One of the big stories of the 2020 Formula 1 season was a four-times world champion on his way out of Ferrari after a difficult year.
If the story of Sebastian Vettel’s troubling Ferrari swansong sounds familiar, it is because it’s happened before – sort of – with Alain Prost famously being sacked by Ferrari before the end of the 1991 season.
That was before Prost claimed his fourth world title with Williams in 1993, but the parallels are obvious.
While Vettel’s fate was sealed before the 2020 season even started, Prost’s wasn’t until he was sacked before the final race of the season – having even signed a new contract earlier in 1991. But aside from that fundamental difference, there are plenty of similarities.
LACK OF COMPETITIVENESS
Victories and world championships can paper over a lot of cracks, but poor performance usually widens these and can lead to irreparable fractures. While not unheard of, it’s rare for drivers and teams to fall out when things are going well.
In 2020, Ferrari finished sixth in the constructors’ championship – its worst position since 1980 – with just three podium finishes. While Ferrari’s 1991 season was better, finishing third with eight podium finishes, it was also winless and the average pace deficit to the front was almost identical to 2020. In fact, last year Ferrari was actually marginally closer to the front, albeit only by a trivial 0.063%.
Ferrari has always been a highly-charged organisation in terms of the politics, doubly so when things are going badly. Vettel went through several changes of regime at Ferrari. Having originally been courted by Luca di Montezemolo and signed up to join a team led by Marco Mattiacci, Vettel was confronted with a very different landscape on his first day on the job in 2015. Sergio Marchionne was now in charge with Maurizio Arrivabene appointed as team principal, but things started solidly for the alliance with a trio of wins.
Marchionne’s passing changed things and ahead of 2019, Mattia Binotto took over as team principal. While there has been stability in Binotto’s role, there were internal changes tackling the team’s structure.
Prost also endured changes of leadership, joining a team led by Cesare Fiorio and being sacked by one led by a triumvirate of Claudio Lombardi (pictured above), Piero Ferrari and Marco Piccinini. There was even talk of Prost taking some kind of ‘player/manager’ role towards the end of the 1991 season, and the management that had decided to fire him was also axed a few weeks after!
Vettel was never considered for such a role, but instability and uncertainty seems a common theme at Ferrari whether it’s the 20th or the 21st century.
Ferrari’s disadvantage showed in particular in qualifying, a result of the various technical directives issued thanks to the clandestine deal done between the FIA and Ferrari amid suspicions over how it was producing its prodigious qualifying-mode power last year. Supposedly, this cost Ferrari around 50bhp.
While there was nothing so controversial about the screaming 3.5-litre V12 Tipo 291 engine used by Ferrari in 1991, it was a limiting factor. In 2020, peak power was the problem for Ferrari but in 1991 the issue was the lack of driveability – a particular weakness given the progress made by Williams engine partner Renault.
“In 1990–91, the engine – at Ferrari, at least – was all about one number: peak power on the dyno,” said Ferrari designer Steve Nichols of the problem in the 2016 book Prost co-authored with Maurice Hamilton. “You’d talk about driveability, power through the range – and you could see in their eyes that you just weren’t getting though.”
LACK OF TRUST
In the early stages of the 2020 season, Vettel made little effort to shroud his distaste not only at the fact Ferrari did not offer him a new contract for 2021 and beyond, but also the way this was done.
He proved that at the first opportunity this season when he made a mockery of Ferrari’s party line that stated the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement by revealing team principal Mattia Binotto had unexpectedly told him that his services were no longer required.
Realistically, things started to unravel in 2018 when the decision was made to promote Charles Leclerc to replace Kimi Raikkonen – a sidekick Vettel both liked and had a conclusive edge over. It was Leclerc’s performance level in ’19 that ultimately led to the decision not to keep hold of Vettel.
Fortunately, the situation eased in the second half of the season as Vettel accepted his fate and turned his attention to his imminent Aston Martin move, so the team and driver parted on good terms after a smoother second half of the season.
Prost’s situation was a little different – and far more extreme – not least because he’d committed to the team for 1992 before the ’91 season even started. He was the interloper in Nigel Mansell’s team when he joined in 1990 but soon made it his own – leading to Mansell departing.
But as the relationship between Prost and Ferrari became shaky as they struggled in 1991, all sorts of drivers were courted by the team. With Jean Alesi already seen as a man of the future, flirtations with the likes of Michael Andretti, who was offered a deal he couldn’t take thanks to being under contract to IndyCar team Newman/Haas Racing, and Ivan Capelli, who signed a deal that would either lead to him racing for Ferrari or being placed at the Scuderia Italia customer team, won’t have escaped Prost’s notice.
While the team’s lack of trust in Vettel was more rooted in his litany of mistakes that began with the start crash in the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix. Prost wasn’t universally backed at Ferrari despite his high performance level for his tendency to speak up about the team’s inadequacies.
Vettel voiced his concern about Ferrari’s strategy regularly during 2020, as well as often being compromised by slow pitstops that made his job in the race even harder.
Famously, Ferrari overruled Alain Prost when he wanted to start on slicks at the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix, which started in damp conditions. It was a poor decision by the team management given Prost likely would have won had he done so.
In Prost’s case, it was the sign of a relationship that was already at breaking point. For Vettel, perhaps more indication of one already shattered.
Vettel wasn’t backward in coming forward with his criticism of Ferrari early in the 2020 season. Doubtless, Ferrari hoped he would keep quiet, accept the ‘official’ version of their parting and see out the season – something Vettel wasn’t interested in doing. And that’s to his credit, given he prized honesty – although it should be noted that Ferrari’s attempt to make the decision seem more mutual was also attempted out of kindness.
Prost, too, was brutally honest about the cultural shortcomings of Ferrari. The tone was a little different, as he focused on the key problems that meant it failed to build on his title-challenging 1990 season, but it didn’t go down well with some factions at Maranello.
Famously, Prost was said to have been sacked because of likening his Ferrari to a truck after the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix. This was a nonsensical justification given he was talking about the feel of the car after a shock absorber failure that he carried for much of the race, but the fact it’s still so often inaccurately cited as the reason for his departure shows how resonant words can be.
‘PROJECT’ TEAM OPPORTUNITY
Multiple world champions are a rare commodity, so it was no surprise when it was announced in September that Vettel had signed up for Racing Point/Aston Martin. The chance to join a team on an upward trajectory, but which is already at a good enough level to get results, clearly appealed.
Prost was offered something very similar for 1992, having parted company with Ferrari. He tested for Ligier, setting some impressive times, and considered the possibility of joining up what was being positioned as a French national team with Renault engines.
While it never came to pass, it would have given Prost a stake but time ran out to sort out the finances and he eventually turned it down. It was probably a wise move.
THE BIG DIFFERENCE
Where the stories of Prost and Vettel diverge dramatically is their on-track performance.
Vettel’s final season with Ferrari was his worst in F1, with just one podium finish – third in Turkey – and consistent struggles. That followed seasons in which he was still producing tremendous speed, but far too many costly errors.
Prost was a very different story. While his ’91 campaign is best remembered for spinning into retirement on the formation lap at Imola, he performed very well.
Many tipped newcomer Alesi to upset the applecart, but Prost had him covered and was still every bit as strong as he’d been the previous season – arguably his strongest in F1.
The bottom line is Prost wasn’t too disappointed to part company with Ferrari and he regularly said he was willing to go if he wasn’t wanted.
In Vettel’s case, he would have loved for the Ferrari dream to have continued for a few more years as he chased that elusive title. Certainly, his love for Ferrari has not been tainted, while Prost carries worse memories of his time at Maranello.
And crucially, Vettel also had the chance to say farewell to Ferrari with a song on the slowdown lap of his final outing in Abu Dhabi last year – an opportunity Prost never had.