Monday, May 17, 2010

Looking Ahead

Formula One, it seems, is doomed to live permanently in the immediate future. Those at the front never really stop to bask in the glory of their successes, while down the field, the focus is always on how to claw one's way closer to the front, tomorrow, next week, next year. It might seem sad in a way, this inability to stop and smell the flowers, to enjoy the moment, but it's an immensely competitive world, and anyone who lets their guard down, who isn't ruthlessly planning for the next race, the next season, will quickly fall behind. After just six races and two months, already teams and drivers are beginning to turn their focus to 2011. And vultures are beginning to circle around those who have been judged to be under-performing.

In truth, there are really only eight seats in Formula One that offer a driver a realistic shot at winning races on a regular basis right now - two apiece for each of Red Bull, Mclaren, Ferrari and Mercedes. As such, those teams hold all the aces when it comes to selecting drivers, and in recent weeks, there have been persistent rumours that one or another of the big four is considering a change to their line-up for next season.

Looking most precarious at the moment is Ferrari's Felipe Massa. The Brazilian had surprised many over the past three seasons by matching and latterly generally beating the highly-rated Kimi Raikkonen. The arrival of the more focused Fernando Alonso, however, seems to have stopped Massa in his tracks. Autosport publish a handy ready-reckoner chart before each race, taking the fastest single lap from each driver over each Grand Prix and averaging them out to show how far each driver is from the ultimate pace. It's most useful for comparing the performance of team mates, and what it shows is not good news for Felipe - he's been an average of four tenths of a second a lap off the pace of Alonso thus far this year, a far bigger performance gap than separates any of the other pairings in the big four teams.

Why? It's really hard to say. Perhaps Massa was flattered by comparisons with Kimi Raikkonen, who had seemingly lost interest in F1 after sealing the world title in 2007, and who was perhaps never quite so quick as was thought. Maybe he's not quite the same driver he was before that horrific accident in qualifying at Hungary last year. Equally possibly, Alonso's determination to get the whole team behind him, something which Kimi Raikkonen was never really interested in trying to do, has pulled the rug out from under Massa. A team which had taken Massa to its heart perhaps in part because they had found Raikkonen such a cold fish, now, in Alonso, have someone who can really lead them in the way that Schumacher used to. Leaving Massa a little surplus to requirements. And the trouble is, that with the competition between the top four teams so intense, Ferrari really can't afford to have one of its drivers feeling lost, lacking in confidence, unsure of himself. Not if it's costing him four tenths of a second a lap, anyway.

Mercedes, too, are wrestling on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to driver choices for 2011. When they announced that Michael Schumacher would be returning to F1 with the team, it looked like they had pulled off a remarkable coup. Rather than running a line-up of Rosberg and Heidfeld, one which looked a little uninspired when their major rivals had the likes of Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel on their books, suddenly they were being led by a seven time World Champion, probably the single best driver of the last twenty years.

Except he just doesn't seem quite the man he once was. Yes, Rosberg's points lead over him owes much to Schumacher's misfortune - the mechanical failure at Sepang, the first lap chaos at Melbourne, the penalty for that moment of silliness at La Rascasse last weekend. But still... does anyone really think that the Schumacher of old, the one who so dominated the sport for more than a decade, would find himself being matched by Nico Rosberg? A man who, with all due respect, has not one Grand Prix victory to his name? Schumacher himself admits that after three years away, it's taking him time to get back into the swing of things, but that's not something he seemed to need when, with almost no previous experience in an F1 car, he rocked up at Spa one August day in 1991 and stuck a Jordan 191 further up the grid than the car had ever been in the hands of its regular drivers. So do Mercedes hang on in the hope that he'll come good eventually? Or do they start casting about for a younger man who has the hunger to take the fight to Red Bull, Mclaren and Ferrari?

The question though, is, if not Schumacher, then who? About a fortnight ago, Mark Webber's career looked to be hanging by a thread, and he might have jumped at the chance to drive for Mercedes next year. Beaten by his team mate in the opening races, he'd compounded his problems with a series of silly, unforced errors which cost him points in Australia and in China. Then came the strongest week of his racing career; back-to-back victories at Barcelona and at Monaco where he plain outpaced his young superstar team mate and didn't put a foot wrong. Now he's leading the driver's championship and being talked about as a possible replacement for Massa at Ferrari - if they can persuade him to leave. He might make a very good partner for Rosberg at Mercedes, come to that. Surely, though, the man that Mercedes must really want is Webber's team mate, the 'new Schumacher', Sebastian Vettel. Surely anyone with pretences of putting together a 'German superteam' must need the country's rising star, the man who nearly won the World Championship for Red Bull last year, on board? Except why would either Webber or Vettel want to give up a drive in the dominant, Adrian Newey designed Red Bull?

Far more likely to be interested in situations vacant at Mercedes or Ferrari is Renault's Robert Kubica, to my mind, the one really great, first rate racer who is not currently signed to one of the big four teams. with a realistic shot at the World Title over the next couple of years. He's frequently dragged the Renault R30 far further up the field than it really belongs - a 2nd at Australia, a front row grid slot and podium finish at Monaco - and he actually looked disappointed he hadn't won!. All this in a car his team mate Vitaly Petrov has rarely troubled the points with. As in 2008, while obvious title contenders are busy spiking their guns, he looks like he just might lead a sneaky, insurgent campaign for the driver's crown in a car that's far from championship winning material.

Further down the field, there will be others wondering whether a change might do them good, and unlike the big four, they might well not wait until next year before making the switch. Take Sauber: They've been curiously disappointing all year after looking quick in winter testing, only once looking like they might score points (at Barcelona). And surely I can't be alone in wondering whether their driver line-up of Pedro De la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi isn't part of the problem, whether they've really been getting the most out of the car.

De la Rosa has never struck me as anything more than a good journeyman, a man with enough testing experience perhaps, to be useful to a team struggling to re-group after being sold down the river by former owners, BMW. Kobayashi, on the other hand, has thus far been a crushing disappointment. There's been no sign of the feisty self-confidence and pace he displayed in his two races at the end of the season with Toyota last year. Perhaps last year's Toyota was better than we realised, or maybe he's just not at home with the Sauber, but the precise reasons matter little, the team just can't afford not to get the most of what they have.

Maybe they will be tempted to try to steal away one of a number of solid, talented drivers currently wasting their efforts in machinery that's four or five seconds a lap off the pace at the back at the field. Virgin's Timo Glock and Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli might be putting a brave face on it, and maybe they really believe that in a year or so, their new teams will be snapping at the heels of the likes of Sauber, but I can't help but think one or more of them could be tempted away to try to sort out Sauber.

Failing that, if the team must run an unproven GP2 racer of uncertain pedigree, there might be others at least able to get stickers on the sides of the bare white car. Pastor Maldonado has never struck me as quite the real deal, but he might be worth a shot, especially if he comes with pots of Venezuelan Oil cash. Then there's Sergio Perez, the current GP2 Series leader who, by the by, looked mighty at Monaco in the GP2 feature race last weekend, and who has a long-standing relationship with the Mexican telecoms giant, TelMex. Maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree, but I'd be surprised if De la Rosa and Kobayashi both see out the season at Sauber.

Talking of people with reasons to fear for their jobs, watching the action from Monaco last weekend, I got to thinking that if I were Sebastien Buemi or Jaime Alguersuari, I might not be feeling to secure at Toro Rosso right now. It's not that either of them are doing particularly badly with the Toro Rosso this season - they've both looked solid enough, picking up points here and there and not doing anything silly. But neither has done anything to persuade me that they're potential future World Champions. People the Red Bull team proper will be interested in. Whereas, watching Daniel Ricciardo, the latest of a long line of Red Bull junior drivers, dominating the field in the Renault World Series race at the weekend, I had the uncanny feeling I was watching the new Sebastian Vettel doing his stuff... Surely Red Bull are going to want to get him into an F1 car sooner rather than later... Next year, perhaps....

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Anonymous Enigma said...

I really like the blog, some good articles. Good job mate =)

12:29 PM  

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