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A huge factor on the road to success in Formula 1 is being on the right team at the right time. Sometimes though, drivers make decisions that -not only bring them down- but cost them wins and championships. Often, it is a matter of wrong judgement, other times money prevails, or even emotion can take over and lead to wrong decisions. In this article, we will look into some of the worst driver moves in Formula 1.
Fernando Alonso to McLaren (2015)
It was May 2011 when Fernando Alonso and Ferrari announced the extension of the contract that would tie them together until 2016. The Spaniard had joined the Italian team the year prior and lost the championship in heartbreaking fashion in the season finale. He would have another good chance to add to his tally of two world championships in 2012, but he lost it on the final race as well.
Following a disappointing 2013 campaign, the new regulations for 2014 seemed like a great opportunity to capitalize upon. However, it turned into a disaster. The F14T not only lost out to the dominant Mercedes team, but its horrible underperformance left the Spaniard with just two podiums to his name. Tensions were high and disagreements over a further contract extension led Alonso out of the team and replaced by Sebastian Vettel.
Alternatives were limited, but Alonso saw an opportunity at McLaren. The team he had joined in 2007, and left after just one year that was marred by Stepney-Gate and plenty of off-track drama, was under a major revamp. Honda joined the team, making it a works entry after a lengthy collaboration with Mercedes. Expectations were high, but ultimately so was the disappointment.
From the very first test, issues were clear to see. The situation was not improved by a mysterious crash that left Alonso unable to race in the season opener in Melbourne. Over the season, the car had neither the reliability nor the performance to achieve competitive results, leaving Alonso with only two points finishes, fifth in Hungaroring and tenth in Silverstone, with his teammate, Jenson Button, having similar struggles.
2016 showed signs of improvement, with Alonso ending the season in tenth place in the standings, but one step forward was followed by two backwards the following year. It was apparent that McLaren and Honda could no longer work together, so their partnership was over after three years. After a year with Renault engines yielded no great success, Alonso stepped away from Formula 1, winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship, before returning ahead of 2021 with Alpine and later Aston Martin.
Jacques Villeneuve to BAR (1999)
For Jacques Villeneuve, things in his career went downhill pretty fast. Having won the IndyCar championship and the Indy 500 in 1995, he joined Formula 1 with a championship-caliber team. Williams had the dominant 1996 car and the rookie almost won on debut, only losing the victory due to an oil leak. His rookie season was impressive, but he came short in the championship race, losing out to his teammate, Damon Hill.
What didn’t happen in his first season, happened in his second one though. Villeneuve prevailed in a thrilling season, which came down to a controversial finale, after a collision with Michael Schumacher. Now as a world champion and with eleven wins under his belt, the future seemed bright, but eventually it wasn’t. Williams fell behind in 1998 and the Canadian was fifth in the standings, with just two podiums.
He then shocked the F1 world by signing with British American Racing, also known as BAR. He joined the newly founded team, following in the footsteps of his manager, Craig Pollock, who founded the team. BAR was far behind the frontrunners though and amazingly Villeneuve was unable to finish in the first eleven races of 1999 and ended the season with no points to his name.
Things got better in the next two seasons, which Villeneuve finished in seventh in the standings, with two podiums in the second, but a step back was taken in 2002, when he only finished in the points twice. Then, in 2003, he was joined by a young Jenson Button, who overshadowed his senior teammate. This led to tensions rising in BAR and eventually Villeneuve was pushed out. He stayed out of F1 for a year and after an unsuccessful stint at Sauber which ended in him being sacked, he left the sport.
A career that started with such promise, with a championship, eleven wins and 21 podiums in three seasons, concluded with eight years of two podiums and a lot of disappointment.
Jean Alesi to Ferrari (1991)
Jean Alesi stepped into Formula 1 and immediately became a hot prospect. When a sponsor clash between Michele Alboreto and Tyrrell forced the Italian out of the team halfway through 1989, the young Frenchman was selected as the replacement. He impressed on debut, finishing fourth in his home race. Good performances in the rest of the year secured him a place on the team for 1990. He famously battled against Ayrton Senna in the season opener, but lost out in inferior machinery and finished second, as he did in Monaco a few races later.
Those performances drew the attention of Frank Williams, who tried to secure his services and the two sides actually signed a contract for 1991. The British team principle was hesitant to announce the deal though, as he was also holding out hope that he could sign Senna. Despite promising the Frenchman he would announce the signing at the French Grand Prix in June, that never happened. Then came Alesi’s big mistake.
Listening to advice from Nelson Piquet, Alesi gave Williams an ultimatum and insisted that the announcement would be made in the next race, at Silverstone. That never happened and, as you might recall from our feature regarding the best driver moves, that was when Nigel Mansell came to a head with Ferrari and became available for Williams. When the British team asked for the contract with Alesi to be renegotiated, with the Frenchman giving up No.1 status at the team to prepare the ground for Mansell’s arrival, he turned elsewhere and eventually signed with Ferrari.
As a result, instead of racing the dominant FW14 and marching towards at least one championship, if not more, Alesi drove uncompetitive Ferrari cars for the first half of the 1990s. He ended a five-year winning drought by emerging victorious at the 1995 Canadian GP, but that would be his only Formula 1 victory.
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