Bruno’s burden of expectation

Other than the controversy over whether triple world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel did, or did not, overtake under yellow flags on his way to sixth place, and the 2012 championship, in last weekend’s Brazilian grand prix, the big Formula 1 story of last week was Wednesday’s announcement by Williams of their 2013 driver line-up. As had been widely tipped to be the case, reserve driver Valtteri Bottas was promoted to a race seat for 2013, alongside Pastor Maldonado. This, of course, meant that Bruno Senna once again found himself, at least temporarily, without a drive for the third season in a row.

It seems that Senna, despite his relative consistency and sponsorship money, has lost out to a rising star at Williams and a 2012 team-mate who was able to bring more money and more outright pace than the Brazilian. Most of all, though, Senna loses out because he hasn’t been able to live up to the huge weight of expectation that comes with his family name, a family name he shares with his late, great, triple world drivers’ championship winning uncle, Ayrton.

Ayrton Senna, McLaren Honda MP4/7AMonaco, 28 May 1992By Iwao, via Wikimedia Commons

Ayrton Senna, McLaren Honda MP4/7A
Monaco, 28 May 1992
By Iwao, via Wikimedia Commons

Ayrton Senna was perhaps the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time. A man who was blessed with an amazing magnetic personality and a natural charisma, as well as a phenomenal natural driving talent and ability. Other drivers have won more world championships than Ayrton, but none inspire the same awe. His tragic death at the 1994 San Marino grand prix at Imola has only served to increase the esteem in which he is held by the vast majority of F1 fans.

While Bruno has inevitably benefited from his family name as he has risen through the ranks of motorsport, he now finds himself in an unenviable position having made it to Formula 1 . There must be an almost unbearable weight of expectation on his shoulders. Bruno is the living embodiment of Ayrton’s legacy. He carries the Senna name in Formula 1, and with it the expectation that he will be able to show the same brilliance behind the wheel as his uncle had more than a decade before Bruno entered the pinnacle of motorsport.

How can Bruno ever live up to such a level of expectation? Ayrton was quite simply a one-off. A once in a generation talent, who few, if any, could ever live up to. Following Ayrton’s death, Bruno’s career came to an abrupt halt as his family, understandably given his uncle’s tragic death, didn’t want to see him racing. His father’s death, just two years after Ayrton’s, in a motorcycle accident in 1996 must have only served to strengthen his family’s protective instincts.

Bruno Senna, iSport International, GP2Silverstone, 4 July 2008By Jake Archibald, via Wikimedia Commons

Bruno Senna, iSport International, GP2
Silverstone, 4 July 2008
By Jake Archibald, via Wikimedia Commons

It was not until 10 years after his uncle’s death that Bruno, at the age of 21 re-entered competitive motorsport, having missed out on vital development behind the wheel during his teenage years. Nevertheless, by 2006 Bruno had made it into British Formula 3, winning almost a quarter of his 22 races on his way to third in the championship. Two years later he finished runner-up in the GP2 championship, the Formula 1 feeder series, in his second year at that level.

Bruno, despite the weight of expectation that the name Senna brings, and despite the huge gap in his driving development, was capturing the attention of Formula 1 teams. His performances led to a test at Barcelona with F1 team Honda in November 2008. Bruno lapped within 0.3 seconds of race driver, and future Formula 1 world drivers’ champion, Jenson Button, over the course of the three-day test. He looked set to secure a race drive with the team, before Honda pulled out of F1 and the team morphed into Brawn GP, only securing its future less than a month before the start of the 2009 season.

Given the lack of testing that Brawn GP was able to undertake before the start of the season, team owner Ross Brawn opted to retain the experience of Bruno’s compatriot, Rubens Barrichello, alongside Button. This left Bruno without a Formula 1 drive in 2009, and he was forced to watch from the sidelines as the team took both the drivers’ and constructors’ world championships in what turned out to be their only season in the sport. How different might Bruno’s career have been had Honda stayed in Formula one, or had Brawn decided to take a risk on him?

Bruno Senna, Hispania F110Sepang, Malaysia, 3 April 2010By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Bruno Senna, Hispania F110
Sepang, Malaysia, 3 April 2010
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

As it was, Bruno had to wait until 2010 for his Formula 1 chance. However, this chance came with Hispania Racing, one of the sport’s three new teams. The team was underprepared and extremely slow, and Bruno didn’t even get to compete in a full season as the team brought in other drivers in certain races. Bruno was unable to prove what he could do and lost his drive with the team at the end of the season, in favour of drivers with more funding.

Having sat out most of the 2011, Bruno drove for Lotus as a mid-season replacement for Nick Heidfeld. Despite a strong start to the season, Lotus were struggling when Bruno joined them, having failed to develop what had been a promising car. Nevertheless, despite no testing, Bruno managed to score his first Formula 1 points at the Italian grand prix, in just his second race for the team.

However, Bruno was not retained by Lotus for 2012 and it looked like he might be without a Formula 1 drive yet again until he secured the last seat on the grid, alongside Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado at Williams in mid-January, only three weeks ahead of the first pre-season test at Jerez on 9 February. This, of course, meant that Bruno had absolutely no input into the design of the 2012 Williams, the FW34. This, coupled with his relative inexperience – he had only competed in 26 Formula 1 races, spread across the 2010 and 2011 seasons, before the start of 2012, 18 of those with minnows HRT in 2010 – meant that he was always likely to struggle against a driver who had been with the team for a year and would have had an input into the design and the development of their 2012 car.

Despite these handicaps, and the fact that his time behind the wheel of the car was further limited by having to hand his car over to Bottas for 15 Friday morning free practice sessions, Bruno was a consistent points scorer for Williams in 2012. He commented last week that “It has been extremely satisfying to be the team’s most regular point scorer”, having scored in eight of the 20 races, compared to just five for his team-mate. However, Bruno suffered in comparison to his team-mate because Maldonado was seen as the quicker of the two, having performed far more strongly in qualifying and having taken the team’s first win since 2004, with victory in the Spanish grand prix.

Bruno Senna, Williams FW34India, 27 October 2012Copyright: Andrew Ferraro/LAT Photographic

Bruno Senna, Williams FW34
India, 27 October 2012
Copyright: Andrew Ferraro/LAT Photographic

Qualifying, in particular was Bruno’s Achilles heel in 2012, but this was perhaps not unsurprising given that his running, and car set-up, time was limited by having to hand the car over to Bottas in free practice sessions. It was no surprise to anyone, least of all Bruno, that Bottas was given the nod ahead of him for 2013. Commenting after Williams’s announcement, Bruno said “Since the beginning of my programme with Williams I accepted that I had to share the car with Valtteri for 15 Fridays as a part of his preparation for a likely debut in 2013”.

If Bruno is to continue in F1 in 2013, it’s going to be with his fourth team in four seasons. Caterham looks to be his most likely destination, although there are other possibilities like Force India, but yet again he will have to contend with having little input into the design and development of whatever car he drives. I personally hope that he is given the chance to show what he can do on a level playing field in 2013. He is a fast, consistent driver, more than worthy of his place in Formula 1. What he isn’t, though, is his uncle Ayrton. Who could be?

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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.

Why Williams should re-sign Senna

I’ve written previously about the speculation and possible driver moves surrounding some of the top teams in Formula 1:  Red Bull Racing, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes.  The position at Red Bull is now clear – Mark Webber will continue to partner Sebastian Vettel next season – and with Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher expected to stay on at McLaren and Mercedes respectively, the only likely move among the front runners, is Felipe Massa exiting Ferrari.  Although Kimi Raikkonen is also out of contract at Lotus, I expect that he’ll stick with the Enstone based team in 2013, Ferrari speculation notwithstanding.

Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW34 , Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 27th July 2012. Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT

Outside of the almost constant speculation surrounding seats and driver line ups in the top five teams, though, the biggest speculation around possible driver changes has, in recent weeks, focussed on Bruno Senna’s position at Williams.  Williams’s young Finnish test driver, Valtteri Bottas, has been in impressive form when he has taken over the Brazilian’s car on Friday morning free practice sessions leading to speculation that Williams might look to promote him to a race seat in 2013, in place of Senna.  Although Bottas has certainly not looked out of place in a Formula 1 car in free practice, in my view Williams should be looking to retain Bruno Senna for 2013, and here’s why.

Although Senna has not produced the kind of spectacular drives that his late, great triple world drivers’ championship winning uncle, Ayrton, was so famous for, he has been a consistent performer, scoring points on a regular basis.  It is very easy to criticise Senna for not delivering good performances in qualifying, with only one appearance in the qualifying top ten shoot out in 2012 at the last race out in Hungary.  Senna’s lack of outstanding race results – with a best result of sixth position in Malaysia – could also be used as a simple and straightforward justification for replacing him for the 2013 season, but this would be very harsh on the Brazilian.

It is easily forgotten that the drive at Williams alongside Pastor Maldonado was the last seat to be confirmed, with the announcement that Senna had secured the drive ahead of his compatriot, veteran Rubens Barrichello, only coming in mid January.  This was just three weeks ahead of the first pre-season test at Jerez on 9 February and would have meant that Senna had the least input of any of the drivers on the 2012 Formula 1 grid into the design and development of their cars.  A tough position for any driver to be in, especially one with as little Formula 1 experience as Senna who had only competed in 26 Formula 1 races, spread across the 2010 and 2011 seasons, before the start of 2012, 18 of those with minnows HRT in 2010.

If Senna’s lack of experience, alongside his lack of input into the design and development of the Williams FW34 was not enough, Senna has to contend with having to hand his car over to Bottas for 15 Friday morning free practice sessions over the course of the 2012 season.  Any of these factors alone would hinder Senna’s performances, but in combination the impact must certainly be compounded, and would surely have an influence over his competitiveness.

It is certainly true that Senna’s biggest weakness has been his qualifying performances.  Senna’s Venezuelan team-mate, Pastor Maldonado, has made it into the final part of qualifying, Q3, on no fewer than six occasions in 2012 – including pole position, albeit inherited after Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion, in Barcelona – while, as I mentioned earlier, Senna has made just one Q3 appearance.  Senna’s problem in qualifying has been getting enough heat into the front tyres to properly switch them on over a single lap.  The team has worked on this in the simulator and this, coupled with an adjustment to the break ducts in Hungary saw Senna deliver a time in Q3 that was fast enough to start ninth, only one position behind his team-mate, having also looked strong throughout free practice.  With the Williams team seemingly having gotten on top of Senna’s qualifying issues, we will, perhaps, see an upturn in his qualifying performances in the second half of the season.

Bruno Senna, Williams FW34. Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 29th July 2012 Copyright: Steven Tee/LAT Photographic

That leaves us with Senna’s performances in race conditions.  Many point to the fact that Maldonado has delivered a race win for Williams this season – the team’s first since Juan Pablo Montoya’s win at the Brazilian grand prix in 2004 – at the Spanish grand prix back in May, while Senna has failed even to make the podium to suggest that Senna has underperformed.  Certainly Senna’s best race result – sixth position at the second race of the season in Malaysia – does not compare well against his team-mate’s Spanish grand prix victory, but this is highly misleading comparison, which does not tell the full story of the Williams drivers’ respective performances in race conditions.

To have a better understanding of the comparative race performances of the Williams team-mates, it is necessary to look at the world drivers’ championship table.  When we look at the standings we see that Maldonado stands 11th in the championship in comparison to 15th for Senna, having amassed a total of 29 points, while Senna stands on 24, five points fewer than the Venezuelan.  Some would argue that this simply underlines the point that Senna’s race performances have been poorer than his team-mate’s, but in my opinion that’s wrong – we need to dig a little deeper.

Let’s not forget Maldonado’s race win in Spain, which delivered him a huge 25 world championship points.  That performance in Spain, and the result, is certainly impressive, but it means that Maldonado has scored just four world championship points when this result is excluded.  Indeed, those other four points came at the Chinese grand prix, where Maldonado finished in eighth place.  This means, of course, that Maldonado has only delivered two top 10 points scoring finishes in the opening 11 races of the season, and none since his win in Spain – round five.  Maldonado has also only finished better than he qualified on two occasions this season, in rounds three and seven – China and Canada.

So how do Senna’s results compare?  The short answer is very well.  Senna has had six points scoring finishes in the opening 11 races of the season, having taken points at Malaysia, China, Monaco, Europe (Valencia), Britain and Hungary.  Senna has also finished better than he qualified in the same six races.  This means, that although Senna hasn’t had the same spectacular impact as his team-mate, he has managed to deliver solid and consistent results for the Williams team, having made a significant contribution to the team’s current seventh position in the world constructors championship.  Now that Senna’s qualifying performances are starting to improve, we can expect that he will be in a position to score more points in the second half of the season.

Pastor Maldonado, Williams FW34, Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 29th July 2012. Copyright: Charles Coates/LAT

Perhaps the best argument for Williams retaining Senna in 2013 is that they will need a driver who is able to deliver solid, consistent race results alongside a driver in Maldonado that is anything but solid and consistent.  Maldonado is undoubtedly quick on his day, but with that speed comes a tendency towards erratic performances and hot-headedness.  We’ve seen a number of  incidents this season: with Lewis Hamilton in Valencia (where Maldonado received a 20 second post race penalty from the stewards after rejoining the track unsafely and shunting the Englishman into the wall), with Sergio Perez in Monaco free practice (where the Venezuelan received a 10 place grid penalty for appearing to deliberately drive in to the Mexican), with Perez again at Silverstone (where he shunted the Mexican out of the race and received a reprimand and a 10,000 Euro fine), and most recently in Hungary with Paul di Resta (where Maldonado received a drive through penalty).  Let’s not forget, too, Maldonado’s crash on the last lap of the season opening Australian grand prix, while running in sixth place, after pushing too hard in a forlorn attempt to catch and pass Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, and his crash at the first corner of the first lap in Monaco, recklessly smashing into the back of Pedro de la Rosa’s HRT after starting on the back row.

Given Maldonado’s inconsistency, would it be sensible to put Finland’s Bottas, a driver that will be just 23 years of age come the start of next season, in the car alongside Maldonado?  I would say not.  As I’ve mentioned, Bottas has looked quick in free practice, but he is extremely inexperienced.  Although he has won the GP3 championship, he has never competed in Formula 1 feeder series, GP2.  Although, the fact that Bottas has not competed in GP2 should not automatically mean that he should not step straight into an F1 seat – Sebastian Vettel famously competed in neither GP3 nor GP2 before driving in F1 for BMW-Sauber and Torro Rosso in 2007 – it must surely count against him.  As I mentioned earlier, Senna, despite being 28 years of age, is by no means a hugely experienced Formula 1 driver, but he does, at least, have the benefit of having now driven for three different F1 teams, having scored points for both Williams and Renault (now Lotus).

The bottom line is, though, that only the Williams team are in a position to judge the relative merits of Senna and Bottas.  Only time will tell whether the Grove based team choose to retain Senna, promote Bottas or even go in an altogether different direction in 2013.

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…

A demonstration of the value of maturity

What an action packed Spanish Grand Prix weekend.  Full of controversy, excitement and incident with a multitude of talking points.  Where to start?  There was another mistake from McLaren which led to the exclusion of the driver that set the fastest time in Q3, Lewis Hamilton, from qualifying.  Narain Kathikeyan qualifying outside the Q1 107% time, but being allowed to race.  A first pole, followed by a first win for Pastor Maldonado.  Frank Williams’s 70th Birthday. The fire in the Williams garage after the race, and Michael Schumacher’s crash with Bruno Senna.  I can’t possibly go into all of these incidents in detail in a single blog post, but I think it’s possible to draw together a common theme from the majority of these events: maturity.

I think that it would be unfair not to start with a brilliant first win for Pastor Maldonado. Nobody would have predicted pole position for the Venezuelan – albeit an inherited pole after Hamilton’s exclusion – let alone that he would go on to win the race.  Indeed, you could have got long odds on both.  Maldonado was written off by the majority of fans as a pay driver with little talent when he entered Formula 1 with Williams in 2011.  At 26, he was far older than many drivers new to F1 having spent four seasons in GP2, before finally winning that championship in 2010.  By the end of his first season in F1, aside from a strong drive at Monaco, which ultimately ended in retirement, he had done little to persuade anyone that he had the talent to win races in the premier class.  Maldonado finished 19th in the championship in 2011 after scoring a single world championship point with a 10th place finish at Spa.

With hindsight it’s easy to say that perhaps we were all a little harsh in writing Maldonado off.  He was, after all, a GP2 champions, just like Lewis Hamilton.  Unlike Hamilton, though, Maldonado took his time to deliver GP2 race wins and the championship; four seasons to Hamilton’s one.  Despite being the same age as Maldonado, Hamilton had already completed four Formula 1 seasons, and won the world championship, before Maldonado even entered F1.  Maldonado has shown with his outstanding drive in Barcelona, though, that although he has taken much longer to develop as a driver than many of his peers, if he is given a good enough car he has matured to the extent that he can win races.

I’ll continue the theme of maturity by moving on to talk about Lewis Hamilton.  I’ve written earlier in the season about the Englishman’s new found consistency and maturity, but after his performance at Barcelona it’s hard not to acknowledge it again.  You can imagine that Lewis Hamilton might have been indignant at being excluded from qualifying after being ordered by his engineer to stop on track after his pole lap after a blunder from McLaren meant that his car was under-fueled.  This was made all the worse by the fact that Hamilton had taken a brilliant pole position by almost 0.6s.  Indeed, the McLaren driver said, before being excluded from qualifying, that “It was a fantastic qualifying session for me…one of the best I ever had”.  It must have been incredibly disheartening for that brilliant lap and outstanding performance to have been for nothing.  The Lewis Hamilton of 2011, dogged by controversy, incidents and stewards penalties might well have crashed out early in Spain as he desperately tried to make up positions after starting from last, but not so the Hamilton of 2012.  The 2008 world champion drove a brilliantly controlled and mature race to take 8th, ahead of his team mate, Jenson Button, who started the race in 10th (having actually qualified in 11th).

Hamilton has received a fair degree of criticism about his driving style.  He’s been written off in some quarters as a driver that’s unable to come to terms with the new Pirelli tyres, having been compared unfavourably to his team mate who is known for his smooth driving style and tyre management capabilities.  It’s hard not to be impressed that Hamilton showed not only the maturity to drive a controlled race – while at times pulling off some outstanding overtaking manoeuvres – and finish ahead of his team mate, but also the ability to manage his tyres better than anyone else.  Hamilton was the only driver to make only two stops at Barcelona, which meant that he had to do an incredible 30 lap final stint.  At the end of that final stint many would have expected that Hamilton would be struggling for grip, falling backwards, but that, too, was not the case.  Hamilton was actually pulling away from his team mate, who was on fresher tyres, and rapidly catching Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes, who was also on newer rubber.  Button said after the race “I am normally good at looking after tyres and having a good consistency, it is something I always work on but I can’t do that at the moment and I don’t know why”, while in contrast Hamilton said when interviewed “I was the only one to do a two stopper, despite everyone always telling me how aggressive my driving style is and how much better my team-mate is on tyres than me. I think today is a good demonstration that they are perhaps wrong”.  This must have been an extremely satisfying result for an increasingly mature Lewis Hamilton, who had refused to blame his team for the qualifying fueling error.

I’ll return now to Williams, whose founder Sir Frank Williams was able to celebrate his own ‘maturity’, having just turned 70, with a first win since Juan Pablo Montoya won in Brazil in 2004.  Sir Frank and the team’s deserved celebrations were unfortunately cut short by a fire in their garage which left a gutted shell in its wake and resulted in 31 people being seen by circuit medical staff.  But out of this adversity came a show of amazing community spirit and maturity from Williams’s rivals who not only helped to extinguish the fire, but also have offered to loan Williams equipment to replace what was lost in the inferno.

There’s always an exception to the rule, though, and my exception to the maturity rule in Spain is Michael Schumacher.  At 43 years of age the seven time world champion is certainly old enough, but in my eyes he showed a real lack of maturity in failing to accept complete responsibility for ramming into the back of Bruno Senna’s Williams, putting both drivers out of the race on lap 13.  Schumacher amazingly blamed Senna for the crash, but the Stewards disagreed, handing the German a five place grid penalty for the next race – Monaco.  With five winners from five different constructors in the opening five rounds of the season I, for one, can’t wait to see what round six brings.

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.