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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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.