It’s back to the future as Raikkonen re-joins Ferrari

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Ahead of last weekend’s Singapore grand prix the big news in the Formula 1 paddock was Ferrari’s announcement of Kimi Raikkonen as Fernando Alonso’s team-mate for the next two seasons.  The hiring of Raikkonen to replace Felipe Massa represents a significant change of approach for Ferrari; they’ve now got two drivers who will enjoy equal ‘number one’ status, instead of a clear lead driver and a ‘number two’ as had been the situation with Alonso and Massa.

Massa's inconsistency was a big factor in Ferrari's decision not to renew his contract

Massa’s inconsistency was a big factor in
Ferrari’s decision not to renew his contract

The move is, though, a clear statement of intent from Ferrari.  They have been frustrated by Massa’s inconsistency, and the Brazilian’s lack of points has been a hindrance in the Scuderia’s quest for world constructors’ championship titles.  Consistency is certainly something that Raikkonen will bring to Ferrari.  The Finn has been immense since his return to Formula 1 at the start of last season with Lotus.  He has scored points in almost every race, enabling him to stay in the hunt for the championship, and retired from only one; this season’s Belgian grand prix (through no fault of his own).

It was all smiles on launch day in 2007 for Hamilton and Alonso.  It didn't last...

It was all smiles on launch day in 2007
for Hamilton and Alonso. It didn’t last…

Despite the clear benefits that Raikkonen will bring in terms of a better points return than Massa, it may well be that Ferrari have bitten off more than they can chew with the Alonso-Raikkonen paring.  Anyone who watched the explosive pairing of Alonso and Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in the latter’s rookie season in 2007 will know that the Spaniard does not like it when his position is challenged.  Alonso thought he would be ‘number one’ in the team, but McLaren’s protégé proved to be a match for him resulting in some extreme petulance from Alonso, which ultimately cost both drivers the championship, ironically to Raikkonen.

The situation was so bad at McLaren that Alonso was released from a multi-year contract after only a single season.  Is there any reason to suggest that things will be different when Alonso is paired with another number one’ and, indeed, another world drivers’ champion at Ferrari?  The answer to that question will become apparent in 2014, but for now I think that the answer is probably yes, and no.

I think that there are some notable differences between the Alonso-Raikkonen pairing and the Alonso-Hamilton one.  Firstly, Alonso knows exactly what he’s getting with Raikkonen.  He will expect to be challenged by another champion and will go in to the situation prepared for that.  That’s obviously very different from the situation at McLaren.  Secondly, Alonso has matured considerably since 2007.  At 32 years of age he is now one of the more experienced drivers in F1.  Raikkonen, at a year older is also an old hand, so we won’t have a McLaren-like situation with two young drivers butting heads.

Raikkonen is notoriously unforthcoming when being interviewed

Raikkonen is notoriously unforthcoming
when being interviewed

Having said all of that, though, when push comes to shove at Ferrari I think we could see some fireworks between Alonso and Raikkonen.  Raikkonen is famous for being an unconventional driver.  He doesn’t really do media work, which might mean that the bulk of such activity falls to Alonso, a potential source of frustration.  More importantly, though, despite his greater maturity, there are still signs from Alonso that he hasn’t completely shaken off the petulance of his youth.  Certainly at Monza this year, we saw signs of the Alonso of old, berating his team on the radio and looking decidedly unhappy post-qualifying, despite the later denials.  A challenge from Raikkonen may well end up bringing out the worst, rather than the best, in Alonso.

So, we may or may not have fireworks at Ferrari in 2014, but have Ferrari made the right choice with Raikkonen?  First of all, I think that the team were absolutely right to replace Massa.  The Brazilian, who came agonisingly close to the world drivers’ championship in 2008, has been a shadow of his former self since a career threatening injury suffered at the Hungaroring in 2009.  Massa has had ample opportunity at Ferrari, but despite flashes of his old speed, he has not been able to deliver results on a consistent basis.

Nico Hulkenberg was considered as Alonso's partner before Ferrari opted for Raikkonen

Nico Hulkenberg was considered as Alonso’s
partner before Ferrari opted for Raikkonen

Having made the decision to replace Massa, was Raikkonen the right choice?  Well, that one’s a little more difficult.  We know that Nico Hulkenberg was under serious consideration for the second Ferrari seat.  The German is undoubtedly quick and hugely talented, and personally I’d love to see him given a chance at a top team.  Signing Hulkenberg would have maintained the current position with Alonso as the number one driver in the team, but in doing so Ferrari might have recreated a situation that was even more akin to the 2007 McLaren position than Alonso-Raikkonen.

Hulkenberg would likely have gone to Ferrari as a ‘number two’ to Alonso, though.  Just what would have happened if he proved quick enough to actually challenge Alonso?  That situation may well have been the one that would have been the most likely to bring out the absolute worst in the Spaniard.

Instead Ferrari opted to go with Alonso-Raikkonen.  On paper the partnership is the strongest one in Formula 1; two former world champions who are arguably at the peak of their powers.  However, this isn’t a long-term pairing.  As I’ve mentioned, both drivers are in their early thirties and you have to think that their time in the sport is drawing to its conclusion.  Doesn’t this leave Ferrari with a problem in a couple of years?

Are Ferrari waiting for Sebastian Vettel to become available in 2016?

Are Ferrari waiting for Sebastian
Vettel to become available in 2016?

The answer to that question is no.  Simply put, Ferrari want Sebastian Vettel in the team.  Vettel recently signed a one year contract extension at Red Bull racing, which will keep him at the team until the end of the 2015 season, coincidentally the same point at which Raikkonen’s deal with the team will run out.

So it all looks very neat.  Raikkonen is brought in to bring consistency to Ferrari and strengthen the team in the short-term until the arrival of Sebastian Vettel in 2016.  Is that how things will turn out?  Who knows!  Let me know what YOU think in the comments section, below.

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It’s Singa-bore as Seb wins again

The formula 1 circus returned from the summer break with an air of anticipation after Lewis Hamilton brilliantly won the Hungarian grand prix.  Hope abounded that Mercedes driver Hamilton, or even Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso or Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen could put in a run of results that would enable them to put up a fight for the 2013 world drivers’ championship.  Three races on, and three victories for Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel, have pretty much ended the championship aspirations of the rest, though.

Rosberg managed to pass Vettel at the start, but couldn't make it stick

Rosberg managed to pass Vettel
at the start, but couldn’t make it stick

Victory in Singapore, by an astounding 32.6 seconds from Alonso’s Ferrari, looks to be the final nail in the coffin, and it was never in doubt from the point at which Nico Rosberg failed to make his first corner overtaking attempt stick.  As usual, Vettel seemingly effortlessly moved away from the rest, building a comfortable lead, which allowed him to control the race.

Daniel Ricciardo climbs out of his Toro Rosso after crashing out

Daniel Ricciardo climbs out of his
Toro Rosso after crashing out

Things might have changed when the safety car was deployed mid-race after Vettel’s future team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, crashed his Toro Rosso on lap 25.  The safety car was not well-timed for Vettel or indeed Rosberg, Mark Webber or Hamilton, all of whom didn’t stop while the rest of the field, including Alonso and Raikkonen pitted for fresh rubber.  You’d never have guessed it at the restart, though.

If Vettel’s gap building at the start of the race was impressive, his pace compared to the rest after the safety car came in to the pits at the end of lap 30 was nothing short of amazing.  The gap to Rosberg grew exponentially as the triple world drivers’ champion lapped around 2 seconds a lap faster than his rivals.  While Rosberg was at the front of a train of cars Vettel streaked into the distance.  Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton all stopped in quick succession on laps 40, 41 and 42, but Vettel stayed out until lap 45.

Where his team-mate and the two Mercedes cars had rejoined way down the field, temporarily out of points scoring positions, Vettel emerged from the pits still in the lead of the race, ahead of Alonso who made a two stop strategy work, where numerous others failed.  Vettel, though relentlessly built up a huge lead to finish well clear of the field in what must rank as one of his most comfortable victories.

Vettel fans will obviously be delighted with the German’s form after the summer break, and indeed with the manner of his victory in Singapore.  For the rest of the world’s formula 1 fans it might be getting a bit boring.  Certainly, the race in Singapore was pretty dull.  Had it not been for some frantic action in the last 15 laps or so of the race as Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton made their way through the field, passing cars that were two stopping with tyres that were ‘falling off the cliff’, the race would have been virtually absent of action. .

It would be unfair, though, to leave it at that, without mentioning the performances of Raikkonen and Alonso in more detail.  As I’ve already mentioned, Alonso managed to make a two stop strategy work for him where many of the cars and drivers that tried the same tactic failed, including the McLaren’s of Jenson Button – tantalisingly in a podium position in the closing stages of the race – and Sergio Perez.  Raikkonen also made a two stop strategy work, and as a result Alonso and Raikkonen finished second and third respectively, doing as much as they could to hang on to the coattails of Vettel in the championship.

Alonso, picyure early in the race, after making another brilliant start

Alonso, pictured early in the race,
after making another brilliant start

The two stop strategies of Alonso and Raikkonen were impressive in themselves, but considering that both drivers had poor grid positions their performances were impressive in themselves.  Raikkonen overcame the discomfort of a bad back to move steadily through the field from his 13th place starting position.  Where Raikkonen was steady, Alonso was anything but, putting himself in contention with another stunning start, moving himself up from seventh on the grid to third place by turn two.  In contrast, his Brazilian team-mate, Felipe Massa, could only finish where he started in sixth place.

Another man who could only finish where he started was Hamilton, who followed home his team-mate, Rosberg, in fifth place.  That fifth place finish was enough for him to maintain third place in the standings, albeit now just two points ahead of Raikkonen.  Alonso has certainly strengthened his grip on second place in the standings, with a 36 point lead of Hamilton, but it seems that he’s destined to lose out on yet another championship.  Vettel now stands 60 points clear at the head of the championship; more than two race wins worth of points in the lead.

Vettel celebrates as he crosses the line to win in Singapore

Vettel celebrates as he crosses the line to win in Singapore

Vettel’s performance in Singapore was incredibly impressive, matching his lead in the championship.  Not only has the German got the best car on the grid, but he’s also got lady luck on his side.  There was no greater illustration of that as the 26 year-old crossed the line to take victory, seconds after his team-mate, Mark Webber, retired; his car bursting into flames after a water pressure issue.

We move on next to Korea, in two weeks time.  At this stage, though, there’s nothing to suggest that the result will be any different.  Vettel may well take a fourth straight win next time out, perhaps also signally a fourth straight world drivers’ championship for the German.

Vettel takes victory in Italy while Hamilton leaves disappointed

After being strong through free practice and having put in a commanding qualifying performance, we feared the writing was on the wall for the rest as Sebastian Vettel started the Italian grand prix from pole position. With two of the four championship contenders, Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus, starting outside of the top 10, a Vettel victory at Monza could have spelled the end to the championship challenges of those two drivers, also.

Vettel celebrates victory in is customary style

Vettel celebrates victory in is customary style

As expected Vettel took a pretty straightforward win in Italy and despite an outstanding recovery drive from Hamilton to take ninth, both he and Raikkonen will now consider themselves out of the hunt for the world drivers’ championship. Indeed, Hamilton said as much when interviewed after the race calling the event “a disaster” for him, going on to say “That’s it for the championship”.

It’s hard to disagree. After the race in Monza he stands third in the world drivers’ championship, a huge 81 points behind championship leader Vettel. Raikkonen is a further seven points back after failing to collect any points in Italy after finishing in 11th place. With 175 points still on the table, mathematically speaking it’s not over for either driver, but realistically Fernando Alonso, himself 53 points behind Vettel after finishing second in Monza, is the only driver who can stop Vettel taking a fourth consecutive driver’s crown.

A disappointed Lewis Hamilton after Saturday qualifying at Monza

A disappointed Lewis Hamilton
after Saturday qualifying at Monza

While Hamilton’s analysis of his championship chances looks fairly balanced, the same cannot be said of his analysis of his performance in Monza. Hamilton said after the race that he was “very disappointed with myself”, claiming that he “didn’t deliver this weekend”. That was, I think, a very harsh self-assessment. The 2008 world drivers’ champion was clearly disappointed after qualifying on Saturday. He failed to get a representative lap time on the board in Q2, meaning that he failed to make the last part of qualifying and, for the first time this season, couldn’t compete for a place in the top 10 or, indeed, pole position.

Hamilton said that he “drove like an idiot” in qualifying, but he still might have made Q3 had he not been impeded by Adrian Sutil on his final attempt (the German received a three place grid penalty for the incident). While Hamilton was clearly disappointed with his performance in qualifying, he shouldn’t be so downbeat about his performance on race day.

The Englishman, starting down in 12th place on the harder of the two available tyre compounds, drove an outstanding race for the scant reward of only two world championship points for his ninth place finish. Moving from 12th to ninth in the race doesn’t sound like a particularly stunning performance given the relative pace of the Mercedes, but that, of course, doesn’t tell the whole story.

Hamilton had to stop early for fresh tyres after suffering a slow puncture

Hamilton had to stop early for fresh
tyres after suffering a slow puncture

Hamilton was expecting to stop just once in Italy, and would have been expecting to stop later than the cars that started ahead of him on the grid given he was starting on the prime tyre, while all the cars ahead of him, with the exception of Raikkonen, started on options. As things turned out, Hamilton was in the pits on lap 13 after the team detected a slow puncture. This forced the Mercedes driver onto a two stop strategy.

If this wasn’t bad enough, Hamilton also had to contend with a broken radio throughout the race. Indeed, Hamilton would have stopped even earlier if he’d heard his team calling him into the pits on lap 11. Hamilton said that the absence of his team radio was “almost like driving blind”, going on to elaborate by saying “you just don’t know where people are, when to pit, when you’ve got to push, when you’ve got to save tyres… you’ve just got to manage it yourself and hope for the best”.

Despite this handicap, though, he drove a brilliant race, pulling off a number of outstanding passes, including a couple of brilliant passes through Curva Grande, including one on Kimi Raikkonen to take 11th place on lap 49. Another couple of laps and he might have been able to negotiate his way ahead of the second Lotus of Romain Grosjean and the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo, who finished just 0.4 and 1.2 seconds ahead of the Englishman respectively.

Had it not been for Hamilton’s exciting charge back from around 17th place after his first pit stop, we would probably have had a dull and disappointing race. The rain that threatened ahead of the start never materialised and neither did any sort of challenge to Sebastian Vettel who, despite some concerns about his gearbox and that of his team-mate Mark Webber, took a customarily dominant victory.

Alonso and Webber battling it out for third place early in the race

Alonso and Webber battling it out
for third place early in the race

Alonso drove a solid race to take second place, providing some excitement himself along the way with a brilliant pass on Webber on lap three, but he was never in a position to challenge Vettel. Unless there’s a big change-a-round in fortunes, it’s looking like it could be a similar story in the hunt for the world drivers’ championship. Vettel’s position seems to strengthen by the race and while Alonso does all he can to challenge the Ferrari just doesn’t look to be able to compete with the Red Bull as things currently stand.

Ferrari can though, take comfort in the fact that they have reclaimed second place in the world constructors’ championship from Mercedes with Alonso’s second place being complimented by a fourth place finish for his Brazilian team-mate Felipe Massa, while Mercedes could only manage sixth for Nico Rosberg and Hamilton’s ninth place finish.

This will be scant consolation for Alonso, though. With seven races to go the championship it’s looking like we’re likely to see the Prancing Horse beaten by the rampaging Red Bull yet again.