When the V6 hybrid turbo era began it swiftly became clear Mercedes had replaced Red Bull as the team to beat.
But with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg unlikely to be unseated from the team it left F1’s other top drivers wondering who might be best placed to challenge them in the near future.
In the closing stages of 2014 Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel – the only multiple champions racing in F1 at the time – both decided their best opportunity lay outside their current teams.
Alonso, frustrated after five years during which Ferrari seemed to get progressively less competitive, cut his contract short by two years and made a sensational return to McLaren.
Vettel, who knew first-hand how much trouble Renault were in with their engine and had suffered a bruising season alongside new team mate Daniel Ricciardo, followed his heart to Ferrari followed his heart to Ferrari to replace Alonso in a bid to recreate the team’s years of glory with Michael Schumacher.
Their fortunes could scarcely have contrasted more sharply in the first two races after the switch. Alonso spent the Australian Grand Prix on the sidelines after suffering concussion during a testing accident. Meanwhile Vettel and Ferrari scored an opportunistic victory together in Malaysia.
By the time the curtain came down on the season Vettel had taken a total of three wins. In contrast Alonso had finished in the points just twice, and left Honda in no doubt what he thought of their “GP2 engine” at the Japanese manufacturer’s home grand prix.
However neither driver switched teams expecting they would become championship contenders immediately. The true test was always going to be which team would narrow the gap to Mercedes over the coming seasons. And with the first half of 2016 almost done, McLaren are making strides while Ferrari has fallen further behind than it was at any stage last year:
Ferrari and McLaren’s deficit to the fastest car, 2015-present (%)
Outright performance is not the only problem. While it’s to be expected McLaren would suffer endless teething trouble throughout 2015 while it effectively conducted Honda’s testing at race weekends, Ferrari’s reliability could once be taken for granted.
Not any more. Vettel has already had three five-place grid penalties for gearbox changes this year and retired before the race even started in Bahrain due to a power unit fault.
Vettel’s growing dissatisfaction was plain to see from his onboard camera at the end of final practice at Silverstone last week as he gestured in frustration after his latest gearbox glitch. Is he beginning to realise what drove Alonso to leave the team in 2014?
Even during the nadir of Alonso’s first year back at McLaren he never expressed the slightest remorse at leaving Ferrari. He even said he should have done so sooner.
Of course Alonso was never likely to express remorse at having left Ferrari. But perhaps he knew what Vettel is now starting to appreciate. At the end of last year he pointed out Ferrari’s strong season was at least as much due to the failure of other teams rather than their own success – and he had a point.
And of course it’s easier for McLaren to find ways of closing the gap to Mercedes when they are two seconds behind than it is for Ferrari when they are one second behind. But which is the better bet for the future.
Next year Formula One will adopt new aerodynamic regulations which McLaren pushed for. It’s an area Ferrari has traditionally struggled in compared to its rivals. That’s another reason why Alonso believes McLaren will catch Ferrari before Ferrari catch Mercedes.
2016 F1 season
- Vettel and Alonso: Who will have the last laugh?
- Wet race at Silverstone leaves many cold
- Softer tyres for F1’s return to Mexico
- Raikkonen ahead on busy second day of test
- Pictures: 2016 F1 testing day twelve at Silverstone