McLaren, not Red Bull, on the horns of a dilema?

10 11 2009

The driver market this time is not being held up by Fernando. It is Mr Iceman himself that is the cause this season after being kicked out of Ferrari one year earlier on his contract. I will come back to that.

What do McLaren need from their driver next year?

Although a large number of F1 fans would love to see Kimi race alongside Lewis, the team’s primary interests are the winning of championships and getting of sponsorships. Despite McLaren for a number of years being either the best or second best outfit, their trophy shelf of championships is rather meager compared to the red team. Their last constructor’s championship was won in 1998 and since then they have won only two drivers championships (1999 and 2008) in contrast to the red team who has lost count of the number of championships it has won. In 2007 McLaren had potentially the strongest driver pairing this century but it went terribly wrong and the team endured a punishment of almost biblical proportions.

With Lewis do McLaren have the best current F1 driver?

In Lewis McLaren have a star. In his three seasons he has delivered to the team 256 points and 11 victories which represents some 4.75 points per race. This is particularly surprising since Lewis, is a) still fairly new to F1 and b) still makes a significant number of unforced errors. In other words, with fewer mistakes that usually comes with more experience (excepting DC and Mark Webber), Lewis is set to become stronger still.

McLaren would be moronic to upset Lewis given his success, he has been their prodigy and has mostly produced the goods. While I can (and do) criticise some of his on track performance, he is clearly reponsive to his fans. His commitment to the team also cannot not be faulted.

This year was not a good one for the team as they struggled on track during the opening rounds, and the team got compromised with respect to its sporting honesty.

However, the under-performance of the McLaren MP4-24 has been greatly exaggerated. Lewis has also exploited this to somewhat over-emphasise his driving skills. All teams this season have shown significant highs and lows depending on the track, its configuration of fast and slow corners and ambient temperatures.

The McLaren MP4-24 under Lewis’ guidance was still the best at a number of circuits this year (Monaco, Hungary, Singapore and Abu Dhabi). Only four races into the season Lewis was still able to secure fifth grid position and fourth race position. Sure Silverston was a track the MP4-24 really did not like. Nevertheless in the last eight races Lewis got half of the poles and one-quarter of the victories.

In statistical terms Lewis/Macca is the best combo for the second half of the 2009 season. McLaren could have scored so many more points and Lewis could have run DeSeb close for bridesmaid honours were it not mistakes on both team and driver. Examples include the team losing 5 points in Australia (Liegate), an almost certain victory at Monaco (Lewis made a big mistake in qualifying), an almost certain fourth at Monza (5 more lost points) and of course the mechanical problems at Abu Dhabi which probably cost a victory.

For 2010, McLaren and Lewis must be the favourites at least for World Drivers Championship. What do they need to make it a double championship like back in 1998? The simply answer is a points winning-machine backing Lewis with his drive to the championship. Available to McLaren are, in terms of points per race, the third and fifth highest scoring drivers over the last three seasons (Kimi 4.28 and Nick 2.70).

It is very difficult to actually compare Kimi driving a Ferrari with Nick driving a BMW Sauber as clearly they are not the same car or have equal potential performance. Due to the dissimilarity between cars the only way is to compare each driver to their team mate for the same races that they have competed in. There is an assumption that as team mates they get equal treatment, which in the case of Ferrari and BMW Saubers seems to be a reasonable assumption if taken over a sufficient length of time. Given that Kimi is significantly higher paid you could argue that he at least started of as the clear number one driver.

Kimi versus Fellipe

To Kimi’s credit he won the World Driver’s Championship in 2007. However, it should not go unnoticed, that his win in the first race was with an illegal car and his last win of the season was gifted to him by his team mate so he could secure the championship. If we compare all the races they have been team mates over the last three years, on average Kimi has returned 4.20 points per race compared to Felipe with 4.85 points per race (which is rather surprisingly more than Lewis). In other words Kimi has score only 85% of the points his team mate has scored. In terms of victories Felipe has returned one more during the same period that they have both competed (9 vs 8 wins).

Nick versus Robert

Robert has a GP victory to his credit (and a pole position) and the only ones scored by the team during the last three year period (or ever). The victory was partly a product of race strategy, as Nick was leading Robert while heavy with fuel and yielded position to ensure the team got their well-deserved victory. During most of 2008 Robert was the better driver, however, during 2007 and 2009 Nick has been clearly the better driver with respect to the score board and despite some terrible luck at the end of 2009 year. In terms of points per race that both drivers have competed in, Nick has returned 2.75 points per race as opposed to Robert with a return of 1.9 points per race. In other words Robert has scored only 69% of the points his team mate has scored.

What Kimi wants and can offer the team

If rumours be true Kimi has had a pay-out from Ferrari of $25.5 million if he does not drive for another team and $15 million if he does drive for another team. Consequently Kimi not driving is earning as much as any other driver competing next year and a fair bit more than the world champion will be getting. It is also rumoured that McLaren have offered Kimi some $7.5 million. Salary demands are not the only agendas that Kimi is making. He is apparently insistent on being available for rather few PR events (12 during the year according to one source) and the right to compete in rallies when not competing in F1. Add to this Kimi’s displays of intolerance when out of the driving seat (e.g. like pushing over the well respected veteran press photographer Paul-Henri Cahier) and a reputation for heavy drinking, it is difficult to see how this image fits with the somewhat sanitized McLaren corporate profile.

Consequently in a team you have driver who will be earning more than the star of the team, doing less for their money in terms of media events and wants dispensation to compete in other sporting events. Personally I think to accept this is a recipe for discontent and to produce a repeat of the Lewis-Fernando relationship that the team paid so dearly for.

What Nick wants and can offer the team

I have absolutely no idea what Nick would want to put on the table as contract conditions. He is the only driver, who is on record to have said that in the weakening global economy F1 drivers should expected to be treated no differently to the rest of the industry. In other words, drivers can and should expect rather less income. I am fairly sure Nick could be signed on under much the same conditions that Heikki was employed on.

Nick is the most error-free driver currently on the race track and probably in the history of the sport (who can/will have 41 consecutive finishes?). Williams F1’s last pole position was gained by Nick and during 2008 he gained two fastest laps of the race. He is obviously not as slow as the press will lead you to believe. Nick is also known to be very good at car development and McLaren could be losing the services of Pedro de la Roso, so experience may come in handy. Nick also seems incredibly professional in a somewhat low-key fashion (even his partner Patricia Papen does not really have the model good looks that most F1 drivers aspire to). Possibly Nick simply comes over as too normal and just like the guy next door to be an F1 driver.

Who should it be for 2010?

The only way to make comparisons is to standardise driver performance. This is actually quite difficult and the best measure is how they related to their team mate. Kimi has under-performed compared to his team mate by 15%.

While Kimi has returned more fastest laps during the race than any other driver during the last three seasons, this rather suggests that he is inconsistent but does indeed have the equipment to win. In addition Kimi has put a significant number of demands which suggest that he should be given preferential treatment over McLaren’s current number one driver.

Finally Kimi has been pushed out of the Ferrari home. It seems they did not want him to such an extent that they were prepared to pay him his full contract to not drive in 2010. Can Fernando really be that good, or was it a chance to rid themselves of an uncommitted and under-performing driver?

The alternative choice is Nick, a driver who rarely makes mistakes and if given the equipment (and possibly some Jenson good fortunate) could shine the way the Brawn and Red Bull drivers did this year. Nick’s apparently quiet public appearance seems to ensure that he is most usually forgotten as an F1 driver.

Least we should forget when Nick and Kimi were team mates Nick scored 33% more points than Kimi. Nor should we forget that when Kimi was in the one of the fastest cars on the grid (McLaren) and Nick in one of the slowest (Jordan) a third of the way into the 2004 season Nick still had more points than Kimi.

For 2002 McLaren signed Kimi rather than Nick, despite having scored fewer points. Ironically Nick had been associated with McLaren and their then sponsors (West) for a number of years and so was easily assessed in terms of talent. Further in 1999 he was the McLaren test driver.

McLaren defended their decision by saying that Kimi had more room for improvement than Nick. Is there evidence that Kimi has more room for improvement and is more hungry for wins and committment to the team in 2010 than Nick? What Kimi wants in his contract suggests less commitment that you might reasonably expect given his salary demands. Is it coincidence that Kimi has put his house up for sale in Finland for $21.5 million and that he may have grown accustomed to a very lavish life style that second highest paid sportsperson gets in the world?

Have a look at this video of Nick driving the 1999 McLaren F1 car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and I think you will agree there is commitment and speed.

I hope that this time that McLaren give the other driver the chance to see what he can deliver have a look at these overtaking maneuvers.




11 responses

10 11 2009

This is an excellent read Rich, I really enjoyed it, especially the insight into Nick Heidfeld who to me, just disappears into the background.

I reckon that McLaren will eventually go for Kimi but you make a compelling case for why they shouldn’t. Would Nick be any happier with a larger more visible PR workload I don’t know but I certainly get the feeling that he’s much more a team man than Kimi.

Interesting days ahead until McLaren make their mind up.

10 11 2009

Nick is actually great at PR work and has endless patience with photographers. He is more modest than shy – the time I saw him at a shopping center in Germany he was just like any other guy and no discernible attitude. I know Christine though t it was strange he would get emotional during the final laps of Abu Dhabi – it is exactly what I would have expected. McLaren’s need for publicity (which I understand) will probably sway their decision to Kimi. I think if they did hire Nick they (and Lewis) will be surprised at just how quick he is. There is still no driver who has made the number of double overtakes than Nick has. The video above show just some of them.

11 11 2009
Tweets that mention McLaren, not Red Bull, on the horns of a dilema? « Random reflections on… --

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard Knight, Abu Dhabi F1. Abu Dhabi F1 said: McLaren, not Red Bull, on the horns of a dilema? « Random …: 3 days .. […]

11 11 2009
Lady Snowcat

Sorry but no contest…

Nick is very good but Kimi is special….

There is a reason they passed on Nick before despite having tons of info on him when they made the decision….

And I think Kimi has all the incentive he needs for next year…

The mechanics at Macca still rate him amazingly highly and will deliver what he needs…. where Ferrari just couldn’t…

Better the devil…..

12 11 2009

It is shocking that a driver of the calibre of Nick Heidfeld is without a drive so far next season. He has so many qualities worthy of being in F1 both on and off the track – a lot of which Kimi is lacking.

Look, Kimi is a good driver but I’m not sure he should go to McLaren, as nice as the idea sounds. I am not sure he will be disruptive, but I am not sure he would fit in (why did he leave in the first place?).

I do think there have been a lot of excuses made by the Kimi-apologists over the last few years. The fact is that he doesn’t help himself by his infuriatingly bad attitue sometimes, which is a shame because he could be one of the greats if he gets another chance at a good car.

The final irony is that Ferrari may have dumped a great driver for one who may not be able to return next year!

12 11 2009

Nick is uber-stylish and can carry incredible speed through corners hence his ability to take one car on the outside of a corner then move through to the inside and take the other car. Although I will try and argue that Nick is the best overtaker on the grid – it is highly subjective.

Nick’s smooth style did not generate the heat in the tyres to allow good qualifying and this really harms his qualifying generally and especially in the early part of 2008, in 2009 he seemed to have overcome these difficulties. This impression of poor qualifying is not helped by the fact he usually carried more fuel than Robert (to help gain advantage in the race (one of the reasons he seems to climb during a race) . Robert is much more edgey with more steering effort and could get the tyres to work better sooner. If we are being honest both drivers once they are into their stride are rather evenly matched. Nick’s higher points haul is more his amazing ability to avoid accidents, but even he could not avoid Adrian (who incidentally still says that Nick drove into him at Singapore) or to commit racing errors.

Now we come to Kimi, I do actually think Kimi is special. Nick works incredibly hard on his fitness and in general preparation (as does Jenson and Lewis). Kimi is able to drive really fast without having to prepare himself physically and emotionally to the same extent. Combine the best qualities of Jenson/Nick preparedness with Kimi’s raw natural talent and you would have the best driver ever. Kimi is also a very intelligent driver and he demonstrated this with his awesome use of KERS at race starts.

I do not buy that in 2008 (at least) Ferrari did not give him the car he needed to keep his driver’s championship. The proof of this is he simply had too many fastest laps to his credit to support that hypothesis of Ferrari producing an understeering car for Felipe and Kimi likes an over-steering car etc. This is excuses that Kimi fans produce. Far more likely is Kimi’s lack of sufficient fitness preparedness for him to remain fully alert during the entire race. I know Kimi has a fair complexion – but so does Jenson and Nick -and they never looked as wiped out after a race as Kimi usually does (Jenson’s jog after Monaco was especially impressive). Young Vettel also looks to be in less than optimal condition and to me, it seems , he has put some weight on.

14 11 2009
Pitlane Fanatic » Something for the weekend - I

[…] of new team Manor is content with his choice to ignore the tunnel. This next article from Rich at F1 Centric considers the vacant seat at McLaren for next year and why it might not necessarily go to Kimi […]

15 11 2009
Something for the weekend – I | Formula One News

[…] next article from Rich at F1 Centric considers the vacant seat at McLaren for next year and why it might not necessarily go to Kimi […]

16 11 2009
Seabastien Beaufort

Sorry, I must take issue with you on one point. Lewis didn’t have a certain race victory in Monaco. The Brawns had far better race pace.

That said, you are right on the Heidfeld thing. Much rather him or Glock than Button or Kimi.

16 11 2009

I was basing that Lewis should win on a) his practice times which looked good, b) the track and car suited Lewis, c) Lewis was dominant on similar circuits (Singapore, Abu Dhabi), d) Lewis won the prvious year (I think) and e) Kovy was fairly competative. In Brawn’s favour was their management of their tyres, especially with Jenson’s smooth style and this could have worked against a Hamilton win. Actually fastest lap at Monaco 2009 went to Massa, but the most important consideration is grid position as few are brave enough to do overtaking (I am sure Alonso fans will give lots of reasons to downplay Nick’s Monaco overtake in the above video).

18 11 2009

News last night is that Kimi will not compete in F1 for 2010. However there has been the tantalizing speculation that Jenson is about to sign a sizeable contract. How do I rate Nick against Jenson? Actually quite similar in style but here is the difference. I am under no illusion Nick’s status will be that of a number 2. Jenson will ensure he gets an equal treatment to Lewis since he brings to the team the “number 1 status”. So is it to be a cheap nick or an expensive button?

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