2010 who’s looking with both feet forward?

14 10 2009

This is an analysis of the driver market as each team principal could be seeing it.

Ferrari – on the back foot

The team was completely unprepared for the mid-year loss of Felipe. It has certainly cost them a likely third-place in the championship. Replacing Kimi with Fernando is a slightly strange decision on first appearance.

Few would argue that Fernando is not overall the better racing package (Driving, Marketing, and appeal to the Tifosi). Too date Ferrari have had two good drivers, which when you even things up over the past three seasons, are not been too dissimilar in racing talent.

Neither driver appears to demand a number-one status, so Felipe helped Kimi secure his World Championship in 2007, and Kimi returned the favour in 2008 giving Felipe the chance to win in 2008.

The Alonso acquisition is also clearly linked to sponsorship but potentially could backfire on the team by destabilising it (trouble has accompanied his last two seasons). Fernando likes (and may even needs) to be centre and focus of the team.

Felipe is not going to accept playing second fiddle without a fight. In truth, I think Ferrari are not expecting Felipe to be immediately competitive on his return. The team will be by default returning to a single-driver-focussed team like in its glorious immediate post-millennium MS dominated period. Perfect for Fernando, and possible hell for Felipe.

I sincerely hope Felipe returns with even more fight in him to take on and more than occasionally beat Fernando to keep the team honest (I am not entirely optimistic though).

Kimi had a contract with Ferrari which would have taken considerable negotiation and payment to get out of. Read Kimi could and would demand a lot of money. I am speculating that Kimi had a very healthy financial packet (incentive) if he did not drive for another team or decided to try rallying.

The rallying option with Ferrari/Fiat could be really mutually attractive. Firstly, if Felipe fails to get back to competitive driving they could draft Kimi back to pair with Fernando (Kimi could therfore have a back-door to regain an F1 seat). Secondly I think Kimi could promote Fiat in its rally ambitions (a future Finnish World Rally Champion in the making).

That Ferrari could not draft MS back was a huge blow to their strategy in 2009 and I doubt that we will ever see him back in an F1 race seat (I also hope not to see this happen). For next year Ferrari having a returning (and hopefully recovered Felipe) teamed-up with temper-tantrum Fernando so I think will be on the back foot compared to Team McLaren.

Conclusion: Fernando and Felipe are the drivers with a remote chance of seeing Kimi Rallying in a Fiat.

McLaren – on the front foot

Quite obviously the team is built around Lewis. The second driver is very much a supporting role. The team will not want to necessarily repeat the mistakes of 2007 with signing two drivers each wanting number one status.

However, the second driver does need to score points as this has hurt their last two campaigns. McLaren have now almost the best package (competitive at a range of low and high downforce circuits). I think next year they will be immediately and massively competitive from the start.

This year they have run with the imposed extra weight of the KERS, this will have helped them design a car with the extra weight of fuel while still optimising their weight distribution (Ferrari will have the same advantage).

On paper Kimi is a good choice as he has little time for in-team feuds and will certainly be quicker than his Finnish country-man. Delve deeper and its not quite such a easy decision.

Firstly Kimi will demand a very large pay package (I am sure he has a clause with a lower settlement if he drives for another team to compensate for lost income). McLaren may not be in the position (or willing to) fork out so much. Kimi is not the most open with his data and information, and further does not really like all the public relations bit which is central to McLaren’s business plan.

Is Kimi really the right person to join Lewis in the Johnnie Walker driver pact to “never drink and drive”?.

On Kimi’s side there must be doubts, McLaren is a team designed around Lewis who is a naturally talented but error-prone driver. Will Kimi be in a position to beat his team mate? While I think Kimi could join McLaren, I think it is far from such a forgone conclusion that the press thinks.

Supposing McLaren do not take up Kimi what options are there? Of course they could keep Heikki, he is marketable and supportive so he is an option card if other negotiations fail.

There are a lot of drivers without confirmed seats, two of whom statistically have the highest chance of bringing the coveted “number 1” status. I know everyone thinks Jenson is automatically going to win the championship (very good odds on that one being correct) but will he also sign for Brawn next year?

Jenson wants his previous large salary package restored which Brawn appear to be a little reluctant to provide. It has not been discussed but I bet Jenson has had discussions with McLaren. Sure it is unlikely he would go to the Woking factory, but he could still come in cheaper than Kimi and with a more-user friendly profile for the sponsors. Can you imagine Jenson pushing photographers over, or having reporters having to step over you because of a hang-over from last night’s party?

Since McLaren’s relationship with Mercedes appears to be at least slightly strained they could possibly run two Brits in the same team.

McLaren is likely to be a better seat than Brawn whose success this year was based on a considerable development time, past Honda capital investment and a fortuitous engine choice combined with other teams getting it seriously wrong at the start of the season.

We can discount Rubens at McLaren (the blah blah blah story) together with Nico (he is bespoke to Brawn due to Mercedes love affair of the golden boy).

So what is left that could arguably be better than Heikki? As I see it only Timo and Nick. I am going to discount Adrian (perfect pairing with Lewis in terms of driver compatibility) since he makes a mess of too many things from pit-stops to silly racing incidents.

Toyota have managed to un-sell Jarno so that his prospects next year are virtually nil and other drivers like Tonio and the kindergartens are too much of an unknown.

Of course Nick is the perfect second driver, he has had past connections with the team (still holds the Goodwood Festival of Speed record driving a McLaren F1 car in 1999), given a point-scoring car he will deliver consistently without threatening team harmony. For British tastes he is somewhat colourless in terms of marketing but being German he could help repair relations with Mercedes.

I rate Timo as possibly a faster than Nick but a less complete overall package for delivering points to back up Lewis’ championship aspirations. Timo being German has similar value to Nick with respect to appeasing Mercedes but has a slightly more colourful personality.

Conclusion: the most obvious choice is Kimi but delving deeper and doubts emerge about his compatibility. Both Nick and Timo should be considered if the decision not to renew Heikki’s contract is taken. If negotiations fail at the Brawn camp Jenson could be a surprise option.

Red Bull: both feet firmly planted on Terra Firma

We know Red Bull will run Sebastian and Mark. There was some rubbish reporting about Kimi joining the team at the expense of Mark. It became more ridiculous with the suggestion that Mark would move to Toro Rossa. Firstly, next year Toro Rosso’s umbilical cord will be cut and it will be an independent team. Secondly I cannot see Mark agreeing to such an arrangement.

Conclusion: An unchanged Team.

Brawn: Standing on one foot

Since Brawn and Mercedes have decided to hop into bed with each other they are only likely to have one available seat for their current two drivers who will likely fill the top two spots in the drivers championship.

Mercedes desire to have Nico fill the one seat is almost certain. The other seat is reserved for Jenson if he wishes it but on their terms. Brawn still hold the ace card, since this year it could be argued their cars early-season advantage helped both drivers.

If Jenson’s salary demands are higher than Brawn’s pockets, they have a back-up plan of using Rubens. If Brawn cannot pay for Jenson we can probably discount Kimi as an option for the team.

Conclusion: Brawn hold the ace card while Nico and Jenson are clearly obvious choices, Jenson could elect to find a better offer elsewhere and Rubens is plan B. They have no need to consider other drivers.

Toyota: no shoes for their feet?

Toyota has no options on either of its drivers. This clearly means they need to provide the parent company a very clear and fresh plan to be considered for funding next year.

Joe Saward says of Jarno that over one lap he is the bench-mark for maximum speed, but his consistency and race pace are concerns. While they were unsuccessful in their pursuit of Robert they remain hopeful for Kimi. I am not sure on what planet they live on?

Kimi is not a complete enough a driver to go to Toyota and build the team up for success like MS did at Ferrari. I am sure Toyota would pick-up the tabs for Kimi’s salary and fill the second seat with a Japanese hopeful.

Clearly Kimi and Robert were not the only options on Toyota’s shopping list. Although not stated I am sure both Brawn Drivers have had discussions. It is very likely that either one could bring the coveted number 1 status to the team.

One of the two Brawn drivers is also without a seat and at least one Brawn driver wants more financial benefit that the team may wish to pay for. Jenson would clearly be an attractive choice were his salary demands not met at Brawn. Rubens is really only attractive in the unlikely event of him winning the World Championship together with him being dumped by his team.

Conclusion: Toyota is the second most unlikely team to not reach the grid next year (after Sauber). They need a star driver (Kimi, Jenson or a “Number 1”) backed with probably a Japanese driver to sell themselves to the parent company. They will probably test Kamu in both remaining races as the second part of their strategy and Timo having a fractured vertebra.

Renault: At least one foot in one shoe

Although doubts over Renault’s participation have been now been resolved. Crashgate had the effect of making the team somewhat unsellable and in order to save face the parent company could not withdraw from F1 immediately.

With Robert confirming his seat in the team for at least one year they are in no hurry to fill the remaining seat. On the track Romain Grosjean has been similarly slow and crash-prone to Nelsinho who he replaced. Add the Briatore connection and his chances are nil for next year.

Were I Bob Bell I would bring Lucas di Grassi in for the final two races. Renault needs a complete new strategy (Bob Bell has said as much). I doubt that they will be winning anything next year, but if they can finish next year’s season with more points than this year (without the Alonso benefit) they will be progressing.

Robert is a young gun without the greatest set-up skills, so the obvious choice would be to draft in an experienced driver. Were I the team principal I would hire Nick before someone else does. It provides the most quantifiable known outcome for securing points.

Although both Timo and Adrian have also been linked to Renault they provide less assurance of scoring points (if not podiums). Something not discussed is Rubens at Renault (very very unlikely since I think he has better offers elsewhere), but just a consideration were he not to find an alternative drive.

Conclusion: Renault, is not going to be a team flush with money, so it needs to consolidate on its good choice of Robert with a more experienced driver to ensure it troubles the score board. Top of list has to be Nick with Timo.

Williams: Needing to find two replacement feet

Its fairly obvious that Nico is off to matrimony with Mercedes and been given a Brawn seat. With no Toyota engine contract, Kazuki is now not a necessary part of the wheeling and dealing. It is widely believed they will pick up Rubens.

I think there are other options. More importantly will Williams break rank and run a KERS car next year? Rubens might also have other options as well (e.g. Jenson wanting too much money so staying at Brawn, Toyota or Renault).

Personally, were I the team principal I would simply select the option that brought the most sponsorship from Rubens, Nick or Timo. Williams was the team that vetoed Sauber joining as 14th team since they wanted Sauber’s long-term sponsor Petronas (who clearly have little faith in the “Lotus” team).

Sam Michael has recently said of Nick “Against Kubica, Nick looks very good. To say that his career is over would be ridiculous”. He also went on to discuss the risks of using a rookie with so little time for testing. Despite this I think Nico Hülkenberg has a very good chance for a race seat. I think it is possible they are also eyeing Sauber’s other driver to accompany getting the sponsorship – just a thought. Nick brought to Williams rather more success with two podiums and a pole position than Mark in the same year.

Conclusion: Williams will probably replace one Nico with another. I will concede Rubens is the most likely, but I think they are still looking at Nick Heidfeld. Rubens is a bit old and and don’t forget Frank Williams was very critical of Ruben’s blah blah blah outburst.

Force India: Will inherit the same feet for their shoes?

Personally I am not expecting much change. Adrian is as good a driver as the team is likely to expect to get. Adrian’s propensity for mistakes and crashes will reduces his marketability elsewhere. I think Force India will honour Tonio’s loyalty to the team as the reserve driver, at least in the short term.

In the longer term they will obviously try and draft in Karun when he is ready, but not just yet. I think it is a team that could really go places next year and I hope they do.

Conclusion: A team unchanged from the end of 2009. Both Adrian and Tonio will know that the moment Karun looks ready their seat will not be safe.

Toro Rosso: Baby steps or the retirement park?

Red Bull’s junior team has rather been a graveyard for young talent (Christian, Scott, Tonio) and some older talent (le Sebastien). Next year is going to be tougher still with their independence from Red Bull.

Possibly now they are free from their sister team they will not need to run two kindergarten drivers. Were I the team boss, I would be filling Jarno Trulli’s email box. He is Italian, experienced and on the right day and on the right lap very fast. You at least have barometer in which to judge your young talent. I would then select which ever young talent came with the most sponsorship – possible Jaime (he is really not that bad!).

Conclusion: Toro Rosso will have new freedoms to explore a new wide world, but they cannot do it with their current naive driving talent. They need an experienced driver matched to a paying driver. Please apply here!

BMW Sauber: Both feet in the air

My team BMW Sauber with it’s now shadowy owners (QADBAK) is unlikely to be on the grid. I cannot see them having the opportunity to develop a car on the off-chance that another team will fail. They certainly cannot offer Nick any assurance of a drive for next year.

Other teams: the patter of tiny feet

The other teams I simply do not know enough. It seems reasonable for USF1 to hire Alex to help develop the car, beyond that I have no idea as they seem to have dropped the idea of recruiting an North America driver – surely JV will not return?.

Campos are rumoured to have Pedro (McLaren’s reserve driver) and Bruno (Senna) under consideration.

Manor racing will probably select Adam Carroll (Ireland’s A1GP driver) and either Anthony Davidson or Christien Klien.

The Malaysian “Lotus” team under the watchful eye of Mike Gascoyne could spring a surprise and hire Jarno.

I have realised that I have not really found poor little Heikki a seat. I would love to see him in another team so lets sow the seeds of wild speculation and say he will join a new outfit.

Conclusion

A lot depends on whether McLaren risk selecting Kimi, which Brawn driver wins the championship and whether Brawn will up their present offers to Jenson for a 2010 seat. I think the confirmations will only occur once the championship is won.

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