Doctorvee writes the F1 blog Vee8, helps moderate the F1 Fanatic Live Blogs and has written many comment for F1 Fanatic. In this guest article he asks whether Ferrari are happy with their current drivers – and who might replace them.
I just can’t get over the way this championship has unfolded.
Maybe I was mollycoddled in my formative F1-viewing years. I started watching Formula 1 in the mid-1990s. In those days, Williams were flawless and untouchable. In 1996 they won the constructors championship by a simply unreal margin of 105 points. Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve won drivers championships in a car which a monkey could have won in.
Then came a driving master class from Mika H?‚?Ůkkinen. All the while a certain Michael Schumacher was setting new standards for F1 drivers to reach. Shortly afterwards came a period of true dominance for the German who won five drivers championships in a row. Even when Schumacher was on the wane, I had the pleasure to watch a new youngster, Fernando Alonso, reach the top of his game.
Compared to that period which lasted just over a decade, this season just seems so amateurish. Each of the drivers battling for the championship (with the possible exception of Robert Kubica, who isn’t really in contention anyway) almost seems dead set on throwing it away.
Well, that is perhaps a bit harsh, but the point is that whoever wins the championship this year probably can’t look back on their season and feel that they maximised their potential. The leader currently has 70 points, which isn’t a great deal of points for this stage of the season.
Felipe Massa – a surprise contender
Lewis Hamilton is probably the one person who can feel most proud about his performance. He did have an awful moment in Canada which will in many ways overshadow this year. But apart from his normal tyre management issues, Hamilton has not disgraced himself at all. He has even thrown in a couple of really stonking performances at Silverstone and Hockenheim.
It is the Ferrari drivers that I really struggle to get a grasp on. It seems pretty clear that the Ferrari is the best car on the grid. Certainly, that has been the case for most of this season. Yet Ferrari’s drivers trail in the championship and the pair take it in turns to hold second place. If Ferrari have the best car on the grid, then it must be that their drivers are seriously letting them down.
Many people are now calling on the red team to throw their weight behind Felipe Massa in the Drivers Championship. This can’t have been what the Scuderia had in mind when they hired the partnership of Massa and Kimi R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen.
I think most people imagined that Ferrari’s plan would be to focus their attention on the Finn as their replacement for Michael Schumacher. After all, Schumacher was effectively nudged out of Ferrari to make way for R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen who was meant to be the next big thing in F1.
Instead, Ferrari find themselves with Felipe Massa spearheading their championship challenge. This surely wasn’t in the script. Although Felipe Massa has had a great deal of mentoring from Michael Schumacher, I doubt Massa was originally intended as a Ferrari number one. When he got the race seat at Ferrari a few years back, many suspected that it was a lot to do with nepotism. Felipe Massa’s manager is Nicolas Todt, son of Jean Todt, who at the time was the team principal at Ferrari.
However, much to the surprise of many, Felipe Massa has become a championship contender. Even though he eventually fell out of the title race in 2007, this was partly due to a bit of bad luck. In 2008 he finds himself expected by the tifosi to take on Hamilton in a two-way fight.
Whatever you think of Massa ?ů‘ťľ‘«£ and I have my own views ?ů‘ťľ‘«£ you have to hand it to him. This erratic Sauber driver has put in some truly Ferrari-grade performances since he joined the squad. His drive in Hungary was astonishing, to name just one.
However, there is no doubt about it that Massa is far from the complete package. A number of spins early in the season raised doubts as to whether he could cope without traction control. He is also known to struggle badly in the wet. He was an embarrassment at Silverstone where he had no fewer than five spins trundling round the back while Hamilton charged to victory by a margin of well over a minute.
What a strange situation for a driver who makes as many errors as this is to be Ferrari’s main title challenger.
Second thoughts about Kimi Raikkonen
So how have Ferrari found themselves in the position where they have to rely on Massa? What has happened to Kimi R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen? After a difficult start to the 2007 season, R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen produced the goods big style by with an almost flawless second half of the year, and was the deserved winner of the drivers championship.
2008 has not been nearly as successful. The Australian Grand Prix set the scene for an erratic season for R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen. The Finn had a couple of strange moments during the Grand Prix where he seemed to completely lose focus. This caused at least two major offs.
Since then we have seen a couple of solid performances from R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen. But mostly we have seen more of those lapses on concentration and a great many instances where he seems to have completely lacked the motivation required to become a World Champion. The sad reality is that now the normal position for R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen to be in is fifth.
There are numerous theories as to why R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen has gone off the boil, but I’m not interested in going into them too deeply just now. The fact is that R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen has, for whatever reason, lost his form. Just one or two years ago R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen was hailed as among the very greatest. Earlier this year an F1 Racing poll ranked R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen as the seventh greatest driver of all time. I suspect if the magazine was to conduct the same poll today R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen would tumble a fair few places.
So who is the real Kimi R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen? Did we get him wrong? Or is he actually a true great? Ferrari must be asking themselves that. They are reported to be paying R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen a salary of $40 million. Massa, meanwhile, is rumoured to be getting paid no more than a quarter of that and is ahead of R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen in the championship ?ů‘ťľ‘«£ and you have to say that he does so on merit. The Brazilian has put in some stellar performances while R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen has simply looked incapable of this year.
A lot of how we should judge R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen will be based upon what Ferrari’s goals were when they signed him. Given his salary and the fact that none other than Herr Schumi was given the heave-ho, you would assume that Ferrari expected R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen to at least take on the team leader role, if not to quite the extent that Schumacher did.
Now, hindsight is 20/20 vision. But it is now beginning to look like Ferrari chose the wrong person to replace Schumacher. At the time I could see clearly why Ferrari chose R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen. I would have chosen R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen. My feeling was simply that he was certainly in the top three drivers in the world, and it was an utter crime that he had never before won the world championship. But let’s not forget some of what we already knew about R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen when he signed for Ferrari.
There are some parallels between R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen and Schumacher. Neither driver has easy relations with the press. And on their day, both can be stunningly fast and exhilarating to watch. But the differences between the two drivers are much greater.
We can’t expect any driver to be completely flawless, but we knew that R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen could be prone to lapses in concentration which sometimes ultimately ended his race. The best example of this is the 2005 European Grand Prix where R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen lost concentration while he was a long way in the lead.
He missed his braking point and locked up heavily. This created a huge flat spot on his tyre. This developed and developed and in the closing laps it was plain that R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen was touch and go as to whether or not he could finish the race. Then on the final lap ?ů‘ťľ‘«£ bang ?ů‘ťľ‘«£ his suspension could take no more and off R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen spun into the barrier.
In addition to his occasional lapses on concentration, R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen had a reputation ?ů‘ťľ‘«£ whether it was justified or not ?ů‘ťľ‘«£ for being a car-breaker. During his years at McLaren he suffered from some major reliability problems. For some reason, these reliability problems did not haunt his team mates to quite the same extent. The theory goes that there is something in R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen’s driving style damages the car.
There is also the fact that R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen likes a drink. You can argue that this is R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen’s private life and what he does in his own time is his own business. And I would accept that. However, Ferrari were used to the disciplined approach of Michael Schumacher who brought intense fitness regimes into fashion in F1 in the mid-1990s. Apart from the odd post-championship bender Schumacher was seldom caught drinking anything stronger than an apple juice. R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen was once alleged to have been found half-naked in someone’s front garden when he was supposed to be testing for McLaren. The difference in attitude and commitment is plain to see.
Given R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen’s woes, it is easy to give more prominence to the negative aspects. As I said, at the time I felt that R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen was the right choice for Ferrari to make. But given that McLaren were known to be losing patience with the driver for his various antics, one wonders if Ferrari were really on the hunt for the next Schumacher or if they were just going through the motions with driver selection.
Fernando Alonso – Schumacher’s true heir?
I am not sure why Fernando Alonso was never pursued by Ferrari in the way that R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen clearly was. Alonso seems to share many more of Schumacher’s traits. He helped bring a team struggling in the midfield into regular championship contention.
Alonso was breaking records left, right and centre as he became the youngest driver to get pole position, the youngest driver to win a race, the youngest driver to become world champion and the youngest driver to become a double world champion.
Okay, these records are to do with his age rather than sheer numbers like Schumacher’s. But it demonstrates that Alonso is truly head and shoulders above his peers, just like Schumacher was. Just like Schumacher, Alonso was exciting as a youngster and in his earliest races put his car in places where it shouldn’t have been.
While Alonso’s successful spell has now dried up somewhat, though this is mainly due to circumstances largely beyond his control.
This year Alonso has often been a joy to watch, driving a car that is by all accounts pretty awful. It is no secret that last year Alonso struggled to fit in at McLaren which has a very different culture to the Renault squad. There was also the fact that he was paired up with the hottest rookie since… well, probably since Alonso himself. Only this rookie happened to have an association with McLaren that already lasted ten years. No wonder Alonso was uncomfortable.
It still amazes me that so many people write off Fernando Alonso. You don’t hear him discussed in the same kind of reverential tones as Mika H?‚?Ůkkinen or even Kimi R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen. Yet, Fernando Alonso is the only driver who can say he beat Michael Schumacher legitimately twice (H?‚?Ůkkinen, remember, won his second WDC when Michael Schumacher was out for a chunk of the year with a broken leg). It seems sensible to me that, if you’re looking for the next Schumacher, you look to the guy who has been most successful against Schumacher.
Yes, this is with the benefit of hindsight. But Ferrari would have been better off signing Fernando Alonso for the 2007 season. It is strongly rumoured that Ferrari will sign or have already signed Fernando Alonso for 2010.
This is not to say that Alonso is flawless to a Schumacher-type extent. Far from it. Alonso’s main weakness is that he can get rattled if he is beaten by his team mate. This isn’t just a reference to Lewis Hamilton. Alonso lost his head once or twice when Giancarlo Fisichella got ahead of him at Renault, most memorably in Canada in 2005.
However, Alonso’s behaviour doesn’t rule him out of a Ferrari seat. In fact, this tendency is perfect for a Schumacher-style scenario, where the entire team can be built around one person and resources are fully focused on helping that person win.
Other drivers for Ferrari
There are two other drivers that Ferrari must surely be keeping their eye on as long term prospects. One is Sebastian Vettel. He too has a couple of similarities to Michael Schumacher. First, he is German. But more importantly, Vettel has awesome pace and several times this season he has put his Toro Rosso car into positions that few other drivers would have been capable of.
The other driver is Robert Kubica. You don’t see this name linked to Ferrari very often, but I think the Italian squad would be mad not to consider him. Kubica has helped pull BMW Sauber up from the midfield and has won a race for them. He has the pace, having shown Nick Heidfeld the way a number of times over the past three years ?ů‘ťľ‘«£ and Heidfeld is no slouch.
There is another element that makes Kubica stand out for me. He clearly has the determination to go the extra step to make himself a race winner. This year Robert Kubica has used an extraordinary diet which helped him lose five kilos in five days. This is a significant factor in his strong form this season.
This wasn’t just a one-off for Kubica. Even at the young age of 14 he took an important step in his career that few others would have had the commitment to pull off. He moved out of Poland, where there was no motor racing structure for him to progress though, and moved to Italy in an attempt to progress through the motor racing ladder. That is the kind of commitment that we came to expect from Schumacher, but few other drivers have ever demonstrated.
So what do you think? Did Ferrari make a mistake by signing R?‚?Ůikk?‚?¬nen? Or was it a correct decision at the time that has simply transpired to be wrong? Which drivers should Ferrari be pursuing? Is it even worth trying to find the next Schumacher?
This is a guest article by Doctorvee If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.