F1 2007 Preview: The defecting champion

Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Mercedes, Valencia, 2006, pre-season, 2Formula 1 in 2007 is all about change – and the change that I find most fascinating of all is Fernando Alonso’s defection to McLaren.

It’s a very rare thing indeed to see a reigning champion switch teams. In the last three decades Alonso is only the fifth champion to make such a change.

The other four drivers to do so were in very different situations – with very different outcomes. Let’s take a look at them.

Nelson Piquet, 1988: Williams-Honda to Lotus-Honda

Nelson Piquet, Williams-Honda, 1987Piquet had arrived at Williams in 1986 expecting unquestioned number one status ahead of Nigel Mansell in the team. What he got was very different. Mansell out-drove him over the season and came within a blown tyre of winning the championship.

The following year things were different. Mansell still tended to have the upper hand on race pace but was blighted by mechanical troubles.

But still Piquet was riled by Mansell – no more so than at Silverstone when the Englishman, in inspired form, overcame a 20-second deficit to his team mate and passed him in the dying stages to win.

Piquet wanted out of Williams, but didn’t want to lose the dominant Honda engines. An opportunity presented itself at Lotus, where Ayrton Senna was leaving for McLaren, and Piquet seized it.

Nigel Mansell, Williams-Honda, Suzuka, 1987The Japanese Grand Prix that year confirmed that Piquet would be taking the number one with him, as Mansell’s title challenge ended following an enormous crash in practice.

Piquet rocked up at Lotus with his third championship in the bag, and the knowledge that he would still be using Honda engine, though Williams would lose them, in 1988.

Lotus-Honda 100T, 1988But it proved a disastrous season. Senna’s talent had flattered the uncompetitive Lotus chassis of previous seasons and while Honda-powered McLaren won 15 of 16 races, defending champion Piquet didn’t score a single win.

Oddly, it began a sequence of Williams champions refusing to defend their title with the team. Mansell and Alain Prost each left the sport following their titles of 1992 and 1993.

And Damon Hill’s predicament, as we shall see, was quite different.

Alain Prost, 1990: McLaren to Ferrari

One of the more notorious examples. Prost won the 1989 drivers’ title for McLaren team mate Ayrton Senna after the pair collided at Suzuka.

Unhappy at sharing the team with Senna, Prost had already arranged to join Ferrari in 1990.

The pair ended up fighting it out for the championship once again but this time it was Senna who took Prost off the track at Suzuka to seal the championship. After that Prost lasted just one more season at Ferrari.

Michael Schumacher, 1996: Benetton-Renault to Ferrari

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, Spa-Francorchamps, 1996The official reason that Michael Schumacher left Benetton to join Ferrari was that he wanted the challenge of taking the Scuderia back to the top. In 1995 they had not won a drivers’ title in sixteen years.

Though this was undoubtedly part of the equation, there were other factors at work, too. The enormous pay packet must have been quite attractive. And Schumacher knew that the various scandals of 1994 would still resonate as long as he remained with Benetton.

He duly brought the number one with him from Benetton in 1996 – but it would be four years before he and Ferrari earned one together.

Damon Hill, 1997: Williams to Arrows

Damon Hill, Williams-Renault, Hockenheimring, 1995Unlike Piquet, Hill’s departure from Williams was not of his own making.

The relationship between Damon Hill and Williams began to sour in 1995 as Hill’s championship battle with Michael Schumacher fell apart.

Hill collided with Schumacher at Silverstone and Monza, and spun out at the Hockenheimring, Nurburgring and Suzuka. Behind the scenes, Team boss Frank Williams made arrangements for Heinz-Harald Frentzen to replace him from 1997.

In 1996 Jacques Villeneuve joined Hill at Williams and made an instant impression, almost winning the first round at Melbourne. As the season progressed Villeneuve ran Hill close for the championship.

Hill’s campaign was not helped in the latter stages of the season by the confirmation of the Frentzen rumours. With the drivers market largely sewn up, the champion-elect had no top teams to choose from.

Damon Hill, Williams-Renault, Suzuka, 1996At Suzuka Hill drove magnificently to win the race and, with it, the championship. And Williams would see the number one they had earned go elsewhere for the fourth time in a row to – of all places – Arrows.

Boss Tom Walkinshaw scored a coup for his fledgling team by signing Hill to drive his Yamaha-powered cars. A raft of new sponsors appeared on the machines for 1997, but the season got off to a poor start when Hill failed to complete the formation lap at Melbourne.

The Arrows’ Bridgestone tyres afforded it the odd competitive outing and Hill nearly caused the greatest upset ever when he cmae within half a lap of winning the Hungarian Grand Prix. Only a late mechanical failure demoted him to second.

Inevitably he didn’t stick around for a second year, and moved on to Jordan for 1998.

Fernando Alonso, 2007: Renault to McLaren

Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Mercedes, Valencia, 2006, pre-season, 3Alonso’s situation obviously has the closest parallels with Schumacher – except that he won his second championship with the whole world knowing that he would not be staying at Renault.

McLaren’s drivers’ championship drought is not as long today as Ferrari’s was in 1995 – seven years versus sixteen – but they didn’t even win a single race in 2006.

Alonso’s challenge in 2007 is wholly comparable to Schumacher’s 11 years ago. It will be extremely interesting to see how he gets on.

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2 comments on F1 2007 Preview: The defecting champion

  1. Paulo Ocampo said on 14th March 2007, 22:54

    Shouldn’t Juan Manuel Fangio be on this list? He won titles from 1954-1957 with Maserati, Mercedes, Ferrari, and Maserati again. He practically kept moving on a yearly basis!

    In fact, he is more successful than Schumi in the sense that won it in his 1st year with his new team(s).

  2. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 14th March 2007, 23:03

    Indeed – but for simplicity’s sake I wanted to stick to recent drivers. Even then, as I said, in the last 30 years there’s only been these three.

    Fangio is a particularly interesting case – he was so renowned and respected he more or less had the pick of the teams, even when he semi-reluctantly hooked up with Ferrari in 1956. There’s more on it here:

    http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk/2007/03/02/f1-2007-preview-alonso-shoots-for-the-triple/

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