It’s not quite Prost vs. Senna – yet – but there’s little question that the competition between Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari star Fernando Alonso is the stand out rivalry of the current F1 era. The two fought over the 2010 and 2012 world titles and, along with Lewis Hamilton, rank as the cream of the current grand prix crop (we think that’s not a very controversial statement. In fact, the only argument worth having is in what order you rank those three).
While it appeared back in 2007 that Hamilton vs. Alonso would be the defining rivalry of the post-Schumacher era it’s never really taken off. For one thing, the two have developed such respect for each other – Hamilton says Alonso is his foremost challenger, Alonso sees Hamilton as his – that the bitter rivalry which seemed in the offing never flourished. Mutual respect ruined all the fun.
But the tension between Vettel and Alonso has been simmering for a few years now and came close to boiling point during the exhausting final stretch of the 2012 campaign, when it became clear they were fighting a two-man battle for title. Alonso told the press he was not just competing with Vettel, but also the ‘he sees the air’ genius of Red Bull technical chief Adrian Newey. It was a clear attempt to unsettle the German, to devalue his achievements and, hopefully, rattle him on-track. The unspoken line from Alonso was that he alone was dragging a distinctly average Ferrari towards glory, while Vettel needed the greatest aero boffin in F1 history to smooth his path.
Vettel’s biggest champion within Red Bull, Dr Helmut Marko, then fought back on behalf his protégée. “Yes, Vettel races in a Newey car,” remarked the Austrian, “but he [Alonso] seems to have missed that we put two of them [on the grid] at the start and, at the end, it is always Vettel who wins.” Take that Fernando, and take that Mark Webber while we’re at it.
Vettel retaliated himself. In the wake of his third title success, the German was quick to make a nod to Ferrari’s tactics. “A lot of people tried to use dirty tricks, certain things that from our point of view that were beyond the limit and we never got irritated or distracted by that,” he told reporters in Brazil, likely in reference to Ferrari’s decision to intentionally hand Felipe Massa a grid penalty in Texas. Red Bull meanwhile don’t like hampering their drivers on-track, though Dr Marko seems happy enough to give one of them a kicking off it.
The tension and needling are clearly there, albeit still a little way below the surface, following two world championship showdowns in the space of two years. Having lost both, Alonso must be incredibly determined to finally beat Vettel in 2013; the German, for his part, knows Alonso to be his chief rival heading in to the new campaign. When Vettel picked up the best racing driver gong at the recent Autosport Awards, it was greeted with a collective ‘hang on’ by the racing community. It was pretty well acknowledged that Alonso – love him or loathe him – was the stand-out driver of 2012. Not that Seb wasn’t awesome, but better than Alonso? Few would argue it.
The plot thickens. If rumours are to believed the two will be Ferrari team-mates in 2014. Unlikely as it may seem, a number of journos – not least Will Buxton, who seems utterly convinced of it – assert that Seb will slot in alongside Fernando the season after next. That would result in the finest driver line-up since a winter day in late 1987 when Ron Dennis introduced a man named Alain to his new team-mate, a man named Ayrton, and asked the two to play nice for the next few years. If it happens, sparks simply can’t help but fly.
Vettel vs. Alonso isn’t there yet, but it’s got ample time to mature. The pair will start 2013 as title favourites and, if Ferrari and Red Bull deliver strong cars, could well scrap over another world title. It would raise the tension still further on this potentially explosive rivalry – and that we’d definitely like to see.