Alfa Romeo boss Frederic Vasseur believes in the revival of the Ferrari engine and comments on all rumours of driver contracts.
The lack of journalists who write in the Sochi Autodrome is not an excuse to do without an exclusive. During the Russian Grand Prix days we had a more than detailed talk with Frederic Vasseur, the head of Alfa Romeo, discussing the difficult current season and the team’s plans for 2021. So far, Alfa Romeo has both driver vacancies open, and the fate of one of the seats is determined by the Ferrari – Mick Schumacher is expected to take over. Who will be his partner depends on Kimi Räikkönen’s decision about his own career and, of course, on Vasseur himself. We have also talked about this.
Frederic, how would you rate the first half of this challenging Alfa Romeo season?
The season has begun hard for us, especially the beginning. I don’t want to go back to the engine situation, but it is as it is. The engine is not our area of responsibility anyway, so we have to work on the rest of the technical package, particularly the chassis.
The first races were quite difficult, but we expected that. We were able to respond well to the situation and take a pretty good step forward. Yes, it does not always reflect on the results – for various reasons – but this step is undoubted. In racing, we can now fight Ferrari. I can’t say that’s what we want, it’s not the goal at all, but it’s good for the team to show that we’re working in the right direction. We kept our motivation and were pleased with our speed at Mugello. Let’s see what the finish of the season will bring and see if we can add a little more.
How did you maintain your team’s motivation after the starting failures and especially the motivation of Kimi Räikkönen, who is hardly interested in fighting for Q2?
Yes, yes, motivation is a key factor when you find yourself in the wrong place before the start of the season. It is always difficult in such a situation. So I have to pay tribute to the way the team reacted. Everyone continued to work at their best, even in a difficult financial situation due to the coronavirus. We got together and managed to make a step forward.
As for Kimi, when he signed the contract, he knew that he would not be a world champion with us. Everything was transparent, we were discussing the project, and he knew that we would have ups and downs. Kimi remained motivated, he reacted well – just like the whole team. There is no doubt that a strong driver’s performance is a key factor in the overall performance of the team.
Do you agree that in the first Grand Prix Giovinazzi looked a little better, and now Kimi is ahead?
If we sum up the intermediate results, the drivers are about equal, including when we look at the number of points scored. The fact that they are close to each other motivates both drivers, and their rivalry motivates the whole team. Of course, I would prefer it if Antonio and Kimi fought for fifth or sixth places, but the situation is as it is.
Do you have some kind of deadline to sign contracts for the next season?
There are no deadlines. We will talk to Kimi in the next few weeks to see what the next step may be like together. As for second seat, we will have discussions with Ferrari and we will make a decision in the next few months.
But have you probably heard rumours that Kimi has already signed a new contract with you?
Of course I have! But that’s what they wrote a fortnight ago about Hülkenberg, three weeks ago about Perez, and last week about Vettel. Well, journalists can write whatever they want, but this will not affect my decision! (Laughs)
At the same time, you have a very advantageous position – you can choose from several experienced Ferrari drivers and promising youngsters.
I don’t know if it’s possible to talk about a privileged position. Still, top teams always come first, and since we still have vacancies left, what should we call it? But we do have a lot of good drivers available for us, but first of all I have to discuss everything with the guys who are in the team now. Despite the difficult first half of the season, they did a good job, we had teamwork, which is very important for me. Let’s move step by step, we take our time. We really do have a lot of options.
Günther Steiner said that there are about ten candidates on his list. Do you have more, less?
I’m not sure that there are ten drivers with super-licences on the market right now. For example, a couple of young drivers still need to earn points for the license – so you have to wait until the end of the season to understand their situation. Well, everyone knows the experienced drivers on the market. Don’t worry, everything will be fine!
Can Alfa Romeo, in theory, form a team of two rookies?
I do not have a clear answer. You can say yes, because we’ll be using almost the same car as this season, and it’s much easier to perform with rookies when you already know the car well.
On the other hand, look at the 2021 calendar: there will only be three days of tests, and then Melbourne, China, some third race – Vietnam or something else – is waiting for us. These are new tracks for F1 debutantes. I am not sure that will be easy. For rookies, it is always good to have an experienced team mate around – that’s what happened when Charles drove for us and his team mate was Ericsson. You might have noticed that in the first four or five races, Markus beat Charles, and then further, Leclerc was more likely to have the advantage. You have to keep that in mind. But in theory, you can start the season with two rookies.
I cannot but ask about Robert Shwartzman…
Ha, you have waited ten minutes since the start of the interview before talking about Shwartzman, congratulations, you are my idol! (Laughs) But I only had ten minutes for the interview, thank you! I’m joking, of course, you should ask!
Do you think it’s better for Robert to try and get into Formula 1 right now or spend another year in F2?
First of all, the championship in Formula 2 is not over yet. The final result always influences your impression – what if he wins all four final races? Then if I say now that he better stays, I will look stupid. Plus, a rookie always has a bonus in the form of an opportunity to progress during the season.
Robert had a very good time last season in Formula 3, just as he did at the start of this season. Yes, he has the space to progress in qualifying or, for example, at the start, but he performs very well anyway. Let’s see what Ferrari decides, if they want to give him a chance. There is no doubt that he is very, very talented. Robert is probably one of the future stars of the paddock.
And a question about Mick Schumacher. We can assume that he will be an F1 driver in 2021 – without specifying whether he is in your team or not. How much time do you think he needs to be given to adapt before we can demand good results from him?
Of course, you have to remain calm at the beginning of the season. If you compare it with Formula 1 ten years ago, then before the start of the season the drivers had, say, 19 days of tests, and in 2021 it will be one and a half days. This is a very different story. Plus, as I said before, we will start the season on tracks where young drivers did not drive. We already remembered Charles – it takes time for a rookie to understand Formula 1, tyres and so on.
I would give the beginners five or six races. Then they already know the tracks, have their first experience in Formula 1, have some kind of base. But it’s important not to be too impatient. When we start working with a newcomer, we understand that some races can be difficult. But this is a normal challenge, and if you look at our team, we have been quite successful in dealing with such challenges recently.
A logical final question – what can we expect from Alfa Romeo next season? Are you expecting serious help from the renewed Ferrari engine?
Yes, we hope that next season we will be able to take a step forward with the engine and return to the group where we used to be. Ferrari is sure of that. In terms of the chassis, we can’t expect a huge step forward because it is roughly frozen except for the details. But once we get back to a more normal financial situation, we can restart the normal development process and move forward together.
Even though I was talking about the final question, I can’t help but clarify – what exactly are the financial difficulties? Don’t you, as Haas, prepare new parts?
The financial impact of the pandemic was huge, and Formula 1 revenues fell, so we had to cut back significantly on expenditure. And the first thing you can reduce is the cost of developing the car, because we have already built four monocoque cars for Melbourne anyway, got the engine and gearbox and prepared the aerodynamic body kit – there is nothing to save on. It remains to reduce development costs. And we have cut them sharply! I hope that in 2021 we will get out of this situation with COVID-19.