Is there a star at STR?

At the end of the 2011 Formula 1 season the second Red Bull team, Scudderia Torro Rosso (STR), surprised most of the paddock, media and fans by replacing both of their race drivers; Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari and Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi. The purpose of STR is to develop drivers capable of stepping into the senior Red Bull team in the future, which worked to great effect with the reigning double world champion Sebastian Vettel who made the transition from STR to the senior Red Bull Racing team in 2009, having brilliantly won the 2008 Italian grand prix for STR; becoming the youngest race winner in F1 history aged just 21 years and 74 days old.

Jaime Alguersuari, 2011 Canadian GP
By Mark McArdle from Canada (2011 Canadian Grand Prix) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Both Alguersuari and Buemi were deemed not to be good enough to be able to make the same transition as Vettel. Dr Helmut Marko, advisor to Red Bull and the overseer of the Red Bull driver development programme, was quoted in the Gazzetta dello Sport as saying, in justification of the decision to drop Alguersuari and Buemi “Toro Rosso was created to give young drivers a chance. Alguersuari and Buemi had that chance for three years and after that period it’s possible to evaluate a drivers’ development. We didn’t see in them any possibility of growth. Both are Grand Prix drivers, but for us that’s not enough. We want Grand Prix winners”.

Given those strong words from Marko, it seems highly likely that the services of STR’s current driver pairing of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne and Australian Daniel Ricciardo will also dispensed with if the team does not detect winning potential in them. So, halfway through their first season in F1 are Vergne and Ricciardo doing enough to justify their drives at STR? And does their form suggest that they might have what it takes to be grand prix winners and possibly replace veteran Mark Webber at the end of his newly extended contract with Red Bull Racing at the end of 2013?

Daniel Ricciardo, 2011 Japanese GP
By Morio (photo taken by Morio) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It was pretty much impossible to gauge Ricciardo’s speed in 2011 when he competed in 11 races for the struggling HRT team. He certainly didn’t set the world alight driving for the Spanish team, but I would imagine that even some of the world champions on the grid would struggle driving for HRT, so I’m going to discount those 11 race results from any further consideration, other than to say that they probably gave Ricciardo some valuable experience of driving Formula 1 machinery in anger, both in qualifying and race conditions.

With his 2011 HRT experience behind him, Ricciardo started the 2012 season with a solid result for STR, taking ninth place at his home grand prix in Australia, having also made it through to the qualifying top 10 shoot out. Since the opening round of the season, though, results have been more disappointing for Ricciardo with no further points scoring finishes and a best result of just 11th place from the next 10 rounds of the season. That 11th place, though, came at the European grand prix at Valencia, where the Hamilton/Maldonado incident in the closing laps gained him two places.

There have been other signs of promise for Ricciardo in 2012, though. His qualifying performance in Bahrain was nothing short of exceptional, with another appearance in Q3 and a sixth place starting position, just half a second off Sebastian Vettel pole position time in the senior Red Bull team. That promising position was, however, wasted in the first lap of the race during which he dropped 10 places to 16th position, going on to finish the race just one place further forward, in 15th place. Ricciardo explained after the race that he “spun the wheels off the line and then…braked a little too early for the first corner, and probably chose the wrong side of the track. Then…picked up some damage to the nose” going on to call the situation “frustrating, disappointing. A complete shithouse really”. It’s hard to know what might have been possible for Ricciardo in Bahrain had he had a better opening lap.

Jean-Eric Vergne’s pre-2012 Formula 1 experience was more limited than Ricciardo’s and it’s just as hard to draw any conclusions from it as Ricciardo’s experience with HRT. At least Ricciardo had the advantage of racing during his time with HRT. Vergne had to be content with Friday free practice running for Torro Rosso in three of the final four races of the 2011 season; Korea, Abu Dhabi and Brazil. It is, of course, impossible for outsiders to draw any conclusions from the times set during free practice, but Vergne clearly did enough to be given the chance to drive the title-winning Red Bull RB7 at the young driver test in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season. The Frenchman was fastest in all three days of that test, but again it’s impossible to draw too many conclusions from that; he was in the fastest car, after all. Still, he clearly did enough in his limited Friday free practice running, and the end of season test, to warrant being called up into a race seat with STR for 2012.

Jean-Eric Vergne, 2012 Malaysian GP
By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like his team-mate, Vergne made a good start to the season, following up his 11th place finish in Melbourne with his best result of the season so far in Malaysia where he scored four world championship points after finishing in eighth position. This was particularly impressive given his 18th place starting position. A bit like his team-mate, though, Vergne seems to have peaked early with his eighth place in Sepang being his only points scoring finish in the opening 11 rounds of the championship, his best results since then being consecutive 12thplace finishes in rounds five and six; Spain and Monaco.

Unlike Ricciardo, Vergne does not have the benefit of being able to fall back on any particularly impressive qualifying performances. Indeed, the Frenchman has failed to make it into the final part of qualifying in any of the 11 races so far this season. His best qualifying performance came at the season opening Australian grand prix where he started 11th. Since then, though, the best that he has been able to manage is a 14th place start in Barcelona.

So how do the two STR team-mates compare? Vergne has had the better race result and consequently sits 17th in the world drivers’ championship, one place ahead of Ricciardo. Indeed, Vergne’s race performances have generally been better than those of his team-mate. So far this season, Vergne has moved forward from his starting position eight times, compared to just five for Ricciardo. However, this does not tell the full story. Both drivers have exactly the same average finishing position; 13th. Part of the reason for Vergne’s race results appearing slightly better than his team-mate’s is because his qualifying performances have been so poor. Ricciardo has qualified ahead of his team-mate in all but two of the opening 11 rounds of the season having an average grid slot of 14th, compared to 17th for Vergne.

Although neither of the two young STR drivers has set the F1 world alight so far this season their predecessors, Alguersuari and Buemi, were given three seasons driving for STR before they were deemed not to be good enough. It is far too early, therefore, to decide whether Vergne and/or Ricciardo might up to scratch after just 11 race with the team. What’s more, there’s no prospect of a vacancy at the senior Red Bull Racing team until at least 2014, meaning that both drivers are likely to be given more time to prove their worth.

However, with Mark Webber out of contact at the end of 2013 and Sebastian Vettel’s position with Red Bull for 2014 subject to what Helmut Marko called “a performance-related clause in his contract”, there is a clear possibility of vacancies at the senior team at that point, especially if rumours of Vettel signing a pre-contract agreement with Ferrari for 2014 are to be believed.

Of course, there’s nothing to suggest that Vettel’s “performance-related clause” will be activated, and if Mark Webber can maintain the same level of performance that he’s demonstrated so far this season, there’s no reason why he couldn’t secure another contract extension with RBR.  Notwithstanding that, though, I think that the next season and a half will be make or break for Vergne and Ricciardo. I just can’t see them being given the same three seasons to prove themselves at STR as their predecessors.

Sebastien Buemi, Italian GP
By Luca Barni (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

They will be all too aware, also, that Buemi remains on the scene as STR reserve driver and Red Bull Racing test driver. The Swiss is very capable of stepping in if it becomes clear that either Vergne or Ricciardo are not up to scratch. Both drivers will need to make a concerted push in the second half of the season and try to demonstrate their worth, but I can’t help but feel that it’s STR that really needs to step up their competitiveness to give their two young drivers a chance to show what they can really do.

The Torro Rosso STR7 certainly seems to be a step backwards in comparison to its predecessor the STR6, which had scored 22 world championship points at this stage of last season (and 41 points by the end of that season). The STR7 has, in comparison, scored just six points so far this season.  Its lack of performance has been acknowledged by Toro Rosso team principal, Franz Tost, who was quoted on Formula1.com as saying “We cannot hide the fact that our performance level is currently not good enough to fight at the front of the midfield. Everyone in the team will be working hard to find some improvements to try and turn our season around in the remaining nine rounds of this very close championship”.

It certainly looks like STR are taking steps to do just that, with technical director Giorgio Ascanelli looking certain to leave the team after it emerged over the course of the German grand prix weekend that he was “on holiday”, following rumours of disagreements about the technical development of the car. It has been suggested that Ascanelli will make a return to Ferrari, where he began his career as Gerhard Berger’s engineer in the 1980s, with his place at STR possibly filled by James Key, until recently the technical director at Sauber.

Key’s possible arrival at STR might come too late to salvage the 2012 season for the team and its two rookie drivers, but if the 2012 Sauber C31 is any indication, the 2013 Torro Rosso may well be good enough to enable Vergne and Ricciardo to show what they can really do in competitive F1 machinery.

2013 may well be a very interesting season at the team, if that proves to be the case. I suspect that’s when we’ll discover whether either Vergne or Ricciardo are well enough equipped to fulfil the future “grand prix winners” criteria that seems to be a requirement for a step up into the senior Red Bull Racing team.

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The case for Kovalainen at Ferrari

Probably the most talked about of the potential driver moves come the end of the season is Felipe Massa’s expected departure from Ferrari.  Despite Massa’s recent improvement,  it seems unlikely that the Brazilian will stay at the Scuderia beyond the end of his current contract, which expires at the end of 2012.

Given that Massa’s departure has yet to be confirmed – team boss Stefano Domenicali recently said that Massa “knows that he has in front of him some very important races”, perhaps indicating that there’s a chance that he might be retained – the question of which driver might replace him as Fernando Alonso’s team-mate in 2013 cannot yet be answered.  That hasn’t stopped the speculation, though, with various drivers having been linked to a Ferrari drive in 2013, including Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez.  Also linked recently with the Ferrari drive has been Heikki Kovalainen.  Here’s why I think that the Caterham driver might be the perfect solution for Ferrari.

One important factor is that Kovalainen is available, with his contract at Caterham coming to an end at around the same time as Massa’s at Ferrari.  Kovalainen said, when asked about his future last month “I think everyone knows my contract is coming to an end at Caterham but I haven’t spoken to my current team and I haven’t spoken to any other teams yet”.  That’s certainly not a clear statement of intent from the Finn, but until a decision is made and a contract signed you wouldn’t really expect one.

Heikki Kovalainen. 2012 Hungarian Grand Prix
Copyright: Charles Coates/LAT Photographic

The contract situation does, of course, mean that Ferrari wouldn’t need to buy Kovalainen out of his contract, but the same could be said of many of the other drivers that have been linked with the Ferrari hot seat.  More importantly, though, Kovalainen is the only driver out of the many linked with Massa’s drive that is not currently driving a car that’s capable of winning races.  Having driven around at the back of the grid for three years with Caterham (in its various guises), Kovalainen would presumably jump at the chance of driving for one of Formula 1’s top teams.  Race wins wouldn’t be guaranteed, but fighting for podiums would be, as would scoring points on a regular basis; something that Caterham have been unable to achieve after three years in the sport.

I think that it’s fair to say that the lure of Ferrari itself is a pretty big draw for any Formula 1 driver, but for a driver in Kovalainen’s position the motivation to join a top team must be particularly strong.  This is a plus for Ferrari who will certainly want a motivated team-mate for Alonso, someone with the desire and ability to compete at the front and score points regularly, something that Felipe Massa has been failing to do in recent seasons.

Ferrari can also be confident that Kovalainen has what it takes to drive for a top Formula 1 team.  Kovalainen is now 30 years of age and has spent six seasons racing in F1.  Although, as I’ve already mentioned, the most recent three of those years has been spent at the back of the grid with Caterham, 2007-2009 were spent at two of the sports front running teams; Renault (now Lotus) in 2007 and McLaren from 2008-2009.

So, in Kovalainen, we have an experienced Formula 1 driver who has already driven for two of the sport’s top teams.  If that’s not reason enough for the Finn to be of interest to Ferrari, Kovalainen also has a Formula 1 victory to his name, having taken the chequered flag at the 2008 Hungarian grand prix, in doing so becoming the 100th Formula 1 race winner.

Despite all of these points in Kovalainen’s favour, I don’t think that these would necessarily be enough to land him the drive with Ferrari without one crucial final factor.  So what is the vital missing ingredient?  Kovalainen also has experience of being the ‘number two’ driver – having spent two years in just such a role at McLaren, alongside Lewis Hamilton – and I suspect that he would be happy enough to play this role again at Ferrari.

In any other team I think that this particular factor wouldn’t necessarily be all that important, but at Ferrari I think that it’s crucial.  As we know, in the recent history of Formula 1 Ferrari has been built around one dominant lead driver, with a capable number two in support.  We first saw this when Michael Schumacher joined the team in 1996.  Schumacher’s first team-mate at the Scuderia was Eddie Irvine, who played the supporting act to Schumacher for four years before Rubens Barrichello joined the team in 2000.  Barrichello himself played the number two role for six years at Ferrari.

Fernando Alonso. 2012 Malaysian GP
By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The same sort of driver pairing was recreated at Ferrari in 2009, when Fernando Alonso joined Massa at the Maranello based team.  Like Schumacher, Alonso joined Ferrari as a double world champion and quickly asserted himself as the clear lead driver with Massa forced to play the role of the number two.  Perhaps the clearest example of this pecking order was at the 2010 German grand prix when Massa was told by his race engineer “OK, so, Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?” and two laps later dutifully pulled over to let his team leader pass him.

Given Ferrari’s recent history, and the fact that Alonso remains with the team, clearly established as the number one driver, Ferrari will want a driver that can play the same number two role.  Indeed, the only reason that it looks like Massa himself will not continue in this role is that he is not doing it well enough.  Kovalainen would, I think, be the perfect replacement.

As I mentioned earlier, though, Kovalainen is certainly not the only driver to have been linked to the possible vacancy at Ferrari.  Before announcing that he had extended his contract for another year at Red Bull Racing, Mark Webber admitted that he had spoken to Ferrari.  Jenson Button has also been linked, but given that he is under contract at McLaren this seems to be one of the least credible rumours.  He certainly wouldn’t fit the ‘number two’ criteria either.

Slightly more credible were the rumours linking Kimi Raikkonen with a return to the team that he won the world drivers’ championship with in 2007.  Raikkonen is out of contract with Lotus at the end of the season, but given the breakdown of his relationship with Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo by the time that he left the team, and Formula 1, to go rallying at the end of 2008 I suspect that a return to Ferrari is not one the cards.  Furthermore, like Jenson Button, I would think that as a championship winner in his own right, Raikkonen wouldn’t want to go to Ferrari to play second fiddle to Alonso.

The most credible option of the other drivers that have been linked with the Ferrari drive is Sauber’s Mexican driver Sergio Perez.  Indeed, I’ve previously written that I thought that Perez was the most likely replacement for Massa at Ferrari.  He’s young, quick and undoubtedly talented and what’s more he will be out of contract with Sauber come the end of the season and he is a Ferrari development driver that drivers for a team using customer Ferrari engines.

Sergio Perez. 2012 Australian GP
By parepinvr4 (DSC_5420) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

However, there is a good case to be made against Perez being the right choice for Ferrari at the current time.  Perez is, as I mentioned, still a young an inexperienced driver and he might not be the right option for Ferrari to fill the role of solid, consistent support act to Fernando Alonso.  Indeed, Ferrari have themselves intimated that the time might not be right for Perez, with Ferrari Driver Academy head Luca Baldisserri saying earlier this season that  the Mexican was “too aggressive”.  Even more importantly, when asked about the possibility of Perez joining Alonso at Ferrari in 2013 Luca di Montezemolo responded by saying “to drive a Ferrari you need more experience”.  This may well be a smokescreen, however, and I suspect that Perez will end up at Ferrari, just not quite yet.

The lack of suitable alternatives does, therefore, strengthen the case in support of Kovalainen joining Alonso at Ferrari next season, especially when considered alongside the other factors in the Finn’s favour.  We might have to wait a while for our answer;  Stefano Domenicali stated last week that “There is no rush on our decision”, and as with everything else this season, the final outcome remains hard to predict.  It’s quite possible that we’ll end up with a surprise team-mate for Alonso at Ferrari in 2013 – there’s certainly no shortage of drivers that would love to drive for the Prancing Horse.

Judging Jenson’s championship chances

Jenson Button had the perfect start to the season when he took a dominant win in Australia.  His chances of a second world drivers’ championship crown looked rosy; his McLaren car had looked fast in pre-season testing, unlike in 2011, and Button’s race performance in Melbourne proved that McLaren were starting the season with the car to beat.  However, we’re now 11 rounds into the season and Button lies just seventh in the world drivers’ championship having failed to win again since the opening round of the season.  So, can the 2009 champion still finish on top of the pile at the end of the season?  Let’s look at his season so far and examine his chances.

By Ryan Bayona (Jenson Button) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As I’ve already mentioned Button looked strong in Australia.  He started second on the grid after being out qualified by his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, but performed better in the race than his fellow McLaren driver, who dropped back in the race and eventually finished third, with the two McLaren’s separated by the Red Bull Racing car of the reigning double world champion, Sebastian Vettel.  Given the result in Melbourne, Button would surely have felt that he would once again finish higher than Hamilton in the championship standings and that the championship was possible.

Indeed, if you had told Button, before the start of the season, that he would have won one of the opening three races of the season, that his team-mate would not win in either of those races, that he would have two podium finishes in those races and that he would also finish higher than his team-mate in two of those races, I’m sure that the Frome born driver would have imagined that he would be leading that championship at that point.  That proved not to be the case, though, as between his win in Australia and his second place in China, behind first time winner Nico Rosberg, came a disastrous race in Malaysia where, despite a front row grid slot, he finished out of the points in 14th position after clipping the HRT of Narain Karthikeyan during the race, damaging his front wing.

Still, after those opening three races of the season, Button sat second in the world drivers’ championship, behind his McLaren team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, who, despite not having yet tasted victory, had managed to be the model of consistency taking three podium finishes, with three third place finishes.  At this stage of the season, though, Button was just two points behind his team-mate in the championship standings, while now, at the mid season break before the Belgian grand prix, the gap to his team-mate is a hefty 41 world championship points, and the gap to the championship leader, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, is a massive 88 points.  Indeed, Alonso has amassed more than double the number of world championship points than Button.

So where did it all go wrong for Button?  After the opening three races, Button has generally struggled this season.  In the next six races of the season – Bahrain, Spain, Monaco, Canada, Europe and Britain – Button managed just three points scoring finishes, with a best result during that period of just eighth place in Valencia, adding a meagre seven world championship points to his total after the race in China.  In the same six race period, his team-mate, more than doubled his championship points total, despite some issues of his own, haven taken a brilliant victory in Canada and only failing to score once, in Valencia.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The result in Canada was perhaps the most profound example of Button’s problems during this period.  While Hamilton qualified on the front row and took his first win of the season, Button struggled, qualifying in just 10th place and falling back during the race, finishing out of the points in 16thposition, a full lap down.  Button was struggling with the set-up of his car, and was unable to extract the same pace from his machinery as his team-mate who, up until the European grand prix, had scored points in every round of the season.

It didn’t help that McLaren were being out-developed at this stage of the season, with championship rivals like Red Bull Racing and Ferrari all making big development steps on their cars while McLaren appeared to be standing still.  This all changed at the German grand prix, though.  McLaren brought a big upgrade package to Hockenheim and it was Button that benefited from it rather than Hamilton.  For the first time in 2012, Button managed to out qualify his team, starting sixth, compared with seventh for this team-mate.  It was in the race, though, that Button really made his mark, leaping forward at the start of the race while Hamilton fell back a little.  Button eventually finished second, taking his third podium of the season, while his team-mate retired after having damaged his car following a puncture during the opening stages of the race.

However, at the very next race, in Hungary, the gains that Button had made over his team-mate in Germany were all but wiped away.  Hamilton was dominant all weekend, and particularly impressive in qualifying, easily taking pole position while Button qualified in fourth, over half a second behind Hamilton.  The race was even worse for Button as he was forced to watch from afar as Hamilton held off the challenge of the two Lotus cars to take victory, while Button himself fell back from his grid slot, eventually finishing sixth and seeing the half a second qualifying deficit to his team-mate being converted into a half a minute race deficit.

When Formula 1 returns after the enforced August break we’ll have a further nine races left to run.  As I’ve mentioned, Button is now 41 world championship points behind his team-mate, which means that the soonest that Button could overhaul Hamilton in the drivers’ championship is in Monza – round 13.  The chances of this happening, though, look slim.  Button would need to win in either Spa or Monza and finish on the podium in the other race to close the 41 point, while Hamilton would have to score only a couple of championship points over the course of these two races.  Given Hamilton’s form, this looks unlikely, although Button would argue, not impossible.

By Ryan Bayona (Flickr: _RYN4096) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s why Button has recently said that he does not expect his McLaren team to ask him to support Hamilton’s bid to win the world drivers’ championship while it is still mathematically possible for Button himself to win the title.  With 225 championship points still to play for, the title is far from a mathematical impossibility for Button.  But while the gap to his team-mate is certainly bridgeable in the next nine races, the gap to the world drivers’ championship leader, Fernando Alonso, looks an incredibly difficult one to overhaul.  The 88 point gap means that the soonest that Button could overtake the Ferrari driver in the championship standings would be in round 15, in Japan.  For this to happen, though, Button would need to win at least three of the next four races and finish no lower than third in the fourth, and hope that Alonso scores no more than two world championship points in the same four race period.

Given Alonso’s amazing consistency this season – he is the only driver to have won more than twice and the only driver to score points in each of the opening 11 races of the season – the possibilities of this happening appear to be extremely remote.  When you also consider that between Alonso and Button in the championship there are five other drivers – Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Rosberg – the possibility of Button taking the lead of the championship by Japan look even more remote.

Indeed, it would take an extraordinary collapse from all of these five drivers to see Button take the world drivers’ championship come the end of the season.  Of the drivers ahead of Button in the championship, only Raikkonen is yet to win this season, and with Lotus looking extremely strong in Hungary, and with their passive F-Duct/F-Duct DRS still to come in Spa, you wouldn’t bet against Raikkonen tasting victory before long.  Button has himself acknowledged the speed of the Lotus recently, stating “Lotus have been strong and I don’t think we have seen the best of them yet – they have a really good chance of winning races in the upcoming few races”.

Let’s not forget, too, four of the six drivers ahead of Button in the championship are former world drivers’ champions – with Webber and Rosberg being the odd men out – so they know what it takes to win the Formula 1 championship.

All of these factors stack up to make Button’s championship chances look increasingly slim.  Still, there is still a chance of the championship for Button, no matter how unlikely.  Button has said recently that “I personally feel that until I can’t win the championship there is a chance, you really do never know”.  It’s hard to disagree with him after such an unpredictable and exciting 2012 season.

Why Williams should re-sign Senna

I’ve written previously about the speculation and possible driver moves surrounding some of the top teams in Formula 1:  Red Bull Racing, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes.  The position at Red Bull is now clear – Mark Webber will continue to partner Sebastian Vettel next season – and with Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher expected to stay on at McLaren and Mercedes respectively, the only likely move among the front runners, is Felipe Massa exiting Ferrari.  Although Kimi Raikkonen is also out of contract at Lotus, I expect that he’ll stick with the Enstone based team in 2013, Ferrari speculation notwithstanding.

Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW34 , Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 27th July 2012. Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT

Outside of the almost constant speculation surrounding seats and driver line ups in the top five teams, though, the biggest speculation around possible driver changes has, in recent weeks, focussed on Bruno Senna’s position at Williams.  Williams’s young Finnish test driver, Valtteri Bottas, has been in impressive form when he has taken over the Brazilian’s car on Friday morning free practice sessions leading to speculation that Williams might look to promote him to a race seat in 2013, in place of Senna.  Although Bottas has certainly not looked out of place in a Formula 1 car in free practice, in my view Williams should be looking to retain Bruno Senna for 2013, and here’s why.

Although Senna has not produced the kind of spectacular drives that his late, great triple world drivers’ championship winning uncle, Ayrton, was so famous for, he has been a consistent performer, scoring points on a regular basis.  It is very easy to criticise Senna for not delivering good performances in qualifying, with only one appearance in the qualifying top ten shoot out in 2012 at the last race out in Hungary.  Senna’s lack of outstanding race results – with a best result of sixth position in Malaysia – could also be used as a simple and straightforward justification for replacing him for the 2013 season, but this would be very harsh on the Brazilian.

It is easily forgotten that the drive at Williams alongside Pastor Maldonado was the last seat to be confirmed, with the announcement that Senna had secured the drive ahead of his compatriot, veteran Rubens Barrichello, only coming in mid January.  This was just three weeks ahead of the first pre-season test at Jerez on 9 February and would have meant that Senna had the least input of any of the drivers on the 2012 Formula 1 grid into the design and development of their cars.  A tough position for any driver to be in, especially one with as little Formula 1 experience as Senna who had only competed in 26 Formula 1 races, spread across the 2010 and 2011 seasons, before the start of 2012, 18 of those with minnows HRT in 2010.

If Senna’s lack of experience, alongside his lack of input into the design and development of the Williams FW34 was not enough, Senna has to contend with having to hand his car over to Bottas for 15 Friday morning free practice sessions over the course of the 2012 season.  Any of these factors alone would hinder Senna’s performances, but in combination the impact must certainly be compounded, and would surely have an influence over his competitiveness.

It is certainly true that Senna’s biggest weakness has been his qualifying performances.  Senna’s Venezuelan team-mate, Pastor Maldonado, has made it into the final part of qualifying, Q3, on no fewer than six occasions in 2012 – including pole position, albeit inherited after Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion, in Barcelona – while, as I mentioned earlier, Senna has made just one Q3 appearance.  Senna’s problem in qualifying has been getting enough heat into the front tyres to properly switch them on over a single lap.  The team has worked on this in the simulator and this, coupled with an adjustment to the break ducts in Hungary saw Senna deliver a time in Q3 that was fast enough to start ninth, only one position behind his team-mate, having also looked strong throughout free practice.  With the Williams team seemingly having gotten on top of Senna’s qualifying issues, we will, perhaps, see an upturn in his qualifying performances in the second half of the season.

Bruno Senna, Williams FW34. Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 29th July 2012 Copyright: Steven Tee/LAT Photographic

That leaves us with Senna’s performances in race conditions.  Many point to the fact that Maldonado has delivered a race win for Williams this season – the team’s first since Juan Pablo Montoya’s win at the Brazilian grand prix in 2004 – at the Spanish grand prix back in May, while Senna has failed even to make the podium to suggest that Senna has underperformed.  Certainly Senna’s best race result – sixth position at the second race of the season in Malaysia – does not compare well against his team-mate’s Spanish grand prix victory, but this is highly misleading comparison, which does not tell the full story of the Williams drivers’ respective performances in race conditions.

To have a better understanding of the comparative race performances of the Williams team-mates, it is necessary to look at the world drivers’ championship table.  When we look at the standings we see that Maldonado stands 11th in the championship in comparison to 15th for Senna, having amassed a total of 29 points, while Senna stands on 24, five points fewer than the Venezuelan.  Some would argue that this simply underlines the point that Senna’s race performances have been poorer than his team-mate’s, but in my opinion that’s wrong – we need to dig a little deeper.

Let’s not forget Maldonado’s race win in Spain, which delivered him a huge 25 world championship points.  That performance in Spain, and the result, is certainly impressive, but it means that Maldonado has scored just four world championship points when this result is excluded.  Indeed, those other four points came at the Chinese grand prix, where Maldonado finished in eighth place.  This means, of course, that Maldonado has only delivered two top 10 points scoring finishes in the opening 11 races of the season, and none since his win in Spain – round five.  Maldonado has also only finished better than he qualified on two occasions this season, in rounds three and seven – China and Canada.

So how do Senna’s results compare?  The short answer is very well.  Senna has had six points scoring finishes in the opening 11 races of the season, having taken points at Malaysia, China, Monaco, Europe (Valencia), Britain and Hungary.  Senna has also finished better than he qualified in the same six races.  This means, that although Senna hasn’t had the same spectacular impact as his team-mate, he has managed to deliver solid and consistent results for the Williams team, having made a significant contribution to the team’s current seventh position in the world constructors championship.  Now that Senna’s qualifying performances are starting to improve, we can expect that he will be in a position to score more points in the second half of the season.

Pastor Maldonado, Williams FW34, Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 29th July 2012. Copyright: Charles Coates/LAT

Perhaps the best argument for Williams retaining Senna in 2013 is that they will need a driver who is able to deliver solid, consistent race results alongside a driver in Maldonado that is anything but solid and consistent.  Maldonado is undoubtedly quick on his day, but with that speed comes a tendency towards erratic performances and hot-headedness.  We’ve seen a number of  incidents this season: with Lewis Hamilton in Valencia (where Maldonado received a 20 second post race penalty from the stewards after rejoining the track unsafely and shunting the Englishman into the wall), with Sergio Perez in Monaco free practice (where the Venezuelan received a 10 place grid penalty for appearing to deliberately drive in to the Mexican), with Perez again at Silverstone (where he shunted the Mexican out of the race and received a reprimand and a 10,000 Euro fine), and most recently in Hungary with Paul di Resta (where Maldonado received a drive through penalty).  Let’s not forget, too, Maldonado’s crash on the last lap of the season opening Australian grand prix, while running in sixth place, after pushing too hard in a forlorn attempt to catch and pass Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, and his crash at the first corner of the first lap in Monaco, recklessly smashing into the back of Pedro de la Rosa’s HRT after starting on the back row.

Given Maldonado’s inconsistency, would it be sensible to put Finland’s Bottas, a driver that will be just 23 years of age come the start of next season, in the car alongside Maldonado?  I would say not.  As I’ve mentioned, Bottas has looked quick in free practice, but he is extremely inexperienced.  Although he has won the GP3 championship, he has never competed in Formula 1 feeder series, GP2.  Although, the fact that Bottas has not competed in GP2 should not automatically mean that he should not step straight into an F1 seat – Sebastian Vettel famously competed in neither GP3 nor GP2 before driving in F1 for BMW-Sauber and Torro Rosso in 2007 – it must surely count against him.  As I mentioned earlier, Senna, despite being 28 years of age, is by no means a hugely experienced Formula 1 driver, but he does, at least, have the benefit of having now driven for three different F1 teams, having scored points for both Williams and Renault (now Lotus).

The bottom line is, though, that only the Williams team are in a position to judge the relative merits of Senna and Bottas.  Only time will tell whether the Grove based team choose to retain Senna, promote Bottas or even go in an altogether different direction in 2013.