F1 2007 Preview: New best friends

Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Ferrari, preseason, 2007It’s highly unusual to see three top drivers make high-profile moves from one season to the next, but that is exactly what’s happened this year: Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber have all defected.

Why did they jump ship? What lead them to the teams they chose? And, most importantly of all, what are their chances at their new outfits?

Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Mercedes, preseason, 2007, 2Champion drivers usually tend to stay with their triumphant teams – it’s particularly unusual to see a reigning champion move to a different team. But this is exactly what Alonso has done.

Why leave Renault? Alonso’s decision to leave Renault only became public during the quiet of the 2005 off-season. At once it emerged that not only had he put himself on the market, but he’d been snapped up by Ron Dennis.

Alonso already had one championship to his name, but was unsure of Renault’s commitment to the sport.

Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya, Interlagos, 2005Why join McLaren? Dennis and Alonso began talking at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2005, which Dennis’s McLarens won comfortably. Indeed in Alonso’s first championship year, McLaren won more races than Renault.

This, coupled with Renault’s reluctance to commit to F1 long-term at the time, inspired Alonso’s move.

Who is he replacing? – Outgoing lead McLaren driver Kimi Raikkonen. By all accounts, Raikkonen is phenomenally quick and exceptionally brave as a driver – but lacked the same commitment out of the cockpit.

With two world championships to his name – neither of them won in cars that could be described as vastly superior – Alonso lacks little as a driver, and should prove a very telling gauge of the effectiveness of McLaren’s car and team.

Chances – The team began the year on a high with an enormous launch at Alonso-mad Valencia. Alonso’s skill and appetite are unquestioned – the team just have to give him a decent car and he can get the job done.

Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren-Mercedes, Melbourne, 2002Why leave McLaren? – In four years at McLaren Raikkonen had finished championship runner-up twice. On both occasions McLaren unreliability scuppered his chances – but so did mistakes on Raikkonen’s part, the likes of which you see much less often from an Alonso or Schumacher.

With more money available at Ferrari, the promise of a reliable and competitive car, and relations with McLaren soured over Raikkonen’s widely-publicised partying, it was a good time to move on.

Why join Ferrari? – Raikkonen certainly had the choice of joining Renault – Flavio Briatore courted him in 2006. At Renault he would surely have had little difficulty beating Fisichella and would have had a championship-winning car at his disposal.

It’s hard to imagine that the history of the Scuderia attracted Raikkonen to it any more than it did with Schumacher. Ferrari offered Raikkonen two vital things: 1. A decent shot at the championship, and 2. Lots of cash. He is the sport’s highest-paid driver this year.

Felipe Massa, Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, pre-season, 2007Who is he replacing? – Raikkonen has the biggest of boots to fill – Michael Schumacher’s. And it’s not as if the German has sealed himself into his Swiss castle. No – he is lingering in the background, closely watching the progress of the team and Felipe Massa, than whom Schumacher suggested his retirement was in aid of when he quit last year.

Chances – Very good. The Ferrari has looked extremely quick in testing. There is an unusual buzz around Massa, though, with many talking up his chances.

A glance at the past performances of the two ex-Sauber drivers strongly suggests that Raikkonen will comprehensively have the upper hand, though.

Mark Webber

Mark Webber, Williams-BMW, Spa-Francorchamps, 2005Why leave Williams? – Webber has been outspoken of his decision to leave the Grove team, describing his two years with the team as a “mistake”. Manager Flavio Briatore advised him against the move in the first place.

Williams suffered an appalling slump in performance and reliability during Webber’s time with them, causing him to retire from many races in 2006, including the Australian and Monaco races while running high up the leader board.

Mark Webber, Red Bull-Renault, Barcelona, pre-season, 2007Why join Red Bull? – Red Bull marks a return for Webber, as he raced for the team from 2003-04 when they were Jaguar.

Now the Red Bull team have F1’s top designer Adrian Newey and the world championship-winning Renault engines in their cars. With the chassis effectively being developed by two teams (sister team Toro Rosso are using a simialr chassis to the RB3) the outfit has gigantic unrealised potential.

Mark Webber, Christian Klien, Jaguar, pre-season, 2004Who is he replacing? – Christian Klien. The Austrian joined Webber at Jaguar in 2004 bringing $22m of Red Bull cash with him. Webber beat him comfortably over a season.

Chances? – The rivalry between Webber and David Coulthard will be one of the most interesting inter-team battles of the year. Webber should have a clear advantage in qualifying, though, where he has always been exceptionally strong.

His qualities as a racer are under-rated too – expect him to lead Coulthard home more often than not.

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