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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Hamilton’s move and the domino effect

The big news in the world of Formula 1 over the past week was undoubtedly Lewis Hamilton’s decision to leave McLaren at the end of the 2012 season to join Mercedes, with Sergio Perez taking his place with the British team.  Hamilton’s decision to swap Woking for Brackley has divided opinion with many fans questioning the decision and questioning the 2008 world drivers’ champion motivations.  It’s not only Hamilton and Perez’s respective moves that have created a media storm, though.  The knock on effect of those two moves has reignited speculation around the rest of the driver market.

Lewis Hamilton
Bahrain GP, 21 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with the obvious and look briefly at Hamilton’s decision to leave the team that he’s been with since the age of 13 in favour of a new challenge at Mercedes.  The move certainly didn’t come out of the blue; speculation about a possible move to Mercedes for Hamilton blew up at Monza, as BBC analyst and former Formula 1 team owner, Eddie Jordan broke news of an “imminent” deal between the two parties.  Three weeks on and Jordan has been proved right, with Hamilton’s three year contract with the German works team being formally announced by Mercedes on Friday.

Even before the deal was signed many were accusing Hamilton of being driven by greed, with rumours of a higher salary on offer from Mercedes, and more freedom to exploit lucrative image rights.  While it is certainly true that Hamilton will have greater latitude to make his own private sponsorship deals with Mercedes – he was restricted to a single personal sponsor at McLaren – it soon emerged that the basic salary on offer from Mercedes was, at best, no more than that on offer from McLaren.

Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn revealed to Sky that “Lewis didn’t come here because we offered more money – because we didn’t”, and went on to say that “I think for Lewis, the attraction was being part of that building structure – the creation of the team. Not walking into a ready formed, successful package; it was being part of the process of building that package.  I think he felt that that was the next stage of his career”.

It’s hard to say that this is not a perfectly reasonable motivation for Hamilton.  We mustn’t forget that we’re dealing with a driver that’s looking to cement a reputation as one of the best in Formula 1.  It’s no secret that he wants to win multiple championships, like his great hero Ayrton Senna.  While the relative competitiveness of McLaren and Mercedes this season would suggest that his best chance of doing that is by staying at the team that currently has the faster car, i.e. McLaren, it is certainly very hard to know what the future will hold next year and beyond.

It’s easy to forget that there is a big regulation change coming in 2014, which will level the playing field and which is bound to mix up the current pecking order.  It’s also easily forgotten that the last time there was a big change in the regulations, in 2009, Brawn GP – the team that is now Mercedes – won both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.

Of course, we’re now dealing with a substantially different team from the one that arose from the ashes of Honda, but the technical team has now been restructured with key personnel now recruited, in place, and ready to make the most of the forthcoming change in regulations.  Mercedes will also have the advantage of having the earliest possible access to information about the new 1.6 litre V6 turbo engines that the teams will be using in 2014.  While using the same engines, McLaren certainly won’t have quite the same access as they’re now effectively a customer team.

Parallels can certainly be made with Michael Schumacher’s decision to leave Benetton for Ferrari in 1996 after winning two consecutive world drivers’ championships for the former, while the latter was uncompetitive.  While Schumacher moved and the technical team followed, though, Hamilton has the advantage of being the last piece of the puzzle.  He’ll step into a fully formed team under the leadership of the man behind all of Michael Schumacher’s seven world drivers’ championships, Ross Brawn.

Indeed, with all due respect to Michael Schumacher, who is certainly no longer the driver that swept all before him at Benetton and Ferrari, all that Mercedes were missing was a proven race and championship winning driver.  They’ve certainly got that with the signing of Lewis Hamilton, a man who is “the best driver in the world” according to triple world drivers champion Niki Lauda, who is joining Mercedes as a board member.

Sergio Perez, Sauber C31,
Malaysian GP, 23 March 2012
By Morio via Wikimedia Commons

While Mercedes have gained what might be the missing ingredient that’s needed to enable the team to win world championships, McLaren will certainly be disappointed to have lost someone who they’ve nurtured over the last 14 years.  They didn’t dwell too long on the loss, however, moving swiftly to sign Sergio Perez from Sauber and even announcing the move before Hamilton had officially been confirmed as having signed for Mercedes.  Certainly in Perez, McLaren have signed a driver with massive potential who will now be well placed to challenge more often for race wins in the future.  It will certainly be interesting to see how the young Mexican measure up against 2009 world drivers’ champion Jenson Button, who will surely be considered the de-facto team leader at McLaren from 2013.

With seats now locked down at Mercedes and McLaren, and Michael Schumacher undecided about whether he’ll continue driving after the end of his contract with Mercedes, the Hamilton and Perez moves have certainly kicked off a fresh round of speculation about which drivers will be at which teams in 2013.  There’s now a definite vacancy at Sauber, and given the performance of that team in 2012, it may well be one that’s in much greater demand in 2013.  Schumacher has been strongly linked with that seat, with team boss Peter Sauber being quoted in Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport as saying “I would take him immediately”.  I find it hard to believe that Schumacher would make that move, though.

Felipe Massa’s future at Ferrari is also far from certain and there has even been some speculation that Schumacher could take the Brazilian’s place and rejoin the team with which he won five of his seven world drivers’ championships.  I can’t see that happening either, though.  It would certainly be quite a come down for Schumacher to have to play the supporting role at the Scuderia, having been the undisputed lead driver is his pomp.  There are also conflicting reports that Massa will, despite a truly horrendous fist part of the season, retain his drive at Ferrari, or that Nico Hulkenburg has already been signed from Force India to replace him.

If that last rumour is true, then we have a seat available at Force India, and possibly one at Caterham, too, should reports that Vitaly Petrov has run out of money prove to be true.  Add that to the confirmed vacancy at Sauber and there will certainly be some seats available to be filled.  Should Massa leave Ferrari, a return to Sauber looks to be the most likely move for him, but what of the possible Force India and Caterham vacancies?

Adrian Sutil, Force India VMJ04
Malaysian GP, 9 April 2011
By Morio via Wikimedia Commons

When we add to the mix the possible promotion of Williams reserve driver Valtteri Bottas to the seat currently occupied by Bruno Senna, that means that Senna, and his not inconsiderable sponsorship backing, will be available to move.  Might he fill one of the possible vacancies at Force India or Caterham?  We also have the possible returns of Jaime Alguersuari, who is “sure” he will be driving in F1 in 2013, and former Force India driver Adrian Sutil, as well as the possible entry of GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi to consider.

As ever in F1, there’s a shortage of seats, but no shortage of drivers eager to fill them.  It looks like, despite the moves of Hamilton and Perez, there’s still plenty of fuel for the silly season fire.