Monday, December 17, 2007

The Jigsaw Falls Into Place

So in the end, Fernando Alonso went back to the obvious place. For all the wild talk that the Spaniard would drive for Toyota, or Red Bull, or even Honda or Ferrari, he's back with the team with which he won two world championships - Renault. We shouldn't be too surprised. All of the above teams, in theory, did not have a vacancy. Honda have been at pains to insist that Rubens Barrichello will be staying with them next year, Red Bull have Mark Webber and David Coulthard in place and Toyota pretty much removed themselves from the bidding process when they hired GP2 champion Timo Glock to drive alongside Jarno Trulli in 2008. Ferrari have always insisted that Felipe Massa would be retained alongside champion Kimi Raikkonen, and for all that Massa was seen hanging around the Toyota garage earlier in the year, it would appear that they meant it.

Renault, on the other hand, always had a vacancy. Giancarlo Fisichella's contract was up, and it was plain that the Italian had had a disappointing season and had looked no match for Heikki Kovalainen in the latter part of the year. It was no surprise when he was let go. On the reasonable assumption that Alonso didn't really have anywhere else to go, it was no surprise to see him agree terms with Flavio Briatore.

What was more of a surprise was the news that Heikki Kovalainen would not be kept on. Kovalainen had been a Renault development driver for some years, and after a faltering start, had acquitted himself well in the latter part of the season, with a second place in treacherous conditions at Fuji being both his, and the team's highlight of the year. It could be argued that his start was just a little too faltering - certainly he looked out of his depth in his first few Grands Prix - but I would have thought he had done enough to merit retention. Rumours have circulated that Kovalainen left because he was unwilling to accept no.2 status to Alonso, but it now appears that his departure had more to do with a very rich Mexican backer, Carlos Slim who reputedly made it clear that he wanted Nelson Piquet Jr in the second car.

If, briefly, this appeared to be bad news for the Finn, it might have been a blessing in disguise. For the moment he became available, he stood out as far and away the obvious choice at Mclaren to replace Fernando Alonso. After all, who else was there? Of the test drivers Pedro De La Rosa is a known quantity, but really, what we know about him is that he isn't quite quick enough. Gary Paffett and perhaps even Paul Di Resta were possibilities, but they would represent a serious leap into the unknown, as neither has any previous F1 racing experience. It would probably have been easy enough to prise Adrian Sutil out of his contract with Force-India but he too be something of a gamble. He looked impressive against Albers in the early part of the season, but he really ought to have been a good deal quicker than Sakon Yamamoto if he really represents a great white hope for the future. Besides, he'd already been made to look rather ordinary when he went up against Lewis Hamilton in F3, so why on earth would things be any different this time round?

When Nico Rosberg unexpectedly took himself out of the equation by re-signing with Williams, that all only left two out-of-work old stagers about whom Ron Dennis has previously been fairly dismissive - Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella. One began to wonder whether Ron Dennis might put aside all concerns of propriety and try to pinch a guy who was already under contract. Mark Webber, Jenson Button and Robert Kubica all must have seemed intriguing prospects. When Kovalainen suddenly became available, he was the obvious choice for the Woking team. Fast, reliable and seemingly a team player who probably doesn't quite have the pace to seriously threaten Lewis Hamilton on a regular basis. The pair could be the new Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, and certainly it is hard to imagine their relationship being quite as antagonistic as that which the team had to endure this year.

I could see this being a pairing which works well. If I were Ron Dennis and had complete freedom to run any driver other than Raikkonen or Alonso alongside Hamilton, I'd probably pick Nick Heidfeld. A good worker, with plenty of experience, who knows how to set up and develop a car. BMW, however, have doubtless recognised the same qualities in the bearded German and would probably not have been keen to let him go. Aside from anything else, by the time the Hinwil team had been paid off, Heidfeld was liable to be very expensive. Kovalainen, who was suddenly unemployed and lacking other options, was probably very cheap. Mclaren may have one of the biggest budgets in the sport, but when you've been hit with a $100m fine, saving money on driver salaries is likely to be important. Kovalainen strikes me as a good compromise. Seemingly a fairly apolitical team player, and probably the fastest unemployed racing driver on offer, he did a good job in his debut season at Renault once he had got on top of the tyres. With a year's experience under his belt, he might even start to threaten last year's star rookie on occasion.

There are those who speculate that the partnership of Alonso and Piquet Jr. could be explosive. I'm not so sure. We know from his GP2 days that Nelsinho Piquet can be incredibly fast, especially over one lap, when he puts his mind to it. What I'm not yet convinced about is that he really has the determination, and the work ethic, to succeed at the highest level. Piquet Jr has had his path smoothed up to now by his father's name, wealth and connections. Now he's in F1, that isn't going to help him a great deal. While he could be utterly imperious when the mood took him in GP2, there were other occasions on which he really looked rather ordinary. That said, it has always been open to question whether Piquet Sports was really a top-flight GP2 team, and if it was not (and certainly no other Piquet Sports driver has ever achieved much), that rather puts a different light on Piquet's junior series record. Against a man with the kind of relentless, grinding race pace as Alonso, Piquet is going to have a real fight on his hands if he wants to repeat Hamilton's remarkable feat of upstaging the double world champion in his rookie year.

One thing that we can be sure of is that Fernando Alonso is unlikely to react well to being beaten by a rookie team mate again. I think, given how exceptionally quick Alonso is, that it is rather unlikely that lightning will strike twice though. For one thing, it is clear that Alonso was caught out by the switch from Michelins to Bridgestones (as probably was Kovalainen, which may explain why Fisi had an edge over him in the early part of last year). That won't be the case this time round. Equally, while Piquet may, conceivably be the equal of Hamilton in terms of outright pace, I somehow rather doubt that he will have been as carefully groomed for F1 success as Hamilton had been by Mclaren. Renault doesn't strike me as that sort of team, and for in any case, until he was brought on board as a test driver last year, Piquet's career was largely managed by his father. Call me a cynic, but I somehow can't see Nelson Piquet Sr. having been quite as methodical as Ron Dennis and his men.

In the end, I can't help feeling it will come down to how good the new car is. It had better be an improvement on the machine which left Giancarlo Fisichella demotivated and uninterested. Else I suspect that a bruised Alonso, battered about by a difficult year at Renault, might simply get bored and start looking around for people to blame, while an inexperienced Piquet is to my mind even less likely to be able to help the team turn things around. Alonso claims that he was responsible for Mclaren finding 9/10ths of a second last winter. I've always rather doubted the claim, but to judge by Renault's performance in 2007, he might need to repeat the trick come January.

ENDNOTE: I'd just like to take this opportunity to wish readers an enjoyable Christmas (if you celebrate it) and a great New Year. I'll be taking a break down in the wilds of Northumberland, but will be back early in the new year with more of my ramblings,


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