We touched on “silly season” with last week’s Pace Laps but I was keen to expand a little on what might, might not, possibly and probably will happen over the coming months with what will be a volatile driver’s market which will likely result in some significant, and interesting, team changes.
We’ll look at the drivers who are coming free one by one and examine their options. There’s certainly some pretty intriguing possibilities to consider…
Michael Schumacher – The seven times world champ is in the third year of his much vaunted comeback now and is still to register a race win, whereas his younger team mate, Nico Rosberg, has clocked up Mercedes first pole and victory in their new incarnation. As a general rule, Rosberg has looked faster and more accomplished than his 43 year old compatriot but recent signs (particularly his pole position lap at Monaco) indicate that the old master is finally getting to grips with the peculiarities of the Pirelli tyre and overall car set-up. Will he continue into a fourth year? It would be surprising if he signs off without win number 92 to his name. Will Mercedes want to keep him? Well there’s an awful lot of affection and professional respect (not to mention history) between him and team boss Ross Brawn, but this is a brutal sport. The question is, who would replace him and do a better job….which brings us neatly on to….
Nico Hulkenburg/Paul Di Resta – We’ll group the two Force India drivers together as they’re essentially in the same position with regards to the current market. Both Nico and Paul are highly respected young chargers. Without question, both have a great deal of skill, but both are yet to be tested at the sharp end of the grid. Both are also under contract with Force India, but Force India are powered by Mercedes engines, so should Schumacher decide enough is enough, Vijay Mallya, boss of Force India, would be unlikely to stand in their way. Which driver would they go for? Well Mercedes is keen to maintain the sense of a German national team, so most likely they’d pluck Nico Hulkenburg out. Another consideration is that Mallya is rumoured to be struggling a little financially, plus Force India have a long-standing technical relationship with McLaren….who could come calling for Di Resta should our next man decide to part ways with the Woking based team….and that, of course, is…..
Lewis Hamilton – Oh Lewis, Lewis, Lewis. Herein lies the fulcrum of everything that’s likely to happen in terms of driver changes. Remember, Hamilton has been supported by McLaren throughout his career so there is a HUGE amount of history there. However, despite an upturn in his personal life and general wellbeing, there’s the definite sense of a man not at complete peace with his team right now. Hamilton has always considered himself as somebody that could, and should, become a legend in the sport. A multiple title winner. His frustration at watching Sebastien Vettel smash record after record is palpable, particularly as he only rates Fernando Alonso as an equal. When asked if Jenson Button’s achievements at McLaren had made him change his mind on that, he unequivocally said “no”. When asked about Vettel and his back to back titles, the response was the same. He genuinely believes only Alonso can hold a candle to his talent. Arrogant? Perhaps, but then as a top line driver, that’s a quality you need. Correct? Well, not a million miles off the mark. Hamilton is a driver who, if his head is right, is as quick if not quicker than any other currently around. He’s unfortunate that we currently have such a stellar crop of pilots – in another era, he’d be a multiple champion already, and he knows it.
The fact is, he’s asked his management team, XIX Management, the celebrity business headed up by music mogul, Simon Fuller, to find him the best deal, and to tout his services around the other teams. So what are his options? Well any team would love someone of Hamilton’s talent in their family, if not so much his price tag (likely to be upwards of $35m per season). Mercedes would likely be interested, despite his nationality, and Hamilton would fancy his chances of making an impact against Rosberg. Would it be a team more likely to win championships than McLaren though? McLaren of course would like to re-sign him and continue what looks like the strongest driver pairing on the grid. Despite what some readers of the column might say, the idea of him going to Ferrari isn’t as unlikely as it might seem on the surface. The boys and girls from Maranello have long been admirers, and his aggressive driving style appeals to the team. The issue here is of course the Alonso question. The Spaniard spent a torrid year at McLaren, where the then rookie Hamilton gave him all sorts of problems and on many occasions, to the surprise of seasoned observers, showed Alonso his exhaust pipes. However Alonso’s problem was never actually with Hamilton, it was always with Ron Dennis so the idea of the two pairing up again isn’t as alien as at first it might seem. Certainly Ferrari would love that, but would Hamilton take the risk against the only man he respects on the grid, who is well settled at Ferrari and has much of the team build around him? Unlikely. Which leaves us with Red Bull…..this seems the most likely scenario should our next driver go…..
Mark Webber – the veteran Aussie’s contract comes up at the end of the season and most people think that it will spell the end of his time at the recently dominant Red Bull team. Webber would seem to have a few options then – retirement is one of them, though the noises from the Webber camp would indicate that he isn’t quite ready to do that. The second one is to move series, perhaps to try his hand in the US and IndyCar. However the third, and most likely scenario, is that he’ll move (and as he’s proved, he plays the perfect number two) and partner Alonso at Ferrari. Which would of course spell the end of……
Felipe Massa – the popular Brazilian, since his near fatal accident where a loose spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Honda hit him square on the helmet at 180mph, hasn’t really cut the mustard as a front line driver. Despite performing well at Monaco, he has been shown the way regularly by Fernando Alonso and that’s just not good enough for a team with the history and expectations of Ferrari. Expect to see Massa leave the team at the end of the season. Where to? Well if the driver market moves as above, possibly Force India. The more likely scenario though would be Indy.
There are of course any number of other players that could come into this – nobody would be surprised to see Sergio Perez behind the wheel of a Ferrari next season and there will likely be a number of moves amongst the “minor” teams. However, were I a betting man, I think the key players might just line up as follows next season –
Mercedes – Nico Rosberg, Nico Hulkenburg
Red Bull – Sebastien Vettel, Lewis Hamilton
McLaren – Jenson Button, Paul Di Resta
Ferrari – Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber
Either way, it will be fascinating to see how it all pans out.
In other news, F1 is coming to North America this weekend with the Canadian Grand Prix – no excuses around time differences for you not to tune in on Sunday. I hope to have you with me watching what should be a cracker.
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