Wednesday, September 17, 2008

It's time for this year's F1 'silly season' to begin...


Although driver changes for the next season in F1 can happen at anytime of the year - a case in point would be Red Bull Racing's announcement mid-July of this year that Sebastian Vettel of Toro Rosso will be taking over David Coulthard's seat in the 'senior team' when he steps down from F1 at the end of this season - late August and early September has somewhat been the traditional time of the year when teams and drivers start thinking seriously about the future, about who's going where, what teams are making a play for which driver, you know what I mean.

So when Ferrari announced
over the Italian GP weekend that Kimi Räikkönen's contract has been extended by one year, thus keeping him with the team until the 2010 season, it was really par for the course.

So again,
who's going where? What teams are making a play for which driver? Whose going to be making an obscene amount of money next year?

Ferrari
Since Felipe Massa still has a live contract with Ferrari until 2010, the team only had to take care of Kimi's contract. And as mentioned, they've already done that, ensuring that they'll have this year's line-up with them for two more seasons.

But then again, what was somewhat surprising was that they extended Räikkönen's contract for another year - when he still has a live one in place until next year - when his performance this season has been insipid, particularly when you take note of the fact that he's set the fastest lap in nine GPs this season but has only won one of those said races (Spanish GP), leaving many, including this Typical Guy, scratching their heads in wonderment. After all, why keep a superb driver who's been lackadaisical for most of the season? They could've just waited to offer the extension next year to see if it's really worth extending. And who's to say his performance next season won't be different from this season's? You're not getting your money's worth that way, particularly if he's the second-highest paid driver in F1 right now, at least according to some reports.

"Am I really worth that much?"

McLaren-Mercedes
Next year also finds McLaren fielding the same driver line-up as this year. And thanks to Lewis Hamilton's impressive rookie performance last season, the team was more than eager to extend his contract for five more years last January even before the season started, keeping him in their fold until 2012. As for Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren announced in late July during the lead-up to the Hungarian GP weekend that he'd be continuing on as Hamilton's teammate for next season, spoiling the plans of many GP2 drivers who were looking to follow in Hamilton's footsteps by joining one of F1's top teams in their rookie year.

BMW Sauber
Although the team hasn't made an official announcement on who would be driving for them next season, reports have it that sometime late August, Robert Kubica signed a one-year extension to his contract, effectively keeping him with the team for next season. But that goes against what team principal, Mario Theissen, said during the Valencia GP weekend that he'd prefer long-term contracts with his drivers when rumors of two-time world champion,
Fernando Alonso, joining the team supposedly for just next season surfaced.

Theissen also mentioned that next season's line-up will only be confirmed between late August and the end of the season, although he has said, in not so many words, that the team is willing to wait for Alonso to make up his mind. But what's really telling is his quote that BMW Sauber is the strongest team right now that, "has an open seat for next year," leaving Nick Heidfeld's fate unknown at this point.

"Scheisse!"

Toyota
Jarno Trulli signed a three-year extension with Toyota in 2006 which means next season will be his last with his current contract so his race seat is guaranteed for next year at least. The same goes for Timo Glock who, like Trulli, already has a contract in place for next year with a possible option for 2010. Good move on Toyota's part, really, since there's no use undermining what has so far been their most successful season to date by going with a different driver or two for next season who're unfamiliar with the team and the cars. Like the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Renault
Rumor was, prior to the extension of Kimi's contract with Ferrari, Fernando Alonso was being linked to Kimi's seat and that he'd be occupying it as early as next season if the rumors of Kimi wanting to retire at the end of this season did prove to be true. And since we already know what happened with Kimi's contract with Ferrari, what's next for Alonso then?

Well, the details of his contract with Renault has been kept classified to date but if one of the reports mentioned earlier is true, then Alonso could still be with the team next season since part of his PR spin always has him saying that Renault will always be his first option. But then again, seeing how uncompetitive Reanult's R27 was in racing trim during his one-year stint with McLaren, it's quite likely that before he signed with Renault, Alonso would've negotiated a performance clause in his contract that would allow him to jump ship if the team - and this season's R28 - didn't produce the results he wanted.

"What makes you think I'm not happy with Renault anymore?"

Also, Honda and BMW Sauber have been very forthcoming about their desire to acquire his services, although both would like to have him for a long-term contract as opposed to a similar short-term, wait-and-see-and-get-the-hell-out-if-I-don't-like-it-here-anymore contract that he might have right now with Renault. If the performance clause does exist, the smart move would be with BMW Sauber since they've been the most competitive team thus far outside of Ferrari and McLaren.

But can Alonso handle a fast and competitive teammate like Kubica? Although Kubica has said he sees no problem having the two-time former world champion as his teammate, Alonso might not see it that way given his problem with an equally fast and competitive Hamilton in McLaren last season. If Kubica starts beating him in the time sheets, Alonso just might start throwing his toys out of the pram again and demand that he be designated the team's #1 driver. And when that time comes, Kubica certainly won't take that lying down, given how often Kubica and Heidfeld have fought over positions in so many races.

As for Nelson Piquet Jr., his performance has been marginal this season, with his second place finish in the German GP coming out of sheer luck, thanks to the timing of his one-stop strategy that had him come in just before Timo Glock's crash which had most of the cars clogging the pit for their own stops afterwards. After that, it's been the same ol' underperforming Nelsinho so the jury's still out on him.

Toro Rosso
With Vettel already confirmed to take Coulthard's place in Red Bull next season, the fate of Sebastien Bourdais is still up in the air. After his points scoring seventh place finish in the Australian GP, he's has been thoroughly out-raced, if not out-classed, by a teammate who's eight years his junior and who was still in an F1 feeder series while he (Bourdais) was wrapping up the first of his four consecutive Champ Car titles.
Yes, you read that right. Four CONSECUTIVE Champ Car titles. That's three more than what Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya ever brought home from Champ Car racing.

So in his next points scoring finish at the Belgian GP, the end of the race saw him in tears, a clear sign of a man who's been under immense pressure to produce after so many races wrought with frustration. Understandable, really, for a four-time Champ Car champion who has also raced in Le Mans and other touring car series.

The way I see it, Bourdais has to stay for at least one season more. His performance later on in the season shows he really has what it takes to go at it with the rest of the field. After all, you can't expect a series champion to jump into a mid-level team in another series and immediately expect him to hammer out a couple of wins. If his car didn't stall on the grid in the Italian GP just when he was sitting in P4, we just might have seen a Toro Rosso 1-2 finish since he did set the second fastest lap in the race behind - you guessed it - Kimi
Räikkönen.


Red Bull
If I hadn't mentioned it enough already, I'll say it again - F1's newest wunderkind, Sebastian Vettel will be driving for Red Bull next year because, after 15 years of F1 racing and after coming thisclose to the championship a handful of times, David Coulthard - the man with the square jaw, literally - will be hanging up his fire retardant nomex jumpsuit for good at the end of the season. That leaves Mark Webber as Vettel's partner for next season since his current contract was extended up to next year last July.

WilliamsF1
Frank Williams should be thanking Keke Rosberg for his paternal influence on his son, since the ex-champion's history with the team probably made a difference with Nico Rosberg deciding to extend his contract with the team in late 2007, keeping him with Williams until 2009. After all, he could have just let the contract run its course until the end of the year and then make the switch to McLaren who were said to be interested in him as Alonso's replacement.

As for Kazuki Nakajima, his history with Toyota just might save his race seat with the team. After all, it's in the team's best interest to keep their engine supplier happy, and that's by having a driver from Toyota's Young Drivers Program stay with the team. There's also the fact that both Rosberg and Nakajima have almost split Williams' constructors' points equally between them, with Rosberg ahead only by a solitary point, and that should be enough to convince Sir Frank to retain Nakajima's services for at least one more season.

Honda
Ross Brawn's said in mid-July that he'd like to concentrate on next year's car since he believes the current line-up of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello can produce points if they've got the right machinery with them. Still, the fact remains that, for a manufacturer-backed team, to be the second lowest team in points ahead of perennial back markers, Force India, and to have gone from bad to worse while your rival Japanese brand, Toyota, is up at fourth place in the constructors standing must leave a sour taste in their mouth.

Button has been coy about his 2009 race seat while Barrichello has not been shy about telling everyone that he wishes to remain with Honda after his contract expires at the end of the season. With Brawn's history with Barrichello, and with all the teams being roughly on equal footing next season with the implementation of more new rules like the new aerodynamic changes and the introduction of energy recovery systems, Honda will probably keep their line-up intact at least for another season.

Force India
Early August, team owner Vijay Mallya made known his intentions to keep this season's line-up of Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil intact for next season. At around that time, both drivers also made known that they already have a contract with the team for next season so we'll probably see them both at the back of the grid for one season more.

Still, for a team that proudly carries the name of the team owner's country plus the fact that Mallya has made it clear that he'd like to see a Indian driver in his team soon, their seats for next year just might not be secure at all, and that should probably keep them on their toes on the off-season once this season wraps up.


And there you have it. Much like last season, everyone's waiting for Fernando Alonso to make his move. And once that happens, almost everything else will fall in place quickly after that. If Alonso can get out of his contract with Renault, and if he can get a two-year contract with BMW Sauber, then he should go for it. After that, both seats in Ferrari would presumably be available, giving him the chance to jump into the race seat he's long been linked to.

At least with Ferrari - a team that has no problem with giving one of their driver the #1 status - he can get it from them easily. But can Ferrari accept a driver who would squeal to the FIA their dirty laundry if he doesn't get what he wants from the team? Hmmm...

Well, I think I'm thinking way too far ahead already so let's just leave it at that, shall we?

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