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.

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Imola 1994: A lasting legacy

18 years ago, Formula 1 had its most tragic race weekend in my living memory as not one, but two drivers were killed at the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

Even before the deaths of Roland Ratzenburger and triple World Champion Ayrton Senna on Saturday 30 April and Sunday 1 May, respectively, there was a serious crash involving Senna’s compatriot, Rubens Barrichello, whose Jordan was launched into the air and hit the top of the tyre barrier after he slid over the kerb at Variante Bassa at around 140 mph during Friday qualifying.  The car rolled a number of times and came to rest upside down.  Barrichello was knocked unconscious, but fortunately suffered only relatively minor injuries; a broken nose and arm.  Commenting some 10 years after the event, Damon Hill – Senna’s Williams-Renault team mate at the time of his death – said “We all brushed ourselves off and carried on qualifying, reassured that our cars were tough as tanks and we could be shaken but not hurt”.  As we all know, though, Barrichello had used up all the good fortune that weekend; Ratzenburger and Senna proved not to be as lucky as the Jordan driver.

Of course, the vast majority of the attention, both in the immediate aftermath of the race and in the years since, has focussed on the death of the Brazilian Ayrton Senna during the race itself, but the world should not forget Roland Ratzenburger, the other driver to die at Imola in 1994.  The Austrian, driving a Simtek-Ford, died in qualifying, the day before Senna, as he competed for the final slot on the grid, crashing at Villeneuve corner – itself named after a supremely talented driver, Gilles Villeneuve, who died some 12 years earlier while competing in the sport he loved – after his front wing became dislodged and went under the car, sending the 33 year old into the outside wall at close to 200 mph, fracturing his skull.  Indeed, it’s easy to forget that it was Ratzenburger’s death, rather than Senna’s, that sparked the reformation of the Grand Prix Driver’s Association (with Senna one of the first three directors) and the drive to improve safety in the sport.

Indeed, improved safety was Ratzenburger’s great legacy, the most visible reminder of which is the HANS devices that all F1 drivers, as well as drivers in other racing categories, use to prevent the type of skull fracture that killed the Austrian.  Given his reputation as one of the best ever F1 drivers, if not the best of all time, the death of Senna, whose Williams veered off the track at the Tamburello corner on lap 7 of the race, remains the most enduring memory from the 1994 Imola race weekend.

Senna, already deeply affected by Barrichello’s crash in Friday qualifying, cried at the news of Ratzenburger’s death.  His great friend, Professor Sid Watkins, the then head of the medical team, tried to persuade him not to race, but Senna commented to him that “there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on”.  It was this determination and his amazing will to win that made Senna a great racing driver, but his refusal to call it a day meant that he got into his car on Sunday to start his 161st, and final, Grand Prix from pole position.

A big crash at the start of the race, after Finland’s JJ Lehto stalled his Benetton and was hit by the Lotus of Pedro Lamy, sending debris into the crowd injuring nine people, meant that the safety car was deployed.  The safety car re-entered the pits on lap 6, and just a lap after that, Senna (who it would later be revealed was carrying with him an Austrian flag in tribute to Ratzenburger) went straight on at around 200 mph at the fast left handed Tamburello corner, decelerating to approximately 130 mph before hitting the tyre barrier.  The cause of the accident has never been determined without doubt, with some saying that the car bottomed out after tyre pressures had dropped under the safety car, while others have said that the steering column on his Williams FW 16 snapped, leaving the Brazilian unable to turn the car.  Whatever the cause, the result is the same; the tragic loss of a truly great driver, who died after suffering multiple injuries, including those caused after the 34 year old’s Bell helmet was pierced by a suspension arm from his car.

Improved safety was again the legacy, with the Tamburello being turned into a far less dangerous, and less challenging, chicane and the high cockpit sides we see in the Formula 1 cars of today – designed to help minimise the risk of debris striking the driver’s head – a stark comparison to the low sided cockpits of Senna’s era.

There is, though, still room for further improvements to driver safety in this respect, as we have seen after the incident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, where Felipe Massa was struck on the helmet by a spring that came loose from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn car, causing him a serious injury which meant he missed the remainder of the season.  The Massa incident serves as a reminder that Formula 1 must never be complacent about driver safety.

The FIA continue to explore options for protecting the driver’s head further, with windscreens, jet fighter style cockpit canopies and even front roll hoops being tested and evaluated as possible safety features for introduction in the future.  Fortunately, though, there have been no further driver deaths in F1 since Imola in 1994.  Long may it continue.

End note: Look out for the #F1Imola94 hashtag on Twitter today (1 May 2012) as we pay tribute to Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna.  Gone, but never forgotten.