It comes with a degree of irony that Fernando Alonso is a huge fan of the sport of cycling.
On the first day of this month, the Spaniard sent tongues wagging with a tweet advising his 1.8 million followers to expect “important news” from him in the near future.
With Red Bull yet to officially confirm that Daniel Ricciardo would replace the departing Mark Webber, imaginations were dreaming up a mouth-watering pairing of Alonso and Sebastian Vettel at the Milton Keynes-based team.
However, only the shrewdest Formula One fans were spot-on with their assumption that the Ferrari driver’s upcoming news would be related to his acquisition of Euskaltel Euskadi, the financially stricken cycling team.
Nearly three weeks later, and all has been revealed—it is, in fact, Ferrari who have broken with tradition by forming a world-class double act in bringing Kimi Raikkonen back to Maranello for 2014, allegedly to the dissatisfaction of Alonso. It will be their first all-world champion lineup since 1953.
Being accustomed with cycling, Alonso will no doubt be familiar with the term “domestique.” For those unaware, it’s a French word used to describe a road racer who works solely for the benefit of his team leader, translating into English as “servant.”
It is team tactics which so often win or lose races - and the lieutenants and the dog soldiers who expend their energy blocking chasing moves when they have riders up the road in a position to win. It is they who ride out into the wind so their aces can get an easier ride tucked inside their wheel. Rare indeed is the major victory that cannot be credited in large part to the groundwork laid by the domestiques.
To an extent, it is a role that can also be assumed on four wheels rather than two. The irony is Alonso knows all too well that Felipe Massa has not been a good enough domestique for him during his three-and-a-half years as Ferrari’s No. 1 driver.
Since coming agonisingly close to winning the 2008 drivers’ championship, Massa has failed to take a race win or indeed a pole position, while his number of podium finishes stands below double figures ahead of Singapore this weekend.
Now, the role of the domestique is not to claim the glory, but an occasional stage win is never begrudged, so long as it is for the good of the team and its leader. An individual Grand Prix can be compared with a stage in a cycling event, and by taking just nine podiums in his last 80 races, Massa has made life much easier for Red Bull, Mercedes, Lotus and (before this year at least) McLaren.
David Coulthard of the late 1990s is a prime example of the perfect domestique in F1 terms. At a time when McLaren and Ferrari were permitted to give ruthless team orders, the Scot was the perfect wing-man for 1998 and 1999 world champion Mika Hakkinen.
Although Eddie Irvine did a decent job (four wins and 26 podiums) in a similar role for Ferrari in the same era, Coulthard (13 wins, 12 poles, 62 podiums) was a better driver and is perhaps the reason Hakkinen and McLaren were able to trump anything the Italian team could produce for their No. 1, Michael Schumacher.
Schumacher would have to wait for his ideal domestique, but he duly arrived in the shape of Rubens Barrichello in 2000. With the Brazilian doing the dirty work for the team, "Schuey" was able to break almost every record in the book and the pair were responsible for five of Ferrari’s six consecutive Constructors’ Championships, their best ever run amid a dominant spell.
The point is, even without the ability to make team orders, a solid domestique is still required by any world champion, and Webber has certainly proved his worth to Vettel and Red Bull since they emerged as major players in 2010.
With nine wins and 38 podiums, as well as 11 poles, the Australian has been at the right end of the pack more often than not, and he’s likely to leave the sport with over 1,000 career points, despite his indifferent form in his final year.
His presence at the forefront has so often allowed the Red Bull tacticians to dictate and control race proceedings in Vettel’s favour, with Webber’s role as a domestique only flawed by his outspoken approach to how he has been used. Nonetheless, he’ll leave the sport with at least three Constructors’ Championship honours, probably four.
Expect Raikkonen’s return to Ferrari to create a similar environment. According to Pete Gill of Sky Sports, Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo claims Alonso will be the main beneficiary, stating: “I want more victories, consistency and podiums from Raikkonen. Alonso will be the first to benefit.” It’s difficult not to be sold on his view.
Raikkonen is a great tactical driver and an important character in the interests of the sport, but he doesn’t quite possess the raw talent of Alonso, who pushed Vettel's RB8 all the way last year in a much inferior F2012. Bookmakers have Alonso odds-on to outscore his new team-mate, and they rarely get things wrong.
There is cause for concern from Alonso, of course. With the Finn having produced a run of 27 consecutive points finishes since his return to the sport, only ended by break failure in Belgium, no driver in their right mind would underestimate Raikkonen.
Alonso will be keeping close tabs on how his team-mate is performing early on in 2014, but after an initial period of unease, he should remember that it is he who is the double world champion in the team, and the Ferrari technicians and tacticians are likely to work in his favour.
Although he perhaps won’t admit it himself, Raikkonen is the perfect domestique for Alonso’s next title, and with Red Bull taking the riskier option in Ricciardo for 2014, the Spaniard may not have long to wait.
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