Silver Arrows: Shooting for the stars in 2013?

Despite taking their first Formula 1 race victory since returning to the sport with the purchase of the Brawn GP team at the end of the 2009 season, 2012 was a disappointing year for the Mercedes AMG F1 team. Even with Nico Rosberg’s victory at the Chinese grand prix, the team’s constructors’ championship position come the end of the season was fifth; one place lower than they had finished in both of the preceding two seasons.

Even though the team have recruited a top class driver in Lewis Hamilton, many suggest that Mercedes will continue to struggle in 2013. There is a widespread belief that 2013 will be sacrificed and that the team will be focussing on 2014, when there’s a significant regulation change. However, I think that there are a number of reasons why Mercedes might confound these negative expectations in the coming season, and here’s why.

Michael Schumacher at the 2012 Australian GP16 March 2012By Parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Schumacher at the 2012 Australian GP
16 March 2012
By Parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, and as I’ve already mentioned, Mercedes have recruited a truly world-class driver in Lewis Hamilton. People might argue that the man who Hamilton replaced, seven time Formula 1 world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher, was no slouch and was a world-class driver in his own right, but the big difference between the German and the Englishman is that Hamilton is a man at the top of his game, while Schumacher was far from that at the time of his retirement at the end of the 2012 season.

Schumacher was consistently outpaced in his ‘second career’ in Formula 1 by his team-mate Rosberg. Rosberg finished ahead of his countryman in all three of their seasons together at Mercdes, scoring nearly double the amount of points that his more experienced team-mate in both 2010 and 2012. Despite Schumcher’s glittering Formula 1 career, and the odd flash of his old pace, like his pole lap at Monaco last season, his talent was clearly on the wane.

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

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

Hamilton, though, should be approaching the peak of his powers. At 28 years of age he is 16 years Schumacher’s junior, but still an experienced Formula 1 driver in his own right. Hamilton is himself a Formula 1 world drivers’ champion who, after 110 F1 race starts, is now entering his sixth season at the pinnacle of motorsport. After a lacklustre 2011, littered with off track problems and uncharacteristic mistakes on the track, Hamilton was back on form in 2012. He drove brilliantly last season, and it was only operational and technical errors on the part of his former team, McLaren, that meant that he was ultimately unable to sustain the championship challenge that his driving performances warranted. Hamilton is also a man who is able to drag performance from a car that might be tricky to drive, which makes him the perfect man given Mercedes’s performance issues. As Martin Brundle said recently “Lewis has got such pace, and if Mercedes can harness that speed and give him the car, he will drag another quarter of a second per lap out of it somewhere”.

It is, though, important to point out that Hamilton has no chance of being able to deliver results for Mercedes in 2013 unless the new car, the W04, is, at least, reasonably competitive. A Mercedes that is able to sustain the sort of performance level that we saw from the Brackley based team at the start of the 2012 season is almost certain to be a winner in the hands of Hamilton, as it was for Rosberg in China. A Mercedes that delivers the sort of pace that we saw from the team in the latter half of 2012 will simply not be good enough, for even a driver of Hamilton’s considerable skill, to win races and challenge at the front of the field.

Why is there any reason to think that the Mercedes team of 2013 will be able to sustain winning performance where the Mercedes team of 2012 could not? Given the team’s position at the end of 2012, who could even say that the 2013 car will be good enough out of the box? Well, to answer the first of my own questions, there are good reasons why Mercedes suffered a mid-season slump in performance last season. As Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said earlier this month, at the mid-season point Mercedes were transitioning from a 50 percent windtunnel to a 60 percent windtunnel. The change was needed to enable the team to increase the amount of data it could glean from the Pirelli tyres. With extracting performance out of the tyres becoming such a crucial part of modern-day Formula 1, making the switch was crucial for Mercedes, even if it did cost them performance in the short-term.

f1-wind-tunnel-model

An F1 windtunnel model

The windtunnel was not the only reason for Mercedes’s performance problems, though. The team’s had of aerodynamics, Loic Bigois, departed mid-season and his replacement, Mike Elliot, from F1 rivals Lotus, wasn’t able to immediately take over. As Brawn commented “We concluded the situation with Loic and there was a gap that we didn’t fill very well”.

The arrival of Elliot, though almost certainly bodes well for Mercedes. The Lotus E20 threatened to be the class of the field, at times, last season and Lotus scored over double the amount of world constructors’ championship points as Mercedes as a result. Elliot’s appointment, coupled with Mercedes’s new wind tunnel should certainly help the team to move forwards. Interestingly, Elliot’s appointment might also enable Mercedes to steal a march on some of its rivals in one, potentially important, area.

In 2012, Mercedes and Lotus were the only two teams to trial the use of a passive DRS system that uses air pressure to stall the rear wing at certain speeds; a sort of passive version of the driver operated F-duct device originally introduced by McLaren in 2010, but now outlawed. Neither Lotus nor Mercedes actually raced a passive system last season, but if teams can get such a system to work effectively it could be a big benefit. With Elliot, who presumably has some knowledge of the work that Lotus were doing on their system, now on board at Mercedes, you could surmise that the latter team are as likely as anyone to get such a system operating properly.

Mercedes W03 (DRS)Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Mercedes W03 (DRS)
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, with the change in the DRS rules, an effective passive DRS system might become even more important in 2013. From this year, teams will no longer have free use of their standard DRS systems in practice and qualifying with use of the system restricted to the FIA’s designated race DRS zones. This means that an effective passive system could deliver a qualifying and race advantage. The key factor will, though, be whether anyone can get such a system to work. As I have said, I think that Mercedes will probably be in as good a position as anyone in this respect. Although such a system might not be suitable for all tracks – only tracks with predominantly low-speed corners and long straights – and, as Ross Brawn explained last year, such a system “is not going to be a game changer in terms of your competitiveness”, any advantage is potentially crucial in Formula 1.

This brings me on to my next point. As Red Bull Racing designer Adrian Newey admitted at the end of last year, the stability in the Formula 1 rules – there hasn’t been much significant change since 2009 – means that it is becoming more and more difficult for the top teams to find significant extra performance. With a team like Mercedes, though, which is certainly one of the sports big teams, but was lagging behind in performance terms at the end of 2012, there will be more speed to find than a team like Red Bull or McLaren. The new Mercedes, for example, will certainly feature a coanda exhaust, which the team could not get to work – probably in part due to their windtunnel transition – in 2012, which will deliver performance.

So, do I think that Mercedes will be championship contenders in 2013? Unless they find something that no-one else does, probably not, but with Hamilton on board and a car that’s in the right ball park then who knows? I certainly expect that Mercedes will be in a Lotus-esque position in 2013; consistently able to challenge for podiums and the odd race win.

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Vettel crowned champion amid chaos in Brazil

When all was said and done at the end of the race in Brazil it was Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel who was crowned the youngest triple world drivers’ champion in Formula 1 history after a chaotic and action packed race. Vettel wasn’t the only winner in Interlagos, though. It’s easy to forget that it was Jenson Button who won the race, but that was almost immaterial as Ferrari beat McLaren to second in the world constructors’ championship, with Caterham finishing ahead of Marussia in the constructors’ championship battle between the ‘new’ teams.

Sebatian Vettel, Red Bull RB8
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with Vettel and Fernando Alonso and the battle for the glory of becoming the youngest triple world champion in the history of the sport. After qualifying on Saturday, Vettel was in the better position of the two going into the race. On top of this 13 point championship lead, he had out-qualified the Ferrari driver yet again. It certainly wasn’t a classic qualifying performance from Vettel, but he would have been quietly satisfied that he was fourth on the grid, compared to just seventh (following a 10 place grid penalty for Pastor Maldonado) for his Spanish rival.

Vettel’s starting advantage didn’t even last a lap, though. As we’ve seen so often this season, Alonso got off the line brilliantly and was ahead of Vettel once the cars emerged from turn one. Things went from bad to worse for Vettel, as he fell back into the midfield and then collided with Bruno Senna at the end of the back straight. The Williams was out of the race and it looked for all the world that Vettel would be too, as he rolled backwards while the rest of the field streamed past him.

Vettel was able to continue, though, despite some damage to the rear of the Red Bull. On lap two Alonso was third, while Vettel was 22nd, with lots of work to do to save his championship. The German proved himself up to the task. Despite a clearly damaged car he was soon carving his way through the field and into the points. By lap 9, Vettel was up to seventh while Alonso had slipped out of the podium positions to fourth. Amazingly, Vettel was back in control of the championship.

Despite the chaos of changeable weather and two safety car periods, Vettel remained in control of his own destiny throughout the rest of the race. Despite the damage to his car, he was able to lap consistently and competitively, and despite some nervousness his Renault alternator didn’t fail him at Interlagos. That’s not to say that Alonso was giving up, though. By the end of the race the 2005 and 2006 world drivers’ champion had negotiated his way into second place, albeit aided by his team-mate Felipe Massa, who eased off the throttle down the back straight to let Alonso through on lap 62.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012
Sepang, Malaysia, 24 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Alonso’s cause was also aided by the lap 54 collision between then leader Lewis Hamilton and second placed driver Nico Hulkenberg. The Force India driver had driven brilliantly to lead the race, before almost spinning on lap 49 to let McLaren’s Hamilton, in his last race with the Woking based team, through into the lead. Hamilton led Hulkenberg for five laps before the Force India driver attempted to repass the Englishman as the McLaren was held up by traffic. The pass went badly wrong as Hulkenberg spun into Hamilton at turn one. Hulkenberg was able to continue, but received a drive-through penalty for the incident, but Hamilton was out of the race. A sad end to an illustrious career at McLaren for Hamilton and a real shame for Sauber-bound Hulkenberg who was in a position to be able to challenge for a first Formula 1 victory. The young German did, though, go on to finish a creditable fifth.

Although Alonso benefitted, it was never enough to put him in position to take his third world drivers’ championship. It was, though, enough to hand Ferrari second in the world constructors’ championship. With Hamilton leading and Button in third place, there was a very real chance that McLaren would overhaul their Italian rivals in the constructors’ championship. With Hamilton shunted out of the race Button went on to win, but with Alonso and Massa joining him on the podium Ferrari managed to outscore McLaren by eight points in Brazil and claim hand on to second in the constructors’ championship. An amazing achievement considering that the Ferrari F2012 has been far from the best car, while the McLaren MP4-27 has probably been the fastest. Reliability and operational issues have cost McLaren dearly in 2012.

Vitaly Petrov, Caterham CT01
Australia, 16 March 2012
By parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

While Ferrari proved able to hang on to their constructors’ championship position, the same could not be said of Marussia. The Anglo-Russian team were in pole position to claim 10th in the world constructors championship ahead of Caterham thanks to Timo Glock’s 12th place finish in Singapore, but the chaotic final race of the season threw a spanner in the works for them and handed a lifeline to Caterham. Amid the increasingly adverse weather conditions, Caterham’s Vitaly Petrov – likely to be out of a Formula 1 drive next season – passed Marussia’s Charles Pic – ironically on his way to Caterham in 2013 – for 12th place on lap 67. This would have been enough to give Caterham tenth in the constructors’ championship, but things got even better for them as Force India’s Paul di Resta crashed out on the penultimate lap, triggering the safety car and moving Petrov up to 11th.

While Petrov couldn’t quite take that elusive first point for Caterham, one driver that did manage to score points was the retiring Michael Schumacher. The German seven time world drivers’ champion crossed the line in seventh place for Mercedes, scoring six points and ending a barren run of results for the Blackley based team in the process. While such a result would have been a huge disappointment for Schumacher in the first part of his Formula 1 career, it must have brought a smile of satisfaction to his face in the last of his 308 race in the premier class.

The man with the biggest smile on his face at the end of the race was Sebastian Vettel, though. He survived some post-race controversy when TV replays appeared to show him passing under yellow flags and although there was no sixth race victory of the season for the 25-year-old German, I’m sure that he was more than happy with sixth position instead, and with it a third world drivers’ championship.

It’s certainly been a thrilling 2012 season, and a long way from the 2011 cakewalk for Vettel. 2013 has a lot to live up to. Let’s hope it lives up to the challenge.

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.

Might McLaren hang on to Hamilton?

Over the past couple of weeks the speculation surrounding Lewis Hamilton, and in particular which team the McLaren driver would be driving for in 2013, has reached fever pitch.  The speculation has been fuelled by a story on the BBC website, citing unnamed sources that have been whispering in the ear of analyst, and former Formula 1 team owner, Eddie Jordan.  More recently, we’ve seen an article from former ITV F1 commentator, James Allen, which ramped up the speculation to yet another level.

Both Jordan and Allen have claimed that Hamilton will leave McLaren for Mercedes, citing a number of factors that support that position.  They may well be right; both are considerably better placed than I am to comment on possible driver moves as people who are on site, at grand prix, speaking to teams, drivers and managers.  However, I believe that there’s an equally strong case for Hamilton remaining with McLaren, and this is what I’m going to set out in this article.  I want to be very clear upfront that this is just my point of view.  I have no inside information.  I may well be wrong.

Michael Schumacher at the 2012 Australian GP
16 March 2012
By Parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

Hamilton’s potential move to Mercedes is predicated on the assumption that the Silver Arrows’ seven time world champion Michael Schumacher is going to retire for a second, and presumably final, time when his current contract expires at the end of the season.  Schumacher, though, is probably in his best form since he returned to Formula 1 in 2010.  Schumacher has been outpaced and outperformed by his team-mate, compatriot Nico Rosberg, consistently throughout 2010 and 2011.  It looked, after the first seven rounds of 2012, that this trend would continue as Schumacher scored just two points and had five retirements.  The European grand prix at Valencia signalled a massive turnaround of fortunes for Schumacher, though.  He finished third, his first podium finish in his second F1 career and, since then has scored points in every round other than at the Hungarian grand prix, where he retired with technical problems.  Since Valencia, Schumacher has outscored Rosberg by 25 points – with 41 points compared to his younger team-mate’s 16.

This being the case, Schumacher may well decide that he wants to carry on racing for a while yet.  Bernie Ecclestone – F1’s ringmaster – suggested otherwise to the BBC, in an interview ahead of the recent Italian grand prix, though, but who knows what Ecclestone knows and what he doesn’t know?  It certainly would not be beyond the realms of the possible for Ecclestone to be stirring the pot for his own ends.

It’s easy to forget amid the maelstrom of speculation that Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn has stated quite clearly that Schumacher is his first choice, and that any talk of replacements is premature until the German decides that he wants to retire, if, indeed, that is what he wants to do.  Brawn said, just before the British grand prix, “We are focused on Michael for as long as it takes – and for whatever it takes”.  Would Hamilton really want to move to a team where he knows going in that he is not the first choice?

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

It is, though, undoubtedly true that Mercedes as one of only two true ‘works’ teams in F1 would fit well with Hamilton from a marketing and branding perspective.  It has been said, by Eddie Jordan, that Hamilton’s management team, XIX Entertainment, are trying to position the Briton as a “major global star” and that “Mercedes is a much bigger global brand than McLaren”.  That may well be true, but Hamilton must surely already be considered a “major global star”.  He is, after all, the 2008 world drivers’ champion, the driver that went head to head with and beat Fernando Alonso at McLaren in his rookie year and came out on top.  He also dates a pop star in former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and has a number of “showbiz” friends.

Let’s not forget, either, that Ayrton Senna, Hamilton’s hero, drove for and won three world championships for McLaren.  Senna was without doubt a major global star, without driving for a big brand team.  Isn’t the best way for Hamilton to increase his exposure to win more world championships?  For that, of course, he needs competitive machinery.

Hamilton’s desire and will to win has often been ignored or dismissed as an insignificant factor as speculation about a move to Mercedes has mounted, but I believe that this is a crucial factor that should not be made light of.  It is no secret that the 2008 world drivers’ champion is not satisfied with a single championship and wants to win multiple titles.  This being the case, you need to ask yourself the question “which team is likely to give him the best chance of doing so?”.  If McLaren and Mercedes are the two available options, the answer to that question, based on past performance and, indeed, performance this season, is clearly McLaren.

Jenson Button at the Singapore GP
26 September 2009
By Shiny Things, via Wikimedia Commons

McLaren have, at this stage of the season, what appears to be the fastest car.  They have won five races this season, more than any other team, and have a rich heritage of race wins and drivers and constructors world championships.   The current incarnation of the Mercedes F1 team, in contrast, was born from the Brawn team that steered Jenson Button to the world drivers’ championship in 2009.  Since that season, though, the team has won just once with Nico Rosberg’s maiden victory in Formula 1 at this year’s Chinese grand prix.  At this stage of the season, there’s nothing to suggest that there will be a huge improvement in fortunes for the German manufacturer unless they can deliver a huge upturn in performance with their new triple DRS system and coanda exhaust – both of which were on the car at last week’s young driver test in Magny Cours.

Much has been made of Hamilton’s management team, XIX Entertainment, speaking to Mercedes and other teams about the possibility of a seat for the Englishman in 2013.  I simply can’t understand why this is a big issue, though.  It would be hugely remiss of XIX not to be speaking to other teams given that Hamilton is out of contract at the end of the season.  Even if Hamilton has no intention of leaving McLaren, he cannot be 100% certain about the team’s intentions and putting all his eggs in one basket would be, at best, an extremely risky thing to do.

Talking to other teams can also be a negotiating tactic.  It’s no secret that Hamilton wants to be paid as well as possible – who wouldn’t want that – and wants greater control over his image rights to help maximise his earnings.  There may well be an offer on the table from Mercedes, and they may well be offering more money and more control over image rights than McLaren, but who’s to say that XIX aren’t just using this to drive up the offer on the table from McLaren?  XIX could, as you would expect them to do, simply be trying to ensure that their client gets the best possible deal.  One of the tactics to ensure that this happens would surely be speaking to other teams to ascertain what might be on offer elsewhere.   Certainly that’s what Christian Horner, the team principal at Red Bull Racing has suggested recently.  Horner was quoted as saying “The Hamilton story is about his position at McLaren – about how he can market himself to the world and what rights he gets.  But if he listens to his racing heart, he will stay at McLaren, where he has the best chance to be world champion again”.

The telemetry data tweeted at the 2012 Belgian GP

Some say, though, that it goes beyond money, image rights and even the relative competitiveness of McLaren and Mercedes, arguing that relationships between Hamilton and McLaren have become strained and may have irrevocably broken down.  A massive amount has been made of this, and Hamilton’s demeanour at the last two grand prix, fuelled by Hamilton’s misguided act of posting some potentially sensitive telemetry data on Twitter during the Belgian grand prix weekend.  It is certainly true that Hamilton has been downbeat at the last two races, despite his excellent victory at the last race in Italy.  There are, however, other factors that might explain this, for example the death of his aunt leading up to the Belgian grand prix.  Hamilton is famously very close to his family and the death of a close relative might well have had a big impact on his mood.  Certainly, Hamilton would not be the first person to be affected by the death of a loved one.  It’s impossible to know for sure.

Whatever the true situation, McLaren have quite clearly stated that they remain in negotiations with Hamilton over a new contract.  This has been backed up by XIX Entertainment, who have confirmed that they remain in “advanced discussions with McLaren about a new deal” for Hamilton.

With the lack of facts and verifiable information the speculation surrounding Hamilton should be regarded as just that.  As I’ve shown here, it’s just as possible to spin the available information to support the argument that Hamilton will stay at McLaren as it is to spin it to make the case that the Stevenage born racer will move to Mercedes.  This is silly season, don’t forget.  It’s called that for a reason.

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.

F1 musical chairs

Speculation about possible driver moves provides an almost constant backing track to life in the Formula 1 paddock, a backing track that is never quite drowned out by the roar of F1 engines.  In 2012, this background music has been particularly loud, due primarily to the fact that one driver in each of the ‘big four’ teams was out of contract at the end of the season.  With the news that one of those drivers – Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber – has decided to stay where he is for 2013, announcing a one year contract extension earlier this week, where does that leave things for the other three drivers still ‘in play’ and potentially in the hunt for a new seat: Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa?

Let’s start with Felipe Massa.  The Brazilian’s struggles over the past few seasons have been well documented.  He has not won a race since his home grand prix in 2008 – the very same race that he lost out on the world drivers’ championship to Lewis Hamilton – and he has been comprehensively outpaced by Fernando Alonso since the Spaniard joined the team in 2010.  Massa failed to finish on the podium in the whole of the 2011 season and, up until the British grand prix, Massa’s 2012 campaign had been equally lacklustre, with just two top 10 qualifying slots in the opening eight rounds of the season, and three points scoring race finishes.  Massa’s performance at Silverstone was, though, a dramatic change in his fortunes and by far his best race weekend of the season.  A fifth place grid slot represented his best qualifying position of the season and a fourth place finish in the race, with strong pace throughout, was clearly his best Sunday performance of the season, and his best race result.

Given his dismal 2011 season, Massa was already under pressure going in to 2012, with speculation that he would leave Ferrari almost ever present.  His performances in the opening eight rounds of the season led to rumours that Ferrari would dispense with his services before the season was out but, thus far, that has proved not to be the case.  Now that there’s been an upturn in his form with the result at Silverstone, is there now a possibility that Massa could even stay with the Scuderia beyond the end of the current campaign?  The answer to that question is that yes, it’s a possibility, but despite the supportive comments from Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo and team principal Stefano Domenicali following Massa fourth place finish at Silverstone I expect that the possibility is probably a fairly remote one unless Massa can maintain his improved form over the remaining 11 races of the season.  In my view, Massa would, at the very least, need some podium finishes to stand a chance of retaining his seat.  Even that might not be enough though; I suspect that Ferrari may well have already made up their mind on Massa and that the exit door beckons.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Moving on to Michael Schumacher, who is in the final year of his three year contract with Mercedes AMG F1.  Schumacher hasn’t enjoyed the most successful time of his career since returning to the sport in 2010.  Admittedly, the Mercedes, until this year, hasn’t been a winning car, but in both 2010 and 2011 Schumacher was outpaced by his young team-mate, Nico Rosberg.  Even in 2012, Rosberg enjoys a huge points advantage over his seven time world drivers’ championship winning team-mate, having won the Chinese grand prix.  Schumacher, in contrast, had only scored a meagre two world championship points up until the European grand prix at Valencia; round eight of the championship.  This, though, does not tell the full story of Schumacher’s season.  He’s had five retirements in nine races, four of which were mechanical failures, like the bizarre jammed DRS in Canada.  He has also scored his first podium finish since his return to F1, with third in Valencia and he also drove a brilliant qualifying lap in Monaco to take pole position (although a grid penalty meant he started sixth).  There are, therefore, certainly signs of an upturn in form for Schumacher, and this being the case I would expect that he would want to stay on in Formula 1 for one more year in the hope that Mercedes can provide him with a car that’s capable of delivering another world driver’s championship.

The only question that remains for Schumacher is whether Mercedes would want to keep him beyond the end of his current contract.  The answer to that question is an emphatic ‘yes’.  Despite Schumacher being 43 years of age (he will be 44 before the start of next season), Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn was quite clear when discussing possible driver options in 2013 that Schumacher was very much the first choice.  Brawn was quoted as saying, ahead of the British grand prix, “We are focused on Michael for as long as it takes – and for whatever it takes”.  Let’s not forget that Schumacher and Brawn have a long and distinguished working relationship having delivered world championships together for both Benetton and Ferrari.  It’s no surprise that Brawn would like to continue what has been an enormously successful working relationship with Schumacher.  Given these factors, I expect that Schumacher will stay with Mercedes in 2013, but probably not far beyond that season.

McLaren’s 2008 world drivers’ champion, Lewis Hamilton, is also out of contract at the end of the current season.  Given the team’s well documented issues with pit procedure, strategy and, following the British grand prix, outright pace, many have speculated that Hamilton will take the decision to move on from the team that brought him into Formula 1 at the age of 22, the same team that has been supporting his development since the age of 13.  Hamilton has been linked with drives at all of the front-running teams.  There have been rumours of a move to Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and even Lotus.  We now know, of course, with Mark Webber’s decision to re-sign with Red Bull for 2013, that the opportunity of a move to the reigning world constructors’ champions is not going to materialise, at least not this year.  With Mercedes being quite clear that they will retain Michael Schumacher, if the seven time world drivers’ champion decides he wants to carry on racing at the highest level, the possibility of a move to the Brackley-based team for Hamilton is still possible, but one suspects that the idea of being second choice behind Schumacher would not be particularly appealing to the Englishman.

The possibility of Hamilton replacing Felipe Massa at Ferrari – if, as I suspect, the Brazilian does not stay on with the team beyond the end of the current season – is an extremely remote one, in my view.  Given that Fernando Alonso has already said that he gets some say over who will be his team-mate at the Italian team, it would be incredibly hard to imagine him rubber stamping Hamilton as his team-mate.  The memory of Hamilton and Alonso as team-mates at McLaren in 2007 – Hamilton’s rookie year in Formula 1 – is still relatively fresh.  The relationship between the team-mates was not good and as they battled it out for supremacy in what was probably the fastest car that season.  That at times bitter inter-team battle ultimately allowed Kimi Raikkonen take the world drivers’ championship for Ferrari, who also took the constructors championship that year.  Despite having agreed a multi-year contract, Alonso left at the team at the end of that campaign, returning to Renault for two seasons, before moving on to join Massa at Ferrari in 2010.

With no seat at Red Bull, Schumacher the first choice to stay on for another year at Mercedes, and Alonso highly unlikely to countenance having Hamilton as his team-mate at Ferrari, the Englishman is left with very few worthwhile options for 2013.  In my view, the speculation about a move to Lotus is not credible, which leaves staying at McLaren as the 2008 world drivers’ champion only realistic choice.  This is exactly what I expect Hamilton to do, despite the team’s recent struggles.  Don’t forget, too, that despite the speculation about Hamilton leaving McLaren, there has been a notable lack of speculation about who might take his seat at McLaren if he did decide to leave.  This is in stark contrast to the Massa/Ferrari situation, and this contrast, in my view, gives an indication about the relative likelihood of Massa and Hamilton leaving their respective teams.  It’s also easy to under-estimate the value of loyalty, but I think that this, along with McLaren’s position as one of F1’s top teams over the past few decades, will mean that Hamilton stays with the Woking-based outfit.  After 14 years affiliated with the team that stood by him in 2011, despite his own troubled season, I would expect that it would take more than a disappointing start to 2012 – don’t forget that there’s still over half of the season to go – to persuade Hamilton that his future lies away from McLaren.  The length of any new deal for Hamilton at McLaren will, though, be extremely interesting.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So, with Mark Webber definitely staying at Red Bull Racing for 2013, and assuming that my other assumptions are correct, who will race alongside Fernando Alonso at Ferrari in 2013?  The most credible drivers to be linked with a drive with the Italian team are Force India’s Paul di Resta and Sauber’s Mexican driver Sergio Perez.  For me the most logical option is Perez.  He’s a Ferrari development driver and despite Ferrari Driver Academy head Luca Baldisserri saying recently that he was “too aggressive” and Luca di Montezemolo saying “to drive a Ferrari you need more experience”, I can’t see Ferrari turning anywhere else if they replace Massa.  As I mentioned, di Resta is the other current F1 driver that’s been linked with Ferrari, but I can’t see that happening.  Di Resta is a Mercedes protégé, and if he moves from Force India, the only place that I could see him going would be to the Mercedes works team, possibly to replace Schumacher in 2013 if the German decides to retire again.  The other possibility for the Mercedes drive, if Schumacher decides against continuing in Formula 1, is di Resta’s Force India team-mate Nico Hulkenberg, but as I’ve already said, I do expect Schumacher to stay on with Mercedes for another year.

The other big question mark for 2013 is Bruno Senna’s position at Williams.  Williams’s upturn in form in 2013 has been notable, and all of a sudden the Grove-based team are a more desirable place to be in 2013.  Senna was only confirmed at Williams for 2012 and while he has been consistent and a steady points scorer, his performances have not been as spectacular as many fans of his uncle, the late, great triple world drivers’ champion, Ayrton Senna, had hoped for.  There has been a lack of speculation about Williams and Senna and their plans for 2013 thus far, but I expect that to change as other drivers’ and teams’ plans for 2013 become clearer.

I might be completely wrong about all of my predictions for drivers and teams for 2013, of course.  Schumacher might choose to retire.  Massa might have a brilliant second half of the season.  Hamilton’s contract talks with McLaren might reach an impasse.  Only time will tell where everyone ends up when the music stops…