Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A Sillier Season than Usual

"Think of it as a high speed game of chess". I think Sir Max was supposed to have been encouraging us to think of his tedious sprint/fuel stop/sprint formula as some kind of intellectual motor racing nirvana, but its probably a very good way of thinking about the current race to decide driver contracts next year - what is known in motor racing circles as the "silly season".

The danger of writing about the F1 driver market is that, like a game of chess, you can have long periods where nothing really happens, then a single move can change everything. And one can very quickly be made to look very foolish indeed. For example, this morning I had been thinking about putting together this article and one thing I was pretty sure of was that, whatever else might happen, Williams and Mark Webber would come to some kind of arrangement, regardless of what appeared to be a temporary stalemate owing to differing views of the Australian's financial worth. I was convinced that neither party really had anywhere else to go - no obvious place for Webber to find a drive, nor any better drivers on the market for Williams. And then, just as I'm leaving work, I check grandprix and find that Frank has promoted test driver Alex Wurz to the race team. I suppose I should have have known really. After all, its a ploy he's tried before (it brought him the 1996 drivers title too) but it just didn't occur to me that Wurz was in the frame.

It is unusual, to say the least, for four of the six best seats in F1 to remain unfilled as late as August. After all, Mclaren famously had its deals with Montoya and Alonso signed and sealed years in advance. We know (or at least we think we know) that Alonso will move to Mclaren next year, and that Fisichella will remain at Renault. And that's about it - a seat at Mclaren, a seat at Renault and two at Ferrari remain to be filled.

It is widely assumed that Michael Schumacher will have a seat at Ferrari available to him if he decides to continue his career beyond the end of this year. Beyond that, though, we really begin to enter the realms of speculation. It has been rumoured for over a year that Kimi Raikkonen has signed a deal with Ferrari for 2007 (it all supposedly dates back to the Finn's falling out with Mclaren manager Martin Whitmarsh's over his lap dancing club exploits at the end of 2004.) But what are the conditions attached? Does Michael Schumacher have the right of veto over who will be his team mate? That would be unusual, but not unheard of. Senna was reportedly able to block Derek Warwick's arrival at Lotus back in 1986.) Or is Ferrari trying to prevent Kimi running off to Renault? Where would he actually rather go next year, and how much say does he really have in the matter? And could Schumacher be considering a return to the team with whom he launched his career back in the early 1990s (I'm talking, of course, about Renault, nee Benetton, not Midland!).

Popular wisdom has it that if Renault were content to sign natural No2. driver Giancarlo Fisichella so early, when the Italian frankly had few other options, it must be because they were confident they would line up a real star alongside him. But how does that fit alongside the fact that Schumacher and Raikkonen appear to be tied to Ferrari and Alonso is off to Mclaren? And where in to all this does the fact that Renault have supposedly guaranteed Heikki Kovalainen an F1 drive next year? Has Flavio Briatore decided that, if he can't afford a real star, a pairing of Kovalainen and Fisichella is a solid, cheap driver line-up? Or is it a sign that Briatore intends to farm Kovalainen out elsewhere - perhaps to Red Bull (Christian Horner is supposed to think highly of him) or maybe to Midland, in exchange for an engine supply.

So how is it likely to shuffle out at the end of the season? Its a dangerous game to play, but I start with a few assumptions. Firstly, Mark Webber wouldn't have walked out on Williams if he didn't have something better on offer. And what would constitute better? I somehow can't see him at Mclaren next year, and there's no room at the inn at either Honda or Toyota, so I expect he's going off to Renault to partner Fisichella. That means that Raikkonen is not going Renault-wards. In all probability then, the Finn will be in a Ferrari next year, which, to my mind tilts the odds somewhat in favour of Michael Schumacher retiring at the end of the season - especially if he comes out on top in this year's title battle.

Mclaren then have something of a dilemma on their hands in terms of who to run alongside Fernando Alonso next year. It is, I suppose, possible that they will retain Kimi Raikkonen, but from what has been written elsewhere, it appears that this would involve Ron Dennis paying substantial compensation to Ferrari. And its one thing to spend a lot of money on a star driver - but quite another to be paying that money to one of your main rivals. Therefore, with the stars out of the picture, and with Juan Montoya having surprised everyone by running off to NASCAR, all points in the direction of Ron biting the bullet and running his long-time protege Lewis Hamilton alongside Alonso next year. It remains possible though, that, given his lack of F1 seat time, Mclaren may decide they are better off giving him a testing role. Alternatively perhaps farming him out to Midland in exchange for a supply of Mercedes engines, and running an experienced journeyman in the No 2. car is what Dennis and Whitmarsh have in mind. Current occupant Pedro De La Rosa has appeared sufficiently quick in his outings with the team that he would seem as well suited as anyone to that role.

Honda and Toyota are, as I said earlier, non-participants in this years driver merry-go-round but there remain question marks over who will be in the Red Bulls, the BMWs and the minor teams next year. Tiago Monteiro and Christian Klien have shown themselves to be no more than competent, and are unlikely to remain in the game unless they can bring pots of cash to one of the minor players. Likewise, Jacques Villeneuve, for all that he was, until Hockenheim, enjoying something of an Indian summer to his career, is clearly not the future, and is more than likely going to head back to North America to race in NASCAR or muck about in recording studios or something. BMW will probably put test driver Robert Kubica in the race seat next year - the Pole has looked seriously quick on Friday mornings, and perhaps more importantly given the vagaries of Friday running, was instantly on the pace in qualifying at Hungary. Red Bull are committed to continuing David Coulthard's seemingly interminable career for one more year, and with Klien having not really done anything particularly noteworthy, it seems safe to assume that there will be a new face alongside him next year. Tonio Liuzzi is one possibility, but if the Italian is forced to spend another year at Toro Rosso (and to be honest, there aren't a whole lot of other options available) then it may be because Christian Horner, a long time fan of Heikki Kovalainen, has negotiated a deal with the Finn. Midland drives will inevitably go to whoever can pay for them - or whoever can bring engines with them, which amounts to much the same thing really - and Toro Rosso will doubtless pick up some combination of Red Bull backed drivers. A lifeline for Klien perhaps? another year for Speed? A chance for Michael Ammemueller? or perhaps less likely, a shot for Champ Car star AJ Allmendinger? - I'd certainly love to see that last one happen.

Super Aguri are reported to be looking for drivers who are quick, rather than merely Japanese, next year. Takuma Sato just about fits both descriptions and will doubtless be staying, but Sakon Yamamoto has done little so far to suggest he has any long term future in F1. All of which suggests that a door may be opening at last for Anthony Davidson to get a full-time race drive, or perhaps even for Timo Glock or Franck Montagny to get back into F1.

Interesting times, and no doubt a lot of this will shortly be looking ill-informed, and to be blunt, plain wrong, but it does feel that after years of unusual driver/team inertia, the wheels of change are moving again.


Blogger Nicebloke said...

It's pretty silly, but each year we say that. IS it really any sillier this year? I've found over the past few years that if silly-season-watching were a sport, MotoGP would be the main attraction...

3:12 PM  
Blogger patrick said...

I don't know - it does seem to have been a lot more fluid this year - and some of the moves - like Fisi staying at Renault or Montoya going to NASCAR, have really caught me by surprise.

11:15 AM  

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