Opinion: Is this the end for alpha driver pairings in F1?

At a time when Alfas and Alpha(Tauri)s are very much in vogue in F1, it seems the top teams are averse to running two ‘number one’ drivers. Last year’s toppling of Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari by Charles Leclerc could be the last twin-alpha combo we’ll see for some time…

Opinion: Is this the end for alpha driver pairings in F1?

What constitutes an alpha in a Formula 1 team? As in nature, it’s the individual who shows the greatest strength and aggression, who maintains the strongest position within a group. The key to an individual staying on top is not only from beating the rival (teammate) but also from forging strong alliances in the pack (the team).

When it comes to the Big Three teams in F1 2021, the alphas are expected to be: Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, Max Verstappen at Red Bull and Charles Leclerc at Ferrari. Unless there’s more change ahead, the challenger to their thrones will be Valtteri Bottas, Alexander Albon and Carlos Sainz respectively.

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Taking the Ferrari new boy first, I was more than a little intrigued by what Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto had to say on the subject today at the Motor Valley Fest conference in Italy. First of all, he discussed the reason for Vettel’s exit – which sounds like the German didn't fancy the idea a number-two role – and then moved on to what was behind Sainz’s signing…

“Over the last few weeks, the world has changed, not only from an economic point of view but also from a technical and sport[ing] point of view,” said Binotto. “There are challenges ahead and obstacles which are going to be difficult. We are laying the foundations for our future. We want to have a specific perspective. We discussed with Sebastian and we found out we didn’t share the same goals – short or long-term goals.

“Sainz is a great addition. He is very smart, very young. But he has participated in five seasons in the past, he is a strong and reliable driver who has scored many championship points in races, and I believe for us he’s a great driver to be paired to the pure talent of Charles, so that he can grow and win.”

I read that last line two ways. In the way I’m pretty certain it was meant, Binotto is saying that Sainz can grow and win with the team, and of course they’ve signed him to be successful, as Ferrari chases the Constructors' Championship after such a Mercedes-dominated era.

But couldn’t you also read into it that “reliable”, point-scoring Carlos is there to be “paired to the pure talent” of Leclerc? So perhaps it’s Charles that “can grow and win” (championships)?

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90, leads Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF90, Alexander Albon, Red Bull RB15, and Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren MCL34

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90, leads Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF90, Alexander Albon, Red Bull RB15, and Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren MCL34

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren and George Russell, Williams

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren and George Russell, Williams

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

I’m a big believer in Sainz’s abilities. He’s fast, with a great qualifying record against those he’s been paired with at Toro Rosso – which includes Verstappen. He’s consistent and racked up 267 points from 102 starts. He was best of the rest last year, and totally deserves his shot in a big team. I was a little disappointed in his season with Renault, but feel he bounced back really well with McLaren in 2019. For Ferrari, he was an obvious choice for ’21.

 

But let’s not forget one thing: When this season does get going, Vettel will be the wounded ex-alpha at Ferrari. How much fight will he have left in him when we return to the racetracks? Will he mount another bid to be top dog? Or roll over and have some dog day Sunday afternoons? Thinking back to his Multi-21 savagery, is he wired up to play the team game?

Going into 2021, I don’t see any immediate alpha confrontations beyond the natural ebb and flow of drivers’ powers. Hamilton is the most senior in terms of years but has shown little sign of any weakness for Bottas to depose him. It’ll take a huge leap for Albon to get to Verstappen’s level – and, as ever at Red Bull Racing, he’s only a sequence of poor races away from being fired... 

If Leclerc kicks on at Ferrari as you’d expect, and gets further into their hearts like he did at Monza last year, it’s going to take a Herculean effort from Sainz to be anything more than his number two when he arrives. Unless there’s some Vettel-inspired Leclerc meltdown. 

You can be sure Carlos will be watching for that like a hawk!

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari and Carlos Sainz, McLaren

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari and Carlos Sainz, McLaren

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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