As the Formula One circus prepares to leave for the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix next week, talk in the paddock has already turned to 2012, and the top teams are taking moves to protect their strong driver pairings.
Having become the first man to beat Lewis Hamilton as a teammate this season, Jenson Button has committed his future to the McLaren team by signing a four-year deal. Button’s move will not have done much to please Red Bull boss Christian Horner, who has made his admiration for Button even less of a secret than the team’s search to replace the ageing Mark Webber, whose contract runs out at the end of next year. While Red Bull’s new superstar, world champion Sebastian Vettel, has recorded an incredible 11 Grand Prix victories this year, the 35-year-old Australian has failed to win a race, and is likely to retire at the end of his current deal after 12 years in the sport.
Meanwhile, Mercedes announced last week that Nico Rosberg has signed a multi-year extension to his current contract, which was also due to expire at the end of 2012. The 26-year-old, son of 1982 world champion Keke, furthered his already strong reputation last year by beating teammate Michael Schumacher, and has once again put in a number of great performances in 2011. Schumacher is himself mulling over an offer to stay with Mercedes in 2013, by which time the German legend will have turned 44.
Significantly, these announcements mean that two of the drivers Ferrari had considered to partner Fernando Alonso in the future are no longer available. Increasingly, the issue of finding a suitable replacement for Felipe Massa has become a priority for the illustrious prancing horse, particularly in light of Massa’s poor form since his return from a near-fatal accident in August 2009. Ferrari had been courting Robert Kubica for a number of years, and the Pole was seen as the perfect fit to step into a scarlet car given his reputation as one of Formula One’s fastest and hardest-working drivers. Kubica spent much of his junior career racing in Italy, and was even reported last year to have penned an ‘option’ to compete for the sport’s oldest and most successful team in 2013.
However, the match seemingly made in heaven was abruptly and almost tragically cut short in February this year, after a high-speed rallying crash severely injured Kubica. The 26-year-old Renault star was left with significant blood loss, compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, and a partially amputated forearm after smashing into a concrete barrier in a recreational pre-season event, and has missed the entire Formula One season to undergo multiple operations and pursue a gruelling regime to recover movement in his right hand. Initially positive reports on his prospects of a return to racing next year have become more pessimistic recently, and in any case Kubica will be less able to demonstrate his ability to perform as strongly as ever given that testing hours are now severely restricted. The end result is a headache for Ferrari, who appear to have lost, or at least witnessed a massive blow to the prospects of Kubica successfully partnering Alonso after Massa leaves the team.
With Button and Rosberg now off the market, the only remaining driver who has been linked with a move to Ferrari is Sergio Perez, the young Mexican who has impressed the top teams with his debut this year, bringing a solid 14 points to the uncompetitive Sauber team. At 21 however, Perez is too young and inexperienced to handle the pressure of driving for the legendary Italian team, and is unlikely to be offered the coveted seat when Massa moves on in one year’s time.
Ferrari’s dilemma, however, could be a blessing in disguise based on the direction the team has taken with Alonso. The double world champion has always been most comfortable as the lead driver of the team, and to say that he was ill at ease during his infamous partnership with then-rookie Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2007 would be a masterpiece of understatement. If Ferrari were to find a top-level driver to replace Massa, they would be facing the risk of a repeat performance from Alonso, who by the end of 2007 was refusing to speak to Hamilton and team boss Ron Dennis, had been the whistleblower in the famous ‘spygate’ scandal that led to McLaren being fined $100 million and soured the atmosphere in the team to such an extent that Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was able to pip both McLaren drivers to the world championship at the final race of the season, despite being in a slightly weaker car that year. McLaren’s crime, in the eyes of the Spaniard, was refusing his demands of being given ‘number one driver’ status and allowing Hamilton to race him on even terms.
Today Ferrari seem to have taken the lesson of McLaren’s difficult year in 2007 to heart by putting the majority of their support behind Alonso, even asking Massa to concede track position to him on several occasions. Perhaps pitting a solid, but unspectacular or inexperienced driver against Alonso would serve the team better in the long-term- after all, this strategy worked better than Ferrari could have possibly dreamed between 2000 and 2004, a period where Michael Schumacher was able to build the whole team around himself and romp to five consecutive world titles, backed up by the reliable but slower Rubens Barrichello. At a time when Formula One’s traditional powers have been left scratching their heads at the utter domination of Vettel, Ferrari may want to rekindle memories of the irresistible Schumacher period, and offer Alonso all their energy and resources in return for another string of championships.
The respect teams such as Mclaren have gained from letting their drivers compete on level terms is one thing, but dominant victory is quite another. Which would Ferrari President Luca Di Montezemolo prefer to have? There can be no doubts.