 1933, he left, like Alonso left McLaren in 2007, under a cloud that held the distinct promise of a thunderstorm. The parallels between these two men are striking. Old Man Ferrari, for instance, was incensed to learn that Nuvolari had fixed the race in Tripoli in ’33—a scandal that had dire repercussions for Ferrari’s dealings with Mussolini’s Fascist Party that was funding the Alfa Romeo race team. Flip forward to 2007, and Ron Dennis found himself playing the role (one that some would suggest he’d been aspiring to for most of his adult life!) of Enzo Ferrari—livid at his number one driver when Alonso allegedly threatened to expose what he knew about ‘Stepneygate’. This all came about, of course, because Nuvolari had a long-standing gripe with Enzo that went back to how he and his arch-rival Achille Varzi—who had shared the works Alfas under Enzo Ferrari’s management two seasons earlier—had been handled by ‘Il Drake’. Tazio had always insisted on number one status, and with Varzi, that had most definitely (or perhaps defiantly) not been the case. Alonso’s alleged threat, meanwhile, occurred on the morning of the Hungarian Grand Prix, this the day after Alonso had sabotaged his team-mate Lewis Hamilton’s qualifying run and which had so incensed Ron Dennis that he was filmed launching his headphones into history before remonstrating with Alonso’s trainer on live TV. Alonso, like Tazio—and every champion before or since—was convinced that he should be the undisputed number one; and when that hadn’t happened, when Alonso perceived a favoritism in the team for Varzi (I mean Hamilton), Tazio (I mean Alonso) went into destructive mode.
At the end of 1933, Tazio Nuvolari waved goodbye to Ferrari (it resembled, by all accounts, one upward-held finger), and joined forces with Maserati down the road in Bologna. Alonso, at the end of 2007, did likewise, finding refuge with his old friends at Renault with whom he’d won his two (and quite improbably, only) championships. This was a tranquil time for Tazio, welcomed with open arms as the undisputed number one. Yes, he had a race-fixing allegation hanging over him—Tazio, that is, not Alonso (who also had a race fixing allegation when Renault fixed the Singapore race in 2008 by ordering Alonso’s team-mate Nelson Piquet Jr to wall it during the race)—but that did little to suggest to anyone that this wasn’t the towering talent of his generation just biding his time before re-finding his way to where he belonged, on the top step of the podium.
Tazio’s time at Maserati was a failure, though, and it didn’t get any better when the German manufacturers—Mercedes and Auto Union—were lured into Grand Prix racing by the new and dramatic rule changes for the 1935 season. With their light-weight supercharged engines, the Germans totally upended the pecking order. Tazio, by the end of ’34, knew Maserati was a dead-end marriage: Yes it was comfortable, yes he could turn up every Sunday, worshipped and loved, but Tazio wanted more—he needed to win. And winning meant either returning to Ferrari, or finding a home in a German shop. Mercedes was not an option for the Italian; they had their number one, Germany’s greatest driver Rudi Caracciola, who wasn’t about to have his status threatened by anyone as fast as Tazio Nuvolari. As for Ferrari, that would mean Tazio having to bend and scrape to the Old Man, and Tazio wasn’t a man who would bend: the scraping would have to come from Il Drake. That left Auto Union as his only hope for reinvigorating a stalled career.
Alonso, at Ferrari, had his own decisions to make in 2014 when Mercedes was cleaning up after taking advantage of the dramatic and new rule changes that saw their turbo engine become the class of the field. Despite being the darling of the tifosi, it was clear to Alonso by the summer of 2014 that Ferrari held no promise of matching Mercedes. His only options? Leave for McLaren—who now had a deal with Honda that had once powered the Woking outfit to multiple record-breaking wins in the not-too-distant past—or get himself a ride in a German car.
The only problem for Tazio, of course, was that his arch-rival, Lewis Hamilton (I mean Achille Varzi!) had already wormed his way into the Mercedes (I mean Auto Union!). At the same time, Ferrari was being placed under severe pressure by the Italian State to bring home some glory—and funding for that exercise would come, Ferrari was informed, only if they brought back Italy’s greatest star, Tazio Nuvolari.
Alonso, one suspects, tried to position himself into the all-winning German marque, but his arch-rival Varzi (whoops, Hamilton, sorry), now number one at the German outfit, allegedly nixed the deal, leaving Tazio (Alonso, sorry) no choice to return, cap in hand, to Ferrari (I mean McLaren).
The result? Tazio was outmuscled and out-performed by his arch-rival in the German car. Tazio did win an epic race at the ’Ring that sealed his place in motor racing lore, but other than that, it was three years of routine humiliation for the Italian legend—humiliation, and a series of enormous shunts. It all lasted until 1938 when, at Pau, he had another almighty off that he attributed to Alfa’s faulty engineering, and he quit the Scuderia from his hospital bed ... He went off to the United States to recuperate, and that’s where he was when he got the call from Auto Union inviting him to join them for the remainder of the ’38 season. He won two races before going on to compete in an uncompetitive Auto Union for the severely shortened ’39 season that ended in Belgrade on the day World War Two started. And that was effectively the end of his grand prix career.
And Alonso? For this similarity to carry its full weight, he would, admittedly, now have to get signed by Mercedes in place of his arch-nemesis Achille Varzi (I mean Lewis Hamilton) whose career with the German outfit would need to end due to his increasing predilection for the life of the bon vivant jet-setter as captured breathlessly by the celebrity pages of Europe’s top magazines. Any chance of that happening? Realistically, that’s Alonso’s only shot of ever winning another championship.
Vettel Will Win On Sunday In Bahrain And Mount A Title Challenge
Vettel has claimed he grew up with Michael Schumacher’s poster on his bedroom wall. I recall having posters of scantily clad girls on mine, but then I never dreamt much of becoming a racing legend who would have every scantily-clad girl within a fifty mile radius in my bedroom. The parallels between the two, though (Vettel and Schumacher, not, you know, scantily-clad girl posters)—whether by design or default—are insightful, even if you minus the fact that they grew up racing on the same karting track (and why would you?). Schumacher, for instance, left Benetton for Ferrari and won three races at the Scuderia in his first season: Vettel left Red Bull for the Scuderia and also won three races in his first season. Red Bull and Benetton both ran Renault engines when both men won their final championship at their respective pre-Ferrari team. Benetton and Red Bull, both teams that came out of nowhere to crush the big names in F1, were both non-racing iconic brands that became synonymous with F1, both with two young German chargers who went on to break every record in the books. Vettel came third in the driver’s championship in his first season at the Scuderia—so did Schumacher.
In 1997, in his second season at Ferrari, Schumacher would fight for the title against the son of the man Enzo Ferrari once called the only true heir to Tazio Nuvolari, Gilles Villeneuve, the iconic French-Canadian who lost his life—and the championship that was his for the taking in 1982—to a driver named Keke Rosberg.
Jacques Villeneuve would beat Schumacher to the title in 1997; it was, at the time, almost as if a curse had been lifted from the Scuderia, who had endured nothing but failure since 1982 when Gilles and Didier Pironi both lost the title due to death and severe injury (respectively). It was as if now that a Villeneuve had finally taken his rightful place in the pantheon of world champions, the gods would once again smile down on their chosen child in Maranello. After all, Gilles, the legend goes, died in a doomed attempt at chasing Pironi’s qualifying time, enraged and depressed after Pironi had defied what Gilles believed were team orders at Imola the week before. But had Ferrari actually ordered Pironi to slow? Old Man Ferrari’s refusal to sanction Pironi post-Imola, when he—or so Gilles adamantly believed—stole the race, would suggest not; and Gilles, who had played his dutiful role in ’79 as number two to Jody Scheckter, went to his death firmly believing the Scuderia had betrayed him.
Nuvolari, fifty years earlier, would probably have been able to relate to the machinations of the Scuderia.
So what does all of this portend for the 2016 season? Will Vettel launch a title challenge against none other than the son of the man who inherited Gilles Villeneuve’s rightful title in 1982, Nico Rosberg? Of course it does! Does the fact that Gilles’s son beat Schumacher to the title in ’97 matter? Of course! The synchronicity is too perfect not to play out: Schumacher and Vettel, one who fought and lost the title to Gilles Villeneuve’s son (who should have won the 1982 world championship had he not tragically died), and the other who will fight for the title against the son of the 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg who 'stole' Gilles's crown. It can’t play out any other way, the racing gods have spoken!
But will Vettel win? He will at Bahrain. But the title itself? The tea leaves would suggest that yes, yes he will bring the crown to Maranello as a gift from the racing gods to balance out what happened in that tragic year of 1982.
But I wouldn’t bank my house on it …
I will have a new post every month, as well as guest-posts from time-to-time. Also, if you've read this far (thanks, you!), I'm giving away a signed copy of Tracks—Racing the Sun for the best comment on this post. I'll determine the winner by simply reading the comments and deciding at random which affects me the most. I know, totally unfair, but that's motor-racing!