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.
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.
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.
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.