Walking Away From a Big Team
The good, the bad, and the GOAT-ly.
Despite their recent upturn in form, Daniel Ricciardo’s move from Red Bull to Renault will ultimately have to go down as something of a failure as he moves to McLaren for 2021. Formula 1 has seen many established, successful drivers leave established, successful teams for a new project over the years, with very mixed results.
Some proved to be strategic masterstrokes, whilst others were career-ending.
The 50s had a far more fluid driver-team dynamic; for example, Juan Manuel Fangio regularly changed teams depending on which he thought had the best car at that point in time. So, let's begin in the 60s.
JACK BRABHAM | 1962 | COOPER > BRABHAM
GPs: 36 | Wins: 7 | Podiums: 10 > GPs: 70 | Wins: 7 | Podiums: 21
Jack Brabham won back-to-back championships with Cooper in 1959 and 1960 but was already becoming convinced that he could produce a better car himself, particularly once he had helped to design the T63 that took him to the championship. After a poor showing from Cooper in 1961, Brabham left to start the team that would bear his name.
The first few years were not successful. His team suffered poor reliability - not helped by Brabham's reluctance to spend money - and by 1965 he was beginning to consider retirement. He handed his car over to several other drivers and the lead-driver role to Dan Gurney. During that season, Gurney took the team's first win, only to announce that he was leaving to start a team of his own; Brabham decided to reclaim the role of lead driver.
It was a good call. Largely thanks to an inspired decision regarding the new engine regulations, 1966 saw Brabham win his third world championship and, in doing so, he became the only man to win the world championship in a car that carried his own name. A record that still stands and likely will for a very long time.
EMERSON FITTIPALDI | 1976 | MCLAREN > COPERSUCAR
Titles in 1972 with Lotus and 1974 with McLaren saw Emerson Fittipaldi become the youngest double world champion in the history of the sport; a record that lasted more than two decades until Michael Schumacher's second title in 1995. Fittipaldi finished the 1975 season as runner-up to the Ferrari of Niki Lauda before shocking the F1 world by announcing that he was leaving McLaren for Copersucar - a team funded by a Brazilian sugar marketing company and run by his brother, Wilson.
13th place on his debut set the tone for the venture, however. The Brazilian never won again and managed only two podiums in the remainder of his career, staying at the team until retiring at the end of 1980. He then moved into management of the team, but it folded in 1982.
Meanwhile, James Hunt won the 1976 world title in the seat Fittipaldi had vacated.
NIKI LAUDA | 1978 | FERRARI > BRABHAM
GPs: 57 | Wins: 15 | Podiums: 32 > GPs: 29 | Wins: 2 | Podiums: 7
Niki Lauda's relationship with Ferrari never really recovered after his decision to withdraw from the crucial Japanese Grand Prix of 1976. In appalling weather conditions – and having recently returned from his horrific crash at the Nürburgring – Lauda said, "my life is worth more than a title". Despite Lauda comfortably winning the championship the following year, tensions continued to grow. The title was won due to consistency rather than outright pace and Lauda disliked his new team-mate, Carlos Reutemann. He said he felt let down by Ferrari for them having put extra pressure on him and announced his decision to quit.
He moved to a Brabham team that had struggled for most of the 1970s and, sadly for the Austrian, not much would change during his two years there, with unreliability a major issue. That was except for one race and one infamous car - the Brabham BT46B; a radical design that became known as the 'Fan Car'. It won its first race but was never used again. Other teams vigorously protested its legality and team owner Bernie Ecclestone did not want any legal complications whilst he worked on his acquisition of the sport's commercial rights.
At the end of 1979, Lauda retired, stating he had "no more desire to drive around in circles". He would return in 1982 with McLaren, though, and win a third drivers’ title in 1984.
JAMES HUNT | 1979 | MCLAREN > WOLF
GPs: 49 | Wins: 9 | Podiums: 14 > GPs: 7 | Wins: 0 | Podiums: 0
Things went steadily downhill for James Hunt at McLaren after winning the 1976 World Championship. His title defence derailed early in the season due to problems with the new car and, whilst that season ended reasonably well, 1978 was a disaster. Lotus had developed very powerful 'ground effect' aerodynamics and McLaren were too slow to respond. This, along with the death of his close friend Ronnie Peterson in the wake of the Italian Grand Prix, crushed Hunt's motivation.
Despite the poor season in 1978, Hunt was still very much in demand. He turned down an offer from Ferrari, due to their complicated political environment, electing instead to move to Walter Wolf Racing - a team which had won its very first race and powered Jody Scheckter to second in the championship in its first season. The team's ground effect car would prove to be uncompetitive and unreliable, however; Hunt retired from six of the first seven races and, after the Monaco Grand Prix, announced his immediate retirement from the sport. He could only watch on as Scheckter won the championship in the Ferrari seat which he had turned down.
Comebacks nearly materialised. First, as a replacement for the injured Alain Prost in 1980 but Hunt broke his leg whilst skiing. Then, in 1982, he was offered a drive at Brabham by Bernie Ecclestone but turned it down. And even as late as 1990 - at least somewhat due to financial troubles - Hunt considered a comeback with Williams but ran several seconds off the pace during a test in a modern car.
MICHAEL SCHUMACHER | 1996 | BENETTON > FERRARI
GPs: 68 | Wins: 19 | Podiums: 38 > GPs: 180 | Wins: 72 | Podiums: 116
You could argue that moving to Ferrari is never going to be that much of a risk, certainly compared to some others on this list. But Michael Schumacher left Benetton as the constructors' champions, having won back-to-back titles himself with them, for a Ferrari team that hadn't won a drivers' title since 1979 and had only won two races in the past five seasons. Schumacher had grown tired of the way Benetton was run, though, and wanted both an increased salary and a new project.
He got both. And we all know how the next decade with the Scuderia played out. After a few years of near misses (or distinctly *not* missing Jacques Villeneuve's Williams and subsequently being disqualified from the 1997 season), Schumacher dominated the early 2000s, winning every title available between 2000 and 2004.
Fernando Alonso then arrived and dethroned him, with the seven-time champion retiring at the end of 2006. A brief return to the sport with Mercedes in 2010 produced just one podium, but Schumacher will always be remembered as the dominant force in Ferrari red.
JACQUES VILLENEUVE | 1999 | WILLIAMS > BAR
GPs: 49 | Wins: 11 | Podiums: 21 > GPs: 81 | Wins: 0 | Podiums: 2
After winning both championships in 1997, Williams had a strange title defence, both in terms of livery - in red for the first time ever - and performance, without a single win. They were hampered by the underpowered Mecachrome engine and Villeneuve decided to join the newly formed BAR team for 1999. He was surely also swayed by his friend and personal manager, Craig Pollock, who partly owned the team.
They had lofty ambitions and made boastful claims of winning the championship in their debut season. Claims that would ultimately look embarrassing when they failed even to score a point, Villeneuve setting an unwanted record of failing to finish the first 11 races of the year.
During the four seasons that followed, BAR improved somewhat but never enough to take a win. Pollock was sacked in 2002 and, after being outpaced by a young Jenson Button in 2003, Villeneuve left the team. Without a drive, he was forced into a sabbatical before returning for three unsuccessful races with Renault and eventually retired from F1 during the 2006 season, having been replaced at BMW Sauber by Robert Kubica after refusing to be part of a 'shoot-out' with the Pole.
LEWIS HAMILTON | 2013 | MCLAREN > MERCEDES
GPs: 110 | Wins: 21 | Podiums: 49 > GPs: 143 | Wins: 65 | Podiums: 104
When Lewis Hamilton announced he was moving from McLaren to Mercedes for the 2013 season, there were very few that considered it a wise decision. McLaren may have spent the previous few seasons as second or third best, but they were serial winners and Mercedes had largely been stuck in the midfield since returning to the sport in 2010. Niki Lauda had convinced Hamilton that it *was* a wise decision, however. And boy, was he right.
A solid first season saw one victory and a fourth-place finish in the championship. But then, in 2014, having spent years preparing for the new regulations and hybrid engines, Mercedes produced a car that was simply in a different league to the rest and Hamilton himself found a new level of excellence. How certain he or Lauda were of the Silver Arrows' impending dominance is up for debate, but Hamilton's place now amongst the greats is not. He has won five of the last six titles, narrowly losing out to team-mate Nico Rosberg in 2016, after a season plagued with unreliability, and is in the process of surprassing Schumacher's all-time records – tallies that most thought would never be threatened. McLaren, meanwhile, have not won a race since he left.
If Schumacher’s move to Ferrari is considered the success story, then Hamilton is going about redefining success.
FERNANDO ALONSO | 2015 | FERRARI > MCLAREN
GPs: 96 | Wins: 11 | Podiums: 44 > GPs: 77 | Wins: 0 | Podiums: 0
Fernando Alonso could arguably be on this list on more than one occasion. At the end of 2007, he left McLaren, after the most dramatic and political of seasons, to return to Renault. Alonso won just two races in two seasons there, but his second spell with the French team had only ever been a stopgap on his journey to Ferrari.
He succeeded in joining the Scuderia in 2010 and came agonisingly close to titles in both his debut year and 2012. Poor strategy in the final race put paid to his hopes in 2010 and then, in 2012, Alonso drove arguably one of the best seasons in the history of the sport. He regularly dragged an underperforming Ferrari to places it had no right to be in but agonisingly lost out to Sebastian Vettel by three points, once again at the final race. The Spaniard became disillusioned, doubting he would ever be provided with a truly title-winning machine, and made a decision that stunned the sport - to return to McLaren.
In 2008, Alonso ever rejoining McLaren seemed unthinkable. Indeed, it still did to most in 2014. But McLaren had linked up with Honda upon their return to the sport and Alonso dreamed of emulating his hero, Ayrton Senna, and winning in a McLaren-Honda. Sadly, it was not to be. Honda struggled to catch up with the other engine manufacturers, stifled by massively complex technology and McLaren's strict regime, and Alonso spent the remainder of his career once again dragging a car to places it had no right to be in. But now that was the top ten, rather than the top of the podium.
Alonso's career decisions have almost become a running joke within the sport - the guy just couldn't pick the right path. As it stands, he is a story of what could have been, but could yet another return to Renault (or rather Alpine, as they will be known) for 2021 do anything to change that?