The season is now well underway, the cars have been shaken down, early reliability niggles have largely been sorted and a quarter of the points have been handed out. While still relatively early in the season, we have gotten to the point where we can distinguish a form pattern for the drivers, and this is exactly what this post will dive into. With silly season already in full swing speculating about next year’s driver line-ups, today we take a look at drivers that may very well be in the final season of their respective careers.
First up in this segment are the obvious choices by virtue of their age: old chums Rubens Barichello (39) and Michael Schumacher (42). Both have had disappointing starts to their seasons, and both are right to put some blame for their bad performances on the (lack of) competitiveness of their cars. While the Mercedes is still one of the better cars on the grid, Williams’ season opening was an absolute disaster. Let’s first take a look at Rubinho.
1. Rubens Barichello
In his second season with Williams, we were expecting a big improvement from the team in 2011, the agressive design and the positive preseason tests made us hope for a turn in fortune for this iconic and hugely succesful F1 team. Yet come the first races the car turned out to be a disaster, not only struggling with reliability but more importantly struggling with pace. The bad season opener was not only down to the car though, it was also helped along by both drivers making silly mistakes. Rubens botched quali in Oz by beaching it in the gravel, then as he was showing good pace during the race slammed into Rosberg, earning him a penalty before retire with reliability issues. Maldonado’s much too frequent visits to the barriers has also definately not helped the fledgling Williams team. At first it looked like Maldonado was so hopeless Rubens would again need to hold up the team (as many forget he did last year with an inconsistent Hulkenberg as a teammate) but in Barcelona Maldonado showed flashes of his talent – and showed that the car does have potential on this very demanding track- by getting into Q3, then repeating this feat with a brilliant qualifying session and race (though it ended prematurely) in Monaco where the best drivers always shine. All the while Rubens was lingering anonymously in the chasing midfield pack. With Maldonado coming to life, should Rubens start getting worried for his career if this rookie – which many do not consider hugely talented though he may yet prove us wrong ofc – starts beating him regularly?
Disregarding off track performance for a while, another big reason why drivers like Barichello stay in F1 for so long is for their invaluable experience in helping the engineers design and develop the car. So Rubens was intimately involved with the development of the 2011 FW33, yet it turned that Williams did not take that step up the grid most people were expecting. Of course it would be unfair to put all the blame for the disappointing FW33 on Rubens alone, yet it cannot be denied he is an important factor. Come to think of it, when has Rubens proved himself to be good at developing a car? During the Ferrari years one can safely assume it was Schumacher who Ferrari listened to, not Rubens. Then during his years in the desert with Honda the team produced lemon after lemon with Rubens (and Jenson) in the team. Should we -finally- start doubting Rubens usefulness when it comes to developing a car with the engineers? Is the role of drivers overplayed when it comes to car development? Either way, it is one less reason for teams to hire a 39 year old when it’s unsure whether his experience will actually have much of an impact on the succes of their car design and development. Add to this that Rubens himself is clearly not happy with what’s going on in the team and has criticised the decision to sack the technical director Sam Michael, I do wonder whether we will see Rubens on the grid next year.
If Rubens does decide he wants another year in F1, his saving grace might be Williams’ current woes. Maldonado, while definately showing improvement over the past two races is highly unlikely to be able to lead the team next year. No other experienced drivers will be standing in line to take a seat in a car that has been less than competitive over previous years; and with Maldonado in mind the team do need an experienced driver alongside him. Lastly, I doubt many other teams will be interested in hiring Barichello so he has nowhere to go. Let’s face it, Rubens doesn’t have the allure and PR pull of a 7 time World Champion making a comeback so he’ll have to find a seat on merit, and that may prove to be very hard if he does not start putting in some good performances this year. Granted, he scored his first points in Monaco, but only did so at the expense of his teammate’s crash.
2. Michael Schumacher
I have never been a big Schumacher fan, in fact I even lost some interest in F1 during his glory days (although indulging college life may have also been a factor there), but it is without question that he is the most successful F1 driver of all time. While there were things that helped him along the way (Benneton cheating, crashing into Hill, Ferrari’s dominance, FIA help, Rubinho as a loyal waterboy, less competitive grid than nowadays) his immense talent is undeniable. Much was expected of his comeback with the Silver Arrows, yet Schumacher has failed to deliver. With Rosberg he is teamed up with one of the most talented yet underrated drivers on the grid, and Nico has absolutely spanked Schumi since his comeback. We have seen flashes of the former brilliance, but also flashes of the old arrogance and questionable and/or outright dangerous on track moves. Despite my less than favorable opinion of him before his comeback, with Schumacher struggling so badly I really do wish to see him do better and take the fight to Rosberg. We are in year two of the comeback, and the excuses are starting to run very thin. Last year it was to be expected that he would need some time to get back into the groove, yet he never really did get into a positive spiral. The main reason was said to be his problems with the tires. Schumacher likes an overteery car with a strong front end and the Bridgestones were just not giving that so there probably was some merit to this explanation. However this year’s pirelli’s are much better suited to Schumacher’s driving style in this respect yet he has again failed to deliver.
He has been comprehensively outqualified by Rosberg except in Monaco where we should probably give Rosberg some credit for having set that time mere hours after a spectacular shunt. Michael did look very racey and kept it very clean during the Monaco race, and it was sad to see him retire with mechanical issues as he was having quite a good race until that point. To his credit he stayed ahead of Rosberg in Spain but was clearly holding him up and Mercedes would have probably been better off to let Rosberg through. Schumacher has a contract with Mercedes until the end of the 2012 season and all parties remain adamant that he will fulfill this contract. It is unlikely that Mercedes would kick Schumacher out as he still provides a perfect marketing tool for the German manufacturer and firing him would probably not go down well for them. There are some hungry youngsters being lined up at Mercedes, most notably the impressive rookie Di Resta, and they might be getting impatient to see the seat taken up by an underperforming 42 year old. Mercedes may need to move faster than they would like to retain the loyalty of these drivers if they get a sniff of good drives elsewhere.
Still it is quite clear to me that Schumacher will only retire after 2011 if he himself decides to do so, and one must start to wonder whether he would still be up for yet another season struggling at the top of the midfield in the 4th-5th best car. It will be a matter of whether Mercedes can provide him with a winning car, whether he can challenge and beat Rosberg consistently, and whether he will still be convinced personally that he can still compete at his age. Time will tell, but if Schumacher has another lacklustre season and the Mercedes doesn’t catch the competition, I would see him retiring at the end of the year. David Coulthard summed it up nicely when discussing how he came to a decision to end his career in 2008 at the BBC post race forum in Turkey. In an open hearted moment, he admitted he no longer enjoyed the races like he had before, and that he no longer performed as he thought he should be so he made the decision to retire. Of course Schumacher is a different person, and the whole ‘loss of big joy’ comment in Turkey was way overblown by the media, but somewhere inside the great old man the feelings DC described must be lingering as well. We’ll have to wait and see how he deals with them.
Stay tuned for the next installment in this segment where I’ll take a look at Mark Webber and Felipe Massa.