Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Domenicali's Dilemma

After winning the German Grand Prix, a journalist asked Lewis Hamilton if he was surprised that Felipe Massa didn't defend his second position more strongly than he did. "All I can say is that, if that had been me, he would never have got past." he came straight back. It was a response which has left him open to accusations of arrogance - which were duly and predictably hurled about the internet - but I can't help but think he did no more than speak his mind, and come to that, that he was probably right.

It's hard to imagine that Hamilton - or Alonso or Kubica for that matter, would have made it so easy on the run down into turn 4. I know that back seat drivers are a pain in the arse, and I know that it's easy to be an armchair critic, but even as the move was taking place I was thinking "No, Felipe, don't leave a gap down the inside. Lewis will nail you if you do that." And sure enough, he did.

The thought must be going through the mind of Ferrari manager Stefano Domenicali's mind that last weekend was merely the latest of a number of occasions on which Ferrari had been let down by its drivers. It's always difficult to be certain, but my impression is that Maranello has produced the fastest car through the balance of the season so far, and yet Mclaren and Hamilton are clear at the top of the driver's championship and hard as it is to believe, BMW's Robert Kubica is snapping at their heels.

Kimi Raikkonen was hired at great expense to fill the shoes (as it were) left vacant by the departure of Ferrari lynchpin Michael Schumacher and after a year and a half at the team, he had failed to establish even that he is consistently quicker than Felipe Massa. There have been days, for sure, when he has looked absolutely imperious. Think of his performance at Magny Cours before an exhaust failure stymied his challenge, or of his win at Barcelona earlier in the year. On other occasions, though, Massa has easily had the measure of him - think Bahrain or Istanbul, and at Hockenheim last weekend, as at Monaco in the rain earlier in the year, he was almost embarrassingly off the pace.

Maybe, with a world title in the bag and a huge fortune stashed away, he simply isn't really interested any more. Maybe he has never really gelled withthe Ferrari and its control Bridgestone tyres in the way he did on occasion with the Mclaren and its Michelins. Or maybe he is simply not as good or as quick as we thought he was back in his Mclaren days. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that at a reported $30m a year, he hasn't been great value for money.

If Felipe Massa was always unofficially considered to be the Number 2. driver at Ferrari then a case can be made that he's exceeded expectations. Despite initial doubts that he would cope with the loss of traction control, he's generally looked quicker than Raikkonen this year. Call me a skeptic, though, but he just doesn't look like world champion material to me. He's always had a reputation for being fast (though only once did he ever appear to be any kind of threat to Michael Schumacher when they were teamed up in 2006) but equally he's never been able to entirely shed a reputation for silly errors. This year he went off at turn 1 at Melbourne after getting a little too enthusiastic with the throttle, spun out of second in Malaysia and spent so much time in rotation at Silverstone I was half left wondering whether he thought he was doing ballet, not racing. Hockenheim highlighted another weakness: He's never been much of a wheel-to-wheel racer. The way Hamilton breezed past him was more than a little reminiscent of how Raikkonen sailed past Giancarlo Fisichella on the last lap of the Japanese Grand Prix back in 2005. And if there is one thing that any aspiring world champion doesn't want to hear, then surely it is comparisons with Fisichella...

The decision Domenicali is left facing is whether his team would be best served soldiering on with its current pairing, or whether they should be looking around for replacements. Earlier in the week, Clive Allen found himself wondering whether in Lewis Hamilton, the sport has another Michael Schumacher, another Ayrton Senna on its hands - a driver who is head and shoulders above everyone else. If that really is the case, then I think Ferrari really need to be casting around for potential replacements now. Mclaren appear to be getting their act together as a team, and if Hamilton is bringing another 2 or 3 tenths of a second a lap to the party on his own, then if I were running for Ferrari, I would be looking for someone who might be able to work the same magic. And I can't persuade myself that either of their existing drivers fit the bill.

The trouble is, the other options appear to be decidedly limited. Fernando Alonso has shown he was capable of matching Hamilton when they were teamed up together last year at Mclaren, and he's doubtless getting rather fed up tooling around in this year's underwhelming Renault. On the other hand, if he could only barely match Hamilton in his debut year, what chance does he have against the Brit now he's more experienced? And is Alonso really a Ferrari man? The disintegration of his relationship with Mclaren last year revealed him as a decidedly temperamental man, willing, if necessary, to go to war with his own team if he feels things aren't going his way. He would certainly be a radical change from the imperturbable Raikkonen or the team-focused Schumacher.

So if not Alonso then who? Of the current young guns, two stand out as having, potentially at least, that extra something which would enable them to take the fight to Mclaren and Hamilton. They are the young German (much touted as the 'new Schumacher' in his homeland) Sebastien Vettel, who has been doing incredible things with the hitherto uncompetitive Toro Rosso, and BMW's Polish star Robert Kubica, who has been perhaps the standout driver of the year thus far.

The trouble is that both of these men are firmly contracted to other teams. For sufficient cash, it would doubtless be possible to buy off Red Bull or BMW, but can Ferrari be so confident of what they are getting as to justify the expenditure? After all, might they be feeling that they threw a little too much money in the direction of Kimi Raikkonen? Of the two men, Robert Kubica is the one who has done more to establish his credentials (he is, after all, a Grand Prix winner and led the driver's championship earlier this season) but that would mean paying off BMW. The German team would doubtless demand an awful lot of money for letting go of their prime asset - and all that would not merely be money which Ferrari were losing, but money which a team fast emerging as a serious threat to them would be gaining. It might not cost Ferrari quite so much to prise Sebastien Vettel out of his Red Bull contract, but he is rather more of an unproven quantity. Sure, he looked mighty in the wet at Fuji and China last year, and he has sometimes got that Toro Rosso far further up the grid than it ought to be, but on the other hand, would the next Michael Schumacher really lose the F3 Euroseries title to Paul Di Resta?

Williams team leader Nico Rosberg is another possibility. Nonetheless, I can't shake the suspicion that, while Keke's son may be good, he hasn't got that extra something which marks him out as really special. After all, in his debut season, his head went down, and he found himself comfortably outpaced by Mark Webber. Last year he looked rather impressive against the floundering Alex Wurz, but this year he seems to have made an awful lot of mistakes (I've lost count of how many Williams nosecones he's trashed). For me, the final nails in the coffin, if it is true, are rumours that he was offered the Mclaren drive alongside Hamilton this year, but turned it down because he lacked the confidence to go head to head with Woking's golden boy. Not, in my view, the attitude of a born winner.

The eccentric option, as it were, would be Rosberg's former team mate Mark Webber. Webber has been around the sport for a good long while now, and on the face of it, it could be argued that he hasn't achieved much. That may be so, but then he has never had the car to do the job. Sometimes, especially in qualifying, where it is perhaps easier for a minute or so of sheer inspiration to make up for a vehicle's limitations, that hasn't mattered so much. Back in 2003, he put a Jaguar on the front row in Malaysia. A fortnight ago, he repeated the trick in a Red Bull. A couple of years back, he was in serious contention for an outright win in a Williams at Monaco, before the car failed (as it so often did that year). More than any of the other experienced drivers on the grid, he strikes me as the man most likely to really get the job done given a top car. Of course, a few years ago, I would have said the same thing of Giancarlo Fisichella (who continues to impress when stuck in an uncompetitive car) but Webber seems a man more likely to keep his head under pressure, more likely to really work at getting the most out of a front-running car than Fisichella ever was.

One thing is clear though. Stefano Domenicali's predecessor, Jean Todt, never really had to think about who drove the red cars. There was no doubting that, with Michael Schumacher at the wheel of one of their cars, if they weren't winning, it was unlikely to be down to the limitations of the man holding the steering wheel. Now, though, Ferrari cannot be so sure, and they face some difficult decisions on that score...

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Blogger Wyrfu said...

I agree that, given a chance, Webber might be the man to take on Hamilton. The trouble is I don't believe that any of the three top teams will give him that chance. He has been around long enough to be regarded as "old" in the current youth-obsessed climate of F1 - as if his value is somehow less for all the experience he has had.

It's a shame but a fact of life.

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

Dang, forgot to change the ID details again. It's me, of course.

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's hard to accept the comment that Raikkonen hasn't delivered for Ferrari. He did win the WC last year and won all the final must-win races. Further, Ferrari is still leading the constructor's championship this year. McClaren has made great strides in the last two years and have given Hamilton something they were never able to give Raikkonen--a fast trouble-free car. And I would dispute that the Ferrari is the best car on the track. Best car has see-sawed back and forth between Ferrari and McClaren and now Mercedes has somehow found a way to improve it's engine which had something to do with it's domination last week. Let's see how it all plays out before we make any firm judgements as to driver's and teams. And let's remember that Schumi had Jean Todt, the brilliant strategist Ross Brawn, and the excellent designer Rory Byrne working for him. Raikkonen is dealing with a new and as yet unproven crew. As for me, I would nominate Kubica as a replacement for Massa if it comes to that.

8:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

During this season it occured to me that Ferrari is starting to feel the lack of test time and the lack of enough track time for a good developement driver. Putting Shumacher back in the car for testing said a lot.

Raikkonen and Massa can both be fast if they get a good car, but they can't seem to fix it if something isn't right. Last year Ferrari already lost ground, and this year it's starting to hurt.

The whole idea that the McLaren/Hamilton combination wouldn't work without Alonso to develop the car seems to have turned around and hit Ferrari.

12:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got your blog recommended by someone on his site. But boy was i disappointed when I read this. Ferrari havent got their moneys worth in Kimi? Wow. Quite a statement. After all, he is WDC in his first year with the team but forget that. This year he has overall been the fastest man during races hands down. 6 consecutive fastest laps while Lewis and Massa has none. His main problem is how the Ferrari treat the Bridgestones and getting heat into them. We see that in qualifying. But come race day when those tires get some heat into them he has been very fast. Only some unfortunate events is the reason he isnt leading the standings.

12:58 AM  
Blogger AC said...

It does seem like Massa cares most about finishin ahead of Raikkonen and saving his seat at Maranello...

3:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still don't get all this fascination about Mark Webber. Really, what has this guy done? Yeah he's had some garbage cars but he certainly hasn't impressed me. Beating a washed up Coulthard is hardly anything to brag about.

I agree with other posters about the harshness of the Raikkonen comments. As pointed out, he did deliver a world championship.

I do agree that Kubica and Vettel are the two obvious choices for Ferrari. A year with Red Bull should prove whether Vettel is a flash in the pan or the real deal.

I don't see BMW letting go of Kubica. Personally I've never rated Heidfeld, so if I ran BMW I would hate to have him as my number one.

6:25 AM  
Anonymous donwatters said...

I must agree that your comments about Kimi are a bit harsh. He's a World Champion, after all. The best thing Ferrari can do is improve the car. In my mind, the drivers are fast and capable.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Boy Goerge said...

I think Ferrari has gotten their moneys worth in Kimi. He is a consistent driver with above average skills. The thing is Hamilton is the man right now. He is having a great year. In comparison to others he is outstanding. That doesn't mean the other drivers are not capable of winning, it is just Hamilton's year. Next year who knows who will be the man to beat.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Forrest Gump said...

Kimi has had a few public relations problems lately. but overall i think Ferrari is a great fit for him.

11:50 AM  

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