The battle at the back

While Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso battle it out for wins, points and the glory of taking the 2012 world drivers’ championship, it’s easy to forget the battles further down the grid. I’m not talking about the battle between Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button for a distant fourth in the drivers’ world championship or even the contest between Mercedes and Sauber for fifth in the constructors’ world championship. I’m looking even further back than that, at the battle to finish a race in 11th place and, who knows, maybe even score a single world championship point for a 10th place finish. There are two races left to run and three teams battling to finish 10th in the world constructors’ championship. Will it be Marussia, Caterham or HRT?

All three of the teams battling away at the back of the grid entered the sport in 2010 and in each of their first two years in Formula 1 they have finished in the same positions in the world constructors championship: 10th for Caterham (previously Lotus Racing and Team Lotus), 11th for HRT and 12th for Marussia (previously Virgin Racing). At the start of the season, the only change to this pecking order that looked likely was Marussia finishing ahead of HRT. Few would have bet against Caterham being the best of the new teams yet again, and there was a fair degree of optimism that Tony Fernandes’s team would even score a point or two.

Heikki Kovalainen, Caterham CT01
Abu Dhabi, 4 November 2012
via CaterhamF1.com

Caterham seemed to be moving forward. Their dispute over the use of the Lotus name was now behind them and they had signed a deal to use Renault engines; seen as a step forward from the Cosworth power units that the three new teams had all used in their first two seasons, and which Marussia and HRT continue to use in 2012. Not only were Caterham benefitting from the same engine used by world constructors champions Red Bull Racing, but they also were the only one of the ‘new’ teams to race with the KERS power boost system on their cars in 2012 (HRT also tried the system in Australia, but having failed to qualify for the race they soon removed it from their cars). Although the value of KERS varies depending on the circuit, over the course of the season this should be a great advantage for Caterham over their immediate competitors.

With 18 out of 20 races in the 2012 Formula 1 world championship having now been run, however, things don’t seem to be turning out as we, and perhaps Caterham, might have expected. While it’s true that Caterham have clearly been the pick of the bottom three teams in qualifying, with Heikki Kovalainen the only driver competing for the those teams who has managed to make it out of the first part of qualifying in 2012. Indeed, Kovalainen has not only managed this once, but seven times, even managing to qualify in 16th position on three occasions: the races in Bahrain, Valencia and Germany. Given that the best that any of the four Marussia and HRT drivers have managed in qualifying is a single 18th place start for Timo Glock at the Japanese grand prix, it is perhaps even more surprising that Caterham are not in tenth place in the championship.

Narain Karthikeyan, HRT F112
Singapore, 23 September 2012
By suran2007, via Wikiemedia Commons

As we’re frequently reminded, though, there are no points for qualifying in Formula 1. If there were, perhaps things would look very different for Caterham, and maybe others, in the championship. What counts in Formula 1 are performances on Sundays, in race conditions. Even on Sundays, though, Caterham have consistently come out on top against their main rivals. The team have finished 13th on three separate occasions in 2012, twice for Kovalainen (in Monaco and at the last race in Abu Dhabi) and once for his team-mate Vitaly Petrov (in the European grand prix at Valencia). In comparison, HRT have managed their best result of 15th in just once race this season; the European grand prix, through Narain Kathikeyan. The Indian’s team-mate at HRT, Pedro de la Rosa, has a best result of 17th.

Despite finishing just behind Caterham in the constructors championship in 2010 and 2011, it is not HRT that are Caterham’s main rivals for 10th place in the constructors’ championship in 2012, however. In 2012 it’s Marussia that are making the biggest challenge and, indeed, hold the advantage with just two races to go. Despite Caterham usually managing better results than Marussia, it’s the Anglo-Russian team that currently sits in 10th position in the constructors’ championship thanks to the single 12th placed finish achieved by their experienced German driver, Timo Glock, in Singapore.

That 12th place finish, in the Singapore GP, bettered the team’s previous best of 14th place, which Glock has managed on three occasions this season (his French team-mate Charles Pic has a best result of 15th, which he’s managed twice), and could potentially provide a prize money boost for Marussia at the end of the season. It looked possible that Caterham and Kovalainen might have equalled that result at last weekend’s Abu Dhabi grand prix. The Finn was running in 12th place at certain stages of the race, but eventually finished in 13th place, just under 13 seconds behind Torro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne.

Despite, as expected at the start of the season, looking like the fastest of the three new teams, Caterham find themselves needing at least a 12th place finish in the last two races of the season to finish ahead of Marussia in the 2012 world constructors’ championship. With the funding – through the prize money boost that finishing 10th in the constructors’ championship in each of the last two seasons brought – and technical advantages that a Renault engine and KERS would have brought them, Caterham will be extremely disappointed if they do not finish ahead of Marussia come the end of the season.

Timo Glock, Marussia MR01
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, Marussia are taking nothing for granted. Team Principal John Booth said last week that “We have to continue closing that gap and find the momentum to get ahead of them [Caterham] on track. We’ve come very close in recent races, despite their KERS advantage, and we’ll remain in dogged pursuit of this objective right up until the chequered flag in Brazil”. However, as Booth himself acknowledged, for the teams at the back of the grid their destiny is not completely in their own hands. Referring to the last race Booth said “Abu Dhabi had us on the edge of our pitwall seats at various points, as it reminded us that to hold on to 10th in the Constructors’ Championship, we cannot control what happens further up the field”.

Indeed, a race of high attrition in Austin or Interlagos could prove to be the deciding factor in the race for 10th in the world constructors’ championship. It’s a shame that, three seasons into their Formula 1 journey, none of the new teams are yet in a position to compete with the more established teams in terms of outright speed.

Maybe that will come next year, but for now they’re all relying largely on outside factors to enable them to move forward in races. What is clear, however, is that despite moving forward in terms of the gap to the frontrunners, HRT are falling further behind their immediate rivals in terms of their performances on the track. Outside factors are one thing, but it’s going to need divine intervention for HRT to finish anything other than last in this years’ constructors’ championship. It’s looking like a straight fight between Marussia and Caterham for 10th place in 2012.

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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.