Tuesday, 10 September 2013

"Silly" Season?

With Ferrari set to announce their driver line-up for 2014 this week, the picture will start to be set for some of the other teams within F1 as well. Some seasons see very little change at either end of the grid, and certainly within the top teams there has been a stability for a number of years. The obvious exception being Lewis Hamilton's move last season to Mercedes. Like then, the rumour mill has started early when Mark Webber announced his F1 retirement to race for Porsche in the ALMS. A seat being vacated within the best team currently tends to link everyone with that seat, and why not - arguably, Red Bull could have signed whoever they liked given their domination in recent years. They opted for Ricciardo despite the interest of Kimi Raikkonen, and if you believe the hype around the paddock in Belgium, Fernando Alonso. Personally I am glad they have placed their confidence within their own development program. After all, that is where Sebastian Vettel himself was selected all those years ago.

The anouncement of Daniel Ricciardo has left the other drivers with some work to do however. As a driver, you don't get linked to another team so heavily without some kind of discussion taking place. Lotus know they have a very valuable driver in Kimi Raikkonen, and will do well to keep him in the team for as long as possible. He has been clear about what he wants from the team, in a stable financial future after a late payment of his salary earlier in the year. They have since secured some more financial backing, but Kimi of course is yet to decide whether it is enough. In Ferrari however, the fallout from their star driver trying to forge a deal at their championship rivals is somewhat heavier. No driver is bigger than the team, and it is the Ferrari family that decide when they are finished with you. You only have to look back to 2009 for the last instance of this, when they paid Kimi Raikkonen €17Million not to race in Formula 1.

This turmoil within the Ferrari team leads into the situation over the Italian Grand Prix weekend, and it could not have been timed any worst for them. Luca Di Montezemolo always makes an appearance to watch over preceedings, but the last thing he would want to be dealing with is lead driver Alonso's apparent flirtation with Red Bull. Felipe Massa cannot be forgotten about in the team dynamics either, and once again the Italian Grand Prix is the worst race to find out about potentially losing your job. Since 2011, Felipe Massa has compromised his qualifying to boost Fernando Alonso chances of pole position. There are few drivers on the grid willing to do this, but if it means staying with Ferrari another year then Massa complies. For this reason, Alonso is one of Massa's main supporters within the Ferrari team. Suddenly Massa needs to prove his worth again, and in qualifying we saw again the slipstreaming technique fail for the team. I'm unsure whether Massa did his job sufficiently to benefit Alonso, but the mood around the team after was apparent. Andrea Stella told Ted Kravitz not to even try to approach Luca Di Montezemolo for an interview, but he did notice the one smiling Ferrari employee at that time to be Rob Smedley. Massa had just outqualified Alonso in a straight duel, in front of every team in the paddock, the tifosi, and Di Montezemolo himself.

And so to the 2014 line-up at Ferrari. It is now almost certain to be Fernando Alonso partnering Kimi Raikkonen in one of the strongest line-ups seen in Formula 1. It will be an incredible year finding out just who is the fastest driver in the same car, and without a definitive lead driver in the team. Alonso won't be so keen on the situation however, and a few weeks ago his opinion would have been valued with Luca Di Montezemolo come driver decision time. There was talk of Fernando Alonso being so unhappy with this situation that he would take a sabatical from F1, but that was always unlikely, as seen in 2008 when he joined another team outside of the championship fight to drive for instead. Kimi Raikkonen joining Ferrari means a vacancy at Lotus, and they are in better form than when he was driving for them in 2008 and 2009.

Should the Ferrari line-up be as expected it leaves a vacancy at Lotus and Felipe Massa with a drive to find. Lotus need a good development driver to partner Romain Grosjean, and have a good selection of drivers who would be happy to drive a race winning car. Massa has improved this year and would be a good fit, but Nico Hulkenberg will be leading the way having also been rumoured at a shot of the Ferrari drive alongside Alonso. I would like to see Davide Valsecchi given the opportunity though, having won the official F1 feeder series and served as development driver to Lotus throughout 2013. Pastor Maldonado has also been linked with Lotus given his financial backing, but hope that is the only link.

The gaps emerging at the top teams will see the lower teams empty of drivers, though in the case of Sauber it looks like they will have a line-up of Esteban Gutierrez and Sergey Sirotkin regardless. Sirotkin has had a decent year in Formula Renault 3.5, but the deal is surely based on finances secured for Sauber. After a fantastic 2012 for the team, they now seem on the same slippery slope as Williams who have survived the financial crisis it seems, but do not have the car to challenge even for points. I hoped that would change after the race win and points haul of 2012, but it was not to be. The vacancy at Toro Rosso will most likely be filled by Antonio Felix Da Costa, who deserves the seat from last year if not his current season, where expectations were so high. McLaren will surely have the same line-up after only mildly flirting with Kimi Raikkonen's salary demands, and having only given Perez 1 year to perform at the top. The rest of the teams will be kept waiting as to who is left looking for a seat next year.