Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who goes where?

It has reached that point in the year where the focus of many a driver and team is as much on the season coming as on the dog end of the one currently in train. Not so much, perhaps, if you are Red Bull, Ferrari or Mclaren, and are still in the running for this year's championships, but for everyone else, there is the hope that 2011 will be better.

And inevitably that means drivers thinking about whether they can land themselves with a more competitive seat, and teams pondering whether a change of drivers might bring a change of fortunes. It is perhaps no coincidence that the top three teams are retaining exactly the same driver line up for 2011, while it is far from clear that this is the case anywhere further down the grid.

For drivers, the most promising vacancy at the moment is probably the one alongside Robert Kubica at Renault. After a dismal 2009, where even the talents of Fernando Alonso were insufficient to keep them from slipping into midfield mediocrity, the team would appear to be once more on an upward trajectory. Current number 2 driver Vitaly Petrov has not yet been ruled out - and Eric Bouillier has been remarkably frank about what is required of the young Russian, saying that he doesn't need to match Kubica, but he does need to show that he has the potential to get rather closer to him that he is managing at the moment, but one senses that La Regie are sniffing around to see if there are better prospects out there.

I'm not convinced by the wisdom of taking on Kimi Raikkonen, though to be fair, much depends on whether the Finn is feeling a renewed enthusiasm for F1 following his sabbatical in the World Rally Championship, or whether he (or his management) is simply casting around for a way to make money as it looks like Red Bull are becoming disillusioned with the marketing potential of their tie-up at Citroen. However, if the Finn meets with Boullier and convinces him that he's genuinely serious about giving F1 another shot then, providing his pecuniary demands are not excessive, he's probably the fastest man Renault are going to be able to hire. Certainly it will be interesting to see how he compares with Robert Kubica.

More likely though, if Petrov goes, it will be in order to be replaced by one of a number of drivers who would meet Renault's job spec of being a good solid number 2 who can be relied upon to rack up constructors championship points, and who are currently finding their talents wasted in uncompetitive machinery. Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen have both shown they are good, serious racing drivers and their talents have been largely wasted with Virgin and Lotus this year. While it's possible those teams might be rather better prepared next year (I've rather more faith in Fernandes' Lotus operation than in the awkward menage-a-trois between Wirth Research, Richard Branson and Manor Motorsport) a Renault seat would still look a more tempting prospect.

Then there's Nick Heidfeld, back for the moment at his spiritual home of Sauber after spending much of the year on the sidelines at Mercedes, hoping that Michael Schumacher might throw in the towel. Again, Renault would be accepting they're not hiring a future mega-star if they took him on, but he's certainly not slow - he's been teamed up with Raikkonen, Webber and Kubica in the past, and held his own against all three of them. Probably a better bet than Sauber, even if Heidfeld disregarded the awkward truth that Peter Sauber's choice of driver to sit alongside Kobayashi next year is likely to be governed by financial constraints rather than driving talent.

The other name that strikes me as a possible for Renault is Force India's Adrian Sutil. The Anglo-Indian team started the year well but have been gradually slipping back towards the rear of the midfield, and it seems to me that if the German rainmaster is to progress then he's going to have to find another ride. Assessing how quick he is has never been easy - he's easily had the beating of Tonio Liuzzi this year, but he didn't always look any quicker than Giancarlo Fisichella, and going back to his debut in the sport at Spyker, it is striking that HRT's Sakon Yamamoto wasn't that far off his pace. He'd be a gamble, but there have been odd hints - particularly when the heavens open - that he's got something special about him.

Although Renault might not be his only option. Of the top teams, Renault is the only one which officially has a vacancy but Martin Brundle mischievously noted that an awful lot of drivers were seen coming and going from the Mercedes motorhome over the Monza weekend earlier in the month. Nico Rosberg is almost certain to be driving for the team again next year, but I can hardly be alone in wondering whether Michael Schumacher will call time on his so far rather uninspired come-back, or should he not jump, whether the team might opt to push him. It would be an ignominious end to a long and tremendously successful career, but time and tide wait for no man...

... And if Mercedes is to remain a German 'super team' then Adrian Sutil might be a good fit. It has been said that a part of the motivation for Mercedes' involvement in the sport has been to increase its appeal to younger car buyers, and if that is their aim then Sutil perhaps makes more sense than Nick Heidfeld (who may be relatively young by any normal definition, but, at 33, is in F1 terms beginning to run out of time). As mentioned above, Timo Glock might also be available and if the team were prepared to pay Williams enough money to get them to release him, Willi Weber's new protege, Nico Hulkenberg would tick all the right marketability boxes, and more importantly, after a rather shaky start, has begun to regularly match and sometimes beat team mate Barrichello. Perhaps not the new Schumacher, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's now faster than the old one is these days.

So far, in considering Renault and Mercedes' options, I've not mentioned any young drivers still seeking to break into F1. The bad news for would-be F1 drivers is that those top teams which might have a vacancy have enough choices from among the established F1 drivers that I'd be surprised if either of them hired a rookie. The truth is that the options for drivers looking to get their first F1 ride in 2011 are looking rather limited.

Toro Rosso and Williams have yet to announce their line-ups for next year, but I wouldn't be especially surprised if both teams retained their current line-ups. Sauber have already announced that Kamui Kobayashi will be driving for them next year, so the vacancies are likely to be made up of the following: The second Sauber, one or possibly both seats at Force India and, perhaps, a seat or two at Lotus or Virgin if someone manages to pinch Kovalainen or Glock.

Scottish DTM driver Paul Di Resta is seemingly considered a shoe-in at Force India, and if hiring a driver who hasn't raced in single seaters since 2006 seems a rather eccentric choice, then it is worth remembering that he is the man who beat Sebastian Vettel to the F3 Euroseries title that year, and that his DTM career has taken off after he regularly started doing incredible things with a second string two-year old Mercedes in his debut season. Whether he's as good, or even better than Vettel, or ultimately turns out to be another driver with a strong junior record who doesn't quite cut it at the very highest level, only time will tell, but as a fellow Edinburgher, I'm glad he's getting a chance.

So who might the other hopefuls be? There's GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado, but after some stories over the summer that he was in talks with Sauber, things seem to have gone very quiet on that front of late. His problem, I suspect, is that he took a very long time to come good in GP2, and has had a wildly inconsistent career that would make him a bit of a gamble. He comes with plenty of cash, but almost certainly not as much as Telmex-backed Sergio Perez, the man whom he beat to the GP2 title. Perez was in only his second season in GP2 (as against Maldonado's 5th!) and the signing of fellow Telmex-backed driver Esteban Gutierrez as a test driver at Sauber suggests that he may have a chance with the Swiss team.

Beyond those two, it's not quite clear who else would be in the running for an F1 seat - Daniel Ricciardo has impressed me with his performances in the Renault World Series but as a Red Bull backed driver, he's unlikely to get a shot next year unless the team lose faith in Alguersuari or Buemi, both of whom have been doing a fairly decent job of late. And in any case, it might make more sense to give Ricciardo the benefit of another year gaining experience in GP2 if, as I reckon is likely, he takes the Renault World Series at his first attempt this year.

Certainly it makes more sense than taking a seat at HRT next year. Whether their struggles with the recalcitrant Dallaras have done anything to further the careers of Bruno Senna, Sakon Yamamoto or Karun Chandhok this year I rather doubt, and the simple truth is that, stuck in such a hopelessly uncompetitive car, there is a limit to what any driver can do. Even beating your team mate might depend as much on the vagaries of the machinery as on any difference between the drivers. Where Lotus look like they will make progress next year and Virgin at least look like they might do so, I see no reason to expect HRT to be any less hopeless than they have been this season. On the other hand, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if they weren't on the grid at all. Which might be a blessing in disguise for some young F1 hopefuls.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Raikkonen's Progress

Just a few days after Renault team principal Eric Boullier admitted that he had been approached by Kimi Raikkonen's management team regarding a seat with the team in 2011, the Finn took his first ever outright rally win last weekend. Now it was nothing to get too excited by - the Rallye Vosgien is an amateur affair, and anyone who knows roughly what he is doing shouldn't have too much trouble winning it if they have a works Citroen WRC at their disposal. But winning the event was, to be fair, not really the point. The rally was held in the countryside surrounding Strasbourg - the same part of the world in which the forthcoming Rallye France will take place. With the Citroen Junior Team having used up all 15 of its allotted test days for the year, this was the best way to provide the still inexperienced Raikkonen with some asphalt mileage ahead of the event.

After the best part of a year on the stages, though, how is Kimi's second career in rallying going? It all rather depends on what your expectations were. Some of the more excitable elements of the motorsports press seemed to think that he might be in the running for podiums on asphalt by the end of the year - and that is looking very unlikely. This, though, always struck me as something of a long shot. Rallying is really quite different to circuit racing, and but for a couple of outings in a Fiat Punto S2000 last year, the 2007 F1 World Champion had no real experience of the stages before this season. If David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher have struggled adapting to DTM tin-tops, Raikkonen has faced an altogether tougher challenge. It's a little like the difference between a grass court specialist tennis player playing on clay, and a tennis pro being handed a badminton racket and trying to win the world title, if you will.

Let's not forget that Sebastien Loeb didn't find things any easier when he tried to go the other way. He might have looked impressive in testing for Toro Rosso and Red Bull a couple of years back, but it's always hard to know how much to read into testing times - a light fuel load and a new set of tyres can make any driver who knows roughly what they are doing look quick. When Loeb tested a GP2 car against the rest of the GP2 field last year (reportedly as a prelude to an aborted race debut with Toro Rosso at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix) he was last and two seconds off the pace. Not so slow as to be embarrassing, but equally, it was clear that he was no match for circuit drivers who have spent years doing nothing else. And if you were going to pick one rally driver out as having the kind of style that might translate to the circuit, it would be the ultra-precise Sebastien Loeb.

With his first points finish, for 8th, in Jordan, Raikkonen became only the second driver in history to score points in both the World Rally Championship and the Formula 1 World Championship. He's got a little way before he matches Carlos Reutemann's podium finish in a Peugeot 205 T16 on the 1985 Argentine Rally, but it's worth bearing in mind that the Argentine former F1 driver finished a whole half hour behind the winner. That said, had the World Rally Championship existed in the late 60s, all-rounder Vic Elford would have got in there first, he did win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1968 and scored a handful of F1 points finishes.

Both Raikkonen's points finishes and Reutemann's podium point to a fundamental difference between World Championship rallying and Formula 1. Aside from a few front runners, there is not typically the same strength in depth in a WRC event that there is at a Grand Prix. At the moment, there are perhaps as few as six really fast serious professionals competing full time in the WRC: Sebastien Loeb, Dani Sordo, Sebastien Ogier, Petter Solberg, Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala. Behind them are a clutch of competent, experienced paying amateurs and semi-professionals: Federico Villagra, Matthew Wilson (there mainly because his father runs the Ford team), Henning Solberg, Mads Ostberg et cetera. It is as if, in Formula 1, behind the front runners like Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Kubica et al, the rest of the field was made up of a bunch of also-rans from the back half of the current GP2 and Renault World Series fields who happened to have the cash to pay for the ride.

It's always been true to some extent of rallying, but with only two manufacturers in the sport at the present, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is little strength in depth in the WRC at the moment. And it's hard to know what to make of the fact that Raikkonen has generally been able, just about to hang on to the back of this group in recent rallies. A sign that he's learning quickly, or merely that he's being flattered by a weak WRC field? Only in Bulgaria, where the Fords seemed to be really struggling, was Raikkonen trading times with the likes of Latvala and Hirvonen, rather than Wilson and Villagra.

I do rather wonder whether, by jumping straight into a WRC machine for a full season, Raikkonen is trying to run before he can walk. He might perhaps have learned more by spending a low key year in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge , learning his new trade at the wheel of something a little less powerful, away from the public eye. It's not as if the WRC is entirely devoid of talent either, with many of the drivers who might ten years ago have led one of the lesser manufacturer teams instead to be found there: Jan Kopecky, Kris Meeke, Juho Hanninen and, on occasion, fellow ex-F1 racer Stephane Sarrazin.

As it is, I'm beginning to wonder whether he has hit something of a brick wall - if after picking up the basics in winter testing, he's no longer really able to improve his game. Certainly, it does not appear, looking at his stage times, that he's really going any quicker than he was at the beginning of the season. His times tend to ebb and flow from around 2 to as much as 7% off the ultimate pace, just as they did on the opening rally in Sweden back in February. It's as if the car and the very different events - what, after all, does what a driver learns in Sweden do to help him in Jordan, or in Bulgaria and Japan - mean that he's not really able to learn much. Maybe it's expecting too much of him too soon - and we should be thinking in terms of a multi-year programme in which the results only really begin to come in his second or third season. After all, it took drivers like Solberg and Hirvonen some time to really get onto the pace, and for all that Raikkonen seems to have had a lot of accidents this year, I don't think he's actually had as many as Colin McRae did in his first full year in the WRC.

But is Raikkonen, who has, after all, come from an F1 world in which he was a champion and one of the recognised top drivers, patient enough to spend several seasons learning the black arts of rallying when he's already given over more than a decade of his life to perfecting the art of circuit racing? And even if he does intend to, when the novelty factor wears off, will Citroen and Red Bull be particularly interested in paying for him to do so? That just might be what is behind the rather unexpected noises about Raikkonen and Renault. For the reasons Joe Saward outlined in a perceptive article on his blog last week, I'm not convinced such a deal would make much sense for either Raikkonen or Renault. Renault can rely on Kubica for the inspired pace, and would perhaps be better served by a cheap, competent number 2 (Nick Heidfeld springs to mind) while Raikkonen looked washed up at the end of 2009 and if received wisdom is to be believed, was not overly enamoured of F1 life anyway.

So I hope he stays for another year, at least, in the World Rally Championship. I suspect that, with Sebastien Ogier doing everything to mark himself out as the new Sebastien Loeb at the moment, he will never reach the very pinnacle of rallying. He might have had the innate talent, but I suspect that a man trying to learn what is in a sense an entirely new sport at the age of 31 will never be able to reach quite the same level as someone who has been doing it since his teens. But given time, he might get close. I doubt he will ever go on to be the first man to win the World Rally Championship and the F1 World Championship, but he just might manage to be the first man to win both a WRC event and a Grand Prix. Which would surely be a more worthwhile aim than going back to an F1 world which has moved on in his absence.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Summer's End

The seasons have an underlying rhythm to them. After the relaxed carefree weeks of summer turn steadily languid through the heat of August, September marks a return to the reality of work, a sense of knuckling down as the nights draw in and the weather turns more chill. Where once it was going back to school or university, these days for me its the return of Parliament from its summer recess that marks Summer's end. And one event that is inextricably linked with this time of year in my mind is the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

There can surely be no better place to mark the end of European season than the Autodromo Nazionale Monza. Even as it stands today, emasculated by chicanes, it remains the fastest circuit on the F1 calendar, in its own way every bit as much a unique challenge as Monaco. Watching the onboard footage as drivers top 215mph along its long, narrow straights, its one of the few places where Grand Prix racing still looks, well, dangerous. But more to the point, Monza tends to mark the point in the racing season at which it becomes clear who is really in the battle for the World Championship and whose campaign has fallen off the rails. With the end of summer, the destiny of the World Titles tends to come into focus.

Last year, it was their poor performance at Monza that all but guaranteed that Red Bull would not deny Brawn either world title. Going back a few years to 2003, it marked the point at which what had been a five-way title fight boiled down to the three way battle between Raikkonen, Schumacher and Montoya. And, indeed, Schumacher's victory, after a lacklustre summer, turned out to be a portent of the fact that, after the FIA's meddling with the tyre regulations, he and Ferrari would retain their crowns for a fourth successive year.

A fortnight ago, it seemed for a moment, after Messrs Vettel, Alonso and Button all crashed out of contention at Spa, that what had been another five way fight was narrowing down to a straight face-off between Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton. But then that all changed last weekend. Hamilton, ever the live-wire, walking a narrow line between genius and foolhardiness, let his impetuousness get the better of him on the opening lap and failed to score, while Webber was, if anything, too cautious, and the combination of a poor opening lap which saw him drop from 5th to 9th, and his Red Bull's lack of straightline grunt ensured he could do no better than 6th.

By contrast, the three men who failed to score at Spa all had a pretty decent weekend at Monza. Fernando Alonso, whose title hopes looked all but doomed when he dropped his Ferrari into the barriers on the way to Rivage two weeks earlier, suddenly looks to be right back in the mix following his Monza win. The fact that neither he nor Ferrari have been further punished for the team orders farce at Hockenheim does them no harm either. Suffice to say that should he eventually win the title by less than the 7 points that he took from Massa that day, his rivals would have good reason to feel aggrieved.

Jenson Button had been looking rather overshadowed by team mate Hamilton in recent races. Having got the ball rolling for Mclaren with victory at Melbourne Park and quickly followed thatr up with another win in China, he has in recent races he has looked more and more like Mclaren's unofficial number 2 rather than a serious title prospect. But at Monza, he had his team mate beat even before Lewis broke a steering arm against the back of Massa's Ferrari at La Roggia. Even Sebastian Vettel played himself back into contention to an extent, clawing points back from the men at the head of the points table with his fourth place finish being probably about the best anyone was going to get out of a Red Bull at Monza.

And so as the season departs Europe for its final globe-trotting fling through Singapore, Korea, Japan, Brazil and finally Abu Dhabi, it looks like we once again have a full five-way title fight on our hand. Sebastian Vettel, in 5th, is just 24 points down on leader Mark Webber. And remember with 25 points for a win, in old money, that's a gap of just under 10 points. But which of the five pretenders stands the best chance of coming away with the crown?

Let's start with the two men who should be the favourites, Red Bull drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. There can be little doubting that over the course of the season, the Red Bull has been the quickest car, sometimes, as at Hungary, by an almost embarrassing margin. By rights, Vettel and Webber should have nobody to worry about but each other by now. Except that silly errors from both drivers, mechanical frailty and a fair dose of plain old misfortune has allowed Alonso, Hamilton and Button to gatecrash their party. And now it's no longer so clear that the Red Bull any longer has quite the same advantage it did earlier in the year. It might be too early to conclude that Ferrari and Mclaren have caught them. Monza was perhaps always the weakest track for Red Bull's relatively underpowered but tremendously aerodynamically efficient machine. On the other hand, I'd be surprised if they have quite the advantage they seemed to have on everyone at the Hungaroring.

And it might be crucial that, where the other three are all past or current World Champions, neither Webber nor Vettel yet has a title to their name. And for differing reasons, that will add to the pressure that those two will feel. Vettel is still frightfully young, at only 23, and in only his third full season in F1. While that relative inexperience clearly hasn't slowed him down at all, I can't help thinking that it might help to explain the string of silly errors - the collisions with his team mate at Istanbul and with Button at Spa, the moment of doziness behind the safety car at Hungaroring, which have cost him crucial points. Without those, even allowing for his having had the lion's share of Red Bull's mechanical maladies, he'd be some distance in front in the title race right now.

If Vettel's problem is finding a controlled outlet for the nervous energy of youth, then Webber has the opposite problem. The last-chance urgency of approaching middle age. The sense that, even if Red Bull can produce another title contender in 2011 his young team mate will only get faster and more polished and that 2010 and this represents the best chance he is ever likely to get of becoming Australia's third world champion. He's been remarkably calm in recent races, but I wonder if that very caution might cost him in what is after all a five way fight for the title. He has the points lead, which mean's he's the prey rather than the hunter. Remember how that went to Button's head last year?

Over at Mclaren, Button's role is reversed from last year. Rather than defending a large points lead, he's having to claw back a points deficit to the leading contenders, Hamilton and Webber. Button's problem is that, while he can be as quick as anyone on his day, when he can't get the 2010 Mclaren set up to his liking, he really struggles with it. Remember his failing to make Q3 at Hungary? It seems that when the Mclaren isn't where it should be, it is Hamilton who is much more adept at driving around the problems, and getting the most from it. And the circuits which are coming up, with their great reliance on low speed traction and with little scope for the Mclaren's refined F-Duct to be used to its greatest advantage, are going to play into the hands of a driver who can take a recalcitrant car by the scruff of the neck and wring the most from it. Not something Button has ever been known for. That said, in a five-way battle like this, a big part of winning is about not making mistakes, and of the contenders for the title, nobody has made fewer.

Hamilton has not been quite so error free, but over the year it's hard to ignore the fact that he has been the quicker of the two British World Champions driving for Mclaren this year, and has perhaps got more out of his machinery than anyone else on the grid. If the Mclaren proves quick enough, he would be my tip for the title, but I can't help thinking that Turkey aside, Mclaren have only won races this year when it has poured with rain, or on tracks where out and out straight line speed is more important than downforce. It might rain at Interlagos and Suzuka, but not one of the five remaining tracks on the calendar look like natural Mclaren territory to me. That mistake on the opening lap at Monza might turn out to be very costly indeed.

All this leaves Ferrari and Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard has one big advantage, namely that while all his other rivals have their team mates to worry about, the Scuderia has only one dog left in the fight. Having a number two driver to covertly, and to judge by the German Grand Prix, perhaps overtly, assist Alonso's title challenge might prove decisive. Unlike the other teams, they can afford to use one of their drivers as a guinea pig, and, potentially as a 'hare' or as a 'roadblock', which just might prove to be a crucial advantage. Combine that with the fact that Alonso has more World titles and greater experience of being in title fights than his rivals, while Ferrari are past masters at it, and I wonder if it just might be enough to enable them to overcome the faster but seemingly error-prone Red Bull team.

So, forced to place a bet, I'd say it's going to be between Alonso and Webber, with Hamilton heading the chasing pack. But it really could go any way. And, of course, in terms of individual races, it won't be just these five who will be in contention. While it is still mathematically possible, Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica stand little chance of walking away with the title, but I wouldn't rule out either for a surprise race win, particularly at Singapore, where both have proven fast before. It's going to be an interesting autumn.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Like Father, Unlike Son

Imagine you're in your late teens. Growing up in Monaco. The son of a multi-millionaire. The world is your oyster. Probably, you need never really do an honest day's work in your life if you don't want to. Sounds like a dream come true? Perhaps, but on the other side of the coin, that very ease, the way that everything has been handed to you means it's hard to imagine that you're going to have the application, the drive, to really make the most of the gifts that fortune has bestowed upon you.

So in a way, it's a little surprising that 1982 World Champion Keijo Rosberg's son Nico has been as successful as he has in Formula 1. An awful lot of sons of famous fathers have tried their hands at motorsport, but the success stories have been relatively thin on the ground, at least at the very top level. And I can't help thinking that being the comfortably-off son of a famous father probably doesn't help a young driver's focus and determination. I suspect that it is no coincidence that the two most successful sons of famous fathers both lost those fathers while they were still themselves children - Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. Perhaps it was some sense of insecurity which gave those two a determination which such as the Mansell brothers, Nelson Piquet Jr, Nicolas Prost et al, have seemed to lack (though the Mansell brothers at least, never really showed any real sign of having the fundamental ability to do the job anyway).

Nico Rosberg, though, is an awkward exception to the rule. In his early junior career, he didn't really stand out to me. He attracted attention principally for getting that Williams test back in 2003 when he was only 17, and one couldn't help but think that Frank was simply doing a favour for the man who had won the 1982 title for his team. Certainly, as late as 2004, when, in his second year in the championship, he finished fourth in the F3 Euroseries behind Premat, LaPierre and champion Jamie Green, there was nothing to suggest that he was any qui from a host of talented youngsters, not all of whom could possibly find a place on the F1 grid.

But then he moved to GP2 with ART and, while I expected British F3 Champion Nelson Piquet Jr to win the battle of the 'sons of famous fathers', and reckoned Alexandre Premat likely to be the quicker man in Frederic Vasseur's team, he went and won the championship at his first attempt, narrowly edging out the more fancied Heikki Kovalainen. And all of a sudden, he was rather more than just a fresh-faced son of a famous father. Scratch beneath the surface, and there was always reason to think that Rosberg might have been a cut above many of the young hopefuls in the junior formulae.

For one thing, while it would be easy to caricature Rosberg as the spoiled son of a 'racing dad' he is probably one of the brightest men on the grid. He turned down a place to study engineering at Imperial College London in order to further his racing career, and apparently achieved the highest score ever recorded on the 'Engineering Aptitude Test' given to all new Williams drivers when he joined the team in 2006. It's striking too that Rosberg Jr always sounded calm and confident when dealing with the media, even when at the time of his F1 debut at the age of just 20, back in 2006, in marked contrast with Piquet Jr who always gave the unfortunate impression of a young man with a chip on his shoulder (though to be fair, the difficult atmosphere of the Renault team during his sojourn there can't have helped).

On the surface, he's a very different character to his father. Where Keke was famous for a very non-PC willingness to speak his mind, and had a popular image as something of a 'hard man' of the F1 grid, his son looks like a man who has walked straight out of a shampoo commercial, has been christened 'Britney' by harsher members of the F1 fraternity, and always sounds 'on message' when speaking to the press. Asked if he would have preferred to have raced in his father's more free-wheeling era, a time when drivers could smoke without being subject to brickbats for compromising their race fitness, he responded simply that he hated smoking. But beneath that, I wonder if it is not only a natural aptitude for hustling an F1 car that he has inherited from his father. Just as Rosberg Sr, for all his larger than life persona, was a tremendously determined man whose path to the top was not easy, a man who overcame adversity to win, so Rosberg Jr is the gilded youth born into a life of comfort and riches, who could have lived the life of a feckless playboy, but who has chosen to try to show that he is every bit as good as his father.

The question remains though, just how good is Nico Rosberg? He certainly made an impact when he made his F1 debut at the Sakhir circuit at the age of just 20, back in 2006. Picking up fastest lap in his first ever race, becoming the youngest person ever to do so in the process, he followed this up with a third place grid position two weeks later in Malaysia, in a Williams that was hardly the class of the field. At the time, Jackie Stewart talked about him as a potential future mega-star and while Stewart's view might have been influenced by his work for Williams sponsor RBS, he's not a man who's easily impressed.

After that explosive start, though, Rosberg's career has so far failed to live up to that early promise. The 2006 Williams was not one of the better cars to come out of Grove, let down as it was by terrible reliability and a lack of high speed downforce that meant he would make the points just once more all season. Over the year as a whole, it is fair to say that he was comprehensively outpaced by Mark Webber. There's no shame in that, Webber is a very quick driver, perhaps quicker than anyone realised at the time, and he was then into fifth year in the sport, while Rosberg was still finding his feet, but still one wonders, if Rosberg is really quick, wouldn't he have shown better against Webber?

Three more years at Williams brought a steady stream of points, and a couple of podiums but no victories, though as his best finish was a second place behind Fernando Alonso at Singapore in 2008, arguably, he is a Grand Prix winner in spirit, if not in fact. But after four years in the sport, we are arguably no closer to knowing quite how good Rosberg really is. He had no trouble outclassing his Williams team mates, Alexander Wurz and Kazuki Nakajima but its hard to quantify how much of an achievement that is. Were Wurz and Nakajima perfectly solid, competent peddlers who were made to look second rate by an exceptionally gifted team mate? Or were the late noughties Williams a good deal better quicker than we realised?

Williams themselves didn't seem quite sure. There were dark mutterings that, for all Rosberg's clean-cut image and sponsor-friendliness, he just didn't have the overwhelming drive to win that the best of his rivals did. And where Williams certainly did have good reason to complain is in pointing out that Rosberg threw away a fair number of good points finishes - most notably at Singapore in 2009, with silly errors. There, he had looked a safe bet for a podium, and perhaps even an outside shot for victory, when he wandered over the white line exiting the pits and picked up a drive-through penalty which put him out of contention. And what if those rumours that he'd been approached to replace Fernando Alonso at Mclaren and turned that opportunity down are true? That he (or his manager) didn't believe he was fundamentally good enough to take on Lewis Hamilton in identical machinery? If it's true, it suggests a man who doesn't have the self confidence of a natural born winner.

A move to Mercedes for 2010 ought to have answered these questions. If Rosberg had matched, or even bettered Jenson Button, then we could be sure that he was amongst the very quickest in the business - a potential future world champion. Except that Button jumped ship to Mclaren and Rosberg found himself paired up with a returning Michael Schumacher. If the younger German had feared that he would be put in the shade by the 7 time world champion, he had no reason to worry. Rosberg has generally been a shade faster than his more illustrious team mate, and has certainly been a good deal more consistent, bringing the car home where Schumacher has seemingly been a magnet for trouble.

But is that because Rosberg is much better than we realised, a man who can beat the outstanding driver of the last 20 years? Or is it simply a sign that Michael Schumacher is over the hill, race rusty, long past his best? There is simply no way of knowing for sure. The truth may lie somewhere in between. While I just can't quite bring myself to believe that Schumacher, at the height of his powers, would have found himself trailing Nico Rosberg by 44 points to 102, it may be that Schumacher looks less competitive than he is because we are underestimating Rosberg. After all, if Schumacher had been trailing, say, Hamilton by a similar margin, one might almost be tempted to congratulate the old stager for putting up such a good fight at 42. If Schumacher were to call time on his increasingly ill-advised looking come back and hand the car over to Nick Heidfeld, we'd be much closer to knowing the answer.

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