Let’s face it, we love to bitch about all the dramas surrounding F1 but in a way all the controversy, secrecy, double talk and unfounded speculation is what also makes F1 pretty damn fun to follow on those long days when the cars aren’t blasting around the track. It’s like a soap opera on steroids, the platinum blond milfs are played by the kinky kylies and lucious lizzes, team bosses are the JR Ewings, and the drivers are the Forrester brothers (don’t ask how I know all these soap opera references, i’m as stunned as you are 😉 ).
Last year’s silly season was quite a slump in the genre, with no notable driver changes at all basically. The top 10 seats all remained locked down with Red Bull, Ferrari, Mclaren, Mercedes and Renault all maintaining their driver line ups for 2011. Of course Kubica’s accident saw one of the top 10 seats changed, but that was not out of choice but a sad necessity, Heidfeld being handed an unexpected opportunity in his near defunct F1 career. Aside from that Maldonado’s cash ousted the stubborn Hulkenberg at Williams, Perez brought his Tequila money to Sauber, D’Ambrosio tagged along with Boullier’s gravity management to Virgin, and Liuzzi was unceremoniously booted out of Force India for Di Resta while HRT continued its policy of driver revolving doors. Nothing to get truly exited about, no new wonderboys to be announced except for perhaps Di Resta. With Glock the first driver to announce he had signed a race seat for 2012 staying with Virgin, silly season is now officially in full swing. The likes of Alonso and Vettel have already got longer term contracts in the bag, and despite some Canada shenanigans the Mclaren boys look set to stay put for next year.
The 2011 silly season could be just as boring as last year, but all will depend on the decisions of two men in particular, and their teams- : Felipe Massa and Mark Webber. Webber will turn 35 next month, and is thus getting ever closer to the F1 driver’s retirement age – though Rubinho and Schumi will beg to differ on that. The lack of support from his Austrian team with the young wonderboy Vettel firmly entrenched as no1. (if anyone was still blind to this pre Silverstone ’11, all doubts on that should now be cleared up) has raised some doubts on Webber’s future at Red Bull and by extension, in F1. After all, if Webber can’t (or doesn’t want to) secure his seat at the most dominant team, would he really be interested to take a step back and slug it out in the midfield where he spent so much of his career? I doubt it. Webber’s interview on the BBC’s pre race show in Germany was quite hard to read, but one quote springs to mind. He’s a race winning driver in a race winning car, it should be just a question of ‘where do I sign now’, Jake Humphrey asked. Webber’s response was a not so whole hearted yes. However, rumours are surfacing that Webber is to be confirmed at RBR for 2012 in this weekends’ Hungarian GP. Webber also stated he was not in talks with anyone else and while this may be just maneuvering, the only acceptable other option for Webber would be Massa’s Ferrari seat if it would become vacant. This basically leaves all hope for an exiting silly season in the hands of good ‘ol Felipe. Still this is all about predictions so here’s the first one:
Webber will stay at Red Bull
Everything lies in the hands of Ferrari management, as I’m sure Felipe would prefer nothing else but to stay put at Ferrari. Ferrari should be commended for the support they gave him after his freak accident in Hungary but two years down the line the excuses are running dry. Felipe has been adrift at sea compared to his teammate. Granted, it’s no gift to be put up against someone who’s probably the most complete F1 driver of this era, but I seem to remember a certain rookie at Mclaren showing us that it can be done. Felipe badly needs to up his game to bring Ferrari those much needed constructors points and to his credit he has picked up the pace this season compared to last year. Still, I doubt other teams will be standing in line for Felipe as he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, and has consistently finished a few spots behind a brilliant Alonso who has absolutely dominated him in quali. However Ferrari is a team known for loving the driver hierarchy and having their clear number one man. In Maranello the images of Alonso have crowded out any mention of Felipe, and his easy going attitude may well prove himself valuable as a number two for Alonso. It’s sad that another talented Brazilian settles for this unenviable position as Maranello’s whipping boy, but it looks increasingly like Felipe has accepted his fate. So all will depend on Domenicali and Di Montezemelo, and in a degree to Alonso as well. Alonso doesn’t do well when under pressure from within the team, so he might be wary of another top driver to take easy Felipe’s seat. The key question here is this: Does Ferrari continue their sad tradition of no1 and 2 drivers, or will they see the light and realize that to win the constructors you need two -near- equal drivers. Felipe cost them a lot last year, and is already lagging quite far behind Alonso again this year when it comes to points haul. In the modern competitive era, a team just cannot afford to have a complacent and under performing no 2 driver. If Di Montezemelo does go into politics his year- and I believe he will as Berlusconi looks unlikely to survive for much longer as PM with a raft of corruption/sexual scandals combined with the nosedive of the economy – I think the new management will boot out Massa so I’m taking the plunge and predict:
Massa gets booted out of Ferrari
With Massa getting booted out it truly gets exiting: who is to take this top race drive? Nico Rosberg is a candidate and someone deserving of a top drive who may be getting frustrated at Mercedes’ inability to close the gap to the top three. He’s also likely not to be feared as the super quick guy that would rattle Alonso’s cage too much – initially – because I think he does have the skill to do so. But Ferrari has their young driver academy, and it might be time to drop one of their young talents in a scuderia seat. Perez is proving himself to be very talented in the pseudo sister team Sauber as is his teammate Kobayashi, although Kamui has never been part of the Ferrari driver development program. He might be just the right ticket: an easy going and very fast guy that seems oblivious to pressure should be attractive to Ferrari. But Ferrari have another young protegé waiting in the wings: GP2s Jules Bianchi. While a streak of bad luck and dumb driving have seen him taken much fewer points than he should in the feeder series, the man does have the raw speed. As a Frenchman with Italian roots he should be interesting as well on the marketing front. So who do we pick from this rabble? I’m going out on a limb and say:
Rosberg to Ferrari : he’s proven he’s talented, consistent and unfaded by a notorious teammate without being prone to controversy. Rosberg is probably Ferrari’s safest bet if they do boot out Massa.
I believe Schumacher is intent to stay for 2012 as he won’t want to quit without at least a podium in his comeback but with Rosberg to Ferrari that of course opens up a seat at Mercedes. Di Resta has already been linked to this seat in the silly season rumors, and it is no secret he has strong support from Mercedes, with whom he won the DTM championship and who were instrumental in getting him the Force India drive. Despite some rookie mistakes, Di Resta has impressed the paddock with his performance and demeanor this year. However GP2s Briton Sam Bird is also linked to Mercedes, but I doubt he would get that seat from the get go. With Kobayashi missing out on the Ferrari drive, I believe he could be considered for Mercedes. While his native country Japan is unlikely to throw any major sponsorship, the Asian market is increasingly important for Mercedes and on the PR front Kamui could be a good choice. Of all the midfield drivers out there he is also the one who is most deserving of a top drive imo. Therefore I predict:
Kobayashi to Mercedes
This of course opens up his Sauber seat, who’ll retain Perez and I believe it would be an ideal place for Jules Bianchi to get his maiden drive. so:
Bianchi to Sauber
As for Renault, a lot will depend on Kubica. Petrov has a contract for next year and his improved performance combined with the significant sponsorship he brings will have his seat fairly secure. Heidfeld however will have to pray Kubica does not return, as it’s looking increasingly likely he will lose his seat even during the course of this year. He hasn’t been beating Petrov as was expected of him, and has starred in mostly lacklustre driver, bar the podium in Malaysia of course. I believe Kubica will not be back next year (if ever), but Heidfeld will still be booted out. Grosjean is impressing in GP2 and might get a second chance. There’s also Charles Pic who’s proven very fast in GP2 now, but he doesn’t have the connections Grosjean does. He’s a protegé of Boullier and French, so presents a quite attractive package to the team.
Grosjean to Renault
Lets turn our heads to Force India now, Di Resta is obviously the new favorite at the team – despite being thoroughly outscored by Sutil. However Sutil has spent 5 years at the team now and is not showing any signs of greatness, though his drive in Germany may save his career if he can repeat such feats and be strong every weekend. He’s got the whole legal mumbo jumbo to deal with after going gangsta on Eric Lux, a PR nightmare for him and FI. I believe FI have grown tired of him and will look for fresh blood and the obvious candidate is 3rd driver Hulkenberg. While overrated imo, Nico is a class act and did show flashes of true exceptional talent last year (seriously, pole in a crap Williams in tricky conditions is no mean feat). If he gets over his pride and scoops up some sponsorship, I believe he’ll take Sutil’s spot. The sponsorship will be key here, as Sutil brings quite a lot of money to the team with his Medion sponsor.
Hulkenberg to replace Sutil at Force India
With the main team drivers staying put, Toro Rosso drivers Buemi and Alguersuari will be in a fight to the death to secure their positions. Ricciardo getting the HRT drive is a clear signal from RBR they want him in one of their cars asap. Buemi was dominating Jaime, but then the latter picked up the challenge with three consecutive points finishes – though aided a lot by strategy after fumbling Q1 I must add. For a driver development team, Red Bull will be getting impatient after 3 years on the team, and one of them will surely have to make room for Ricciardo. A lot of this will depend on their performance in the second half of the season, but I believe Buemi will come out on top in the end. Nonetheless he will not have sufficiently impressed the team and they will bring in another of their large stable of young drivers: The very impressive Jean Eric Vergne dominated F3 in 2010, and is now proving to be a very quick driver in Formula Renault 3.5, leading the championship and thoroughly beating his teammate Ricciardo who, granted, has had some bad luck this year and had to combine his 3.5 duties with F1 drives on friday, and has now moved full time to F1 for HRT of course. For RBR to have any return from their driver development program, they will be bold and give these two hot shots their chance.
Ricciardo and Vergne to replace Alguersuari and Buemi at Toro Rosso
Moving along, let’s take a look at Team Lotus. Kovalainen is putting in some great drives this season, dragging the car into q2 on 2 occasions already this year and dominating Trulli in qualifying. He also seems to genuinly love driving for the team, so he’s a shoe in to stay on long term helping to build Team Lotus into a true contender. Trulli is a whole other story, constant whining over powersteering, lacklustre performances and his age make me thing Jerno’s in his final F1 season. As to who will replace him there’s a bigger question mark. No matter how likeable the guy is Chandhok is just not a very fast driver, and his spinfest in Germany after his epic failure in Melbourne on the first corner make it unlikely to me he’d get a full time seat there. Tony Fernandes’ GP2 team – Caterham Air Asia has a decent driver with Valsechi – who won at Monaco- but he just doesn’t seem to be THAT good to merit and F1 drive. It would be better for the team to pick up an experienced F1 driver to keep moving forward on development, and to me Adrian Sutil is a good candidate for that seat. He’ll be desperate for a drive and won’t have many other offers, so it’s a match made in heaven.
Sutil to replace Trulli at Team Lotus
It’s sad and indicative of their current form that I almost forgot to discuss Williams. It was a controversial decision to boot out Hulkenberg for Maldonado’s Chavez money, but the man does have raw pace, shown by some stunning quali laps (Monaco and Spain come to mind). He’s beaten Barichello 5 to 6 in quali these last races but his race pace still leaves a lot to be desired. Nonetheless I believe we’ll see the end of Barichello’s long and not so glorious career. He looks down at the team’s shambles, and crucially is not taking the measure of his teammate who wasn’t expected to be too good anyway. In addition his ‘invaluable’ development experience surely isn’t benefiting the Williams car. With the sponsor money sorted out with PVDSA – though with Chavez having cancer even that money is not 100% secure should he die and the regime changes in Venezuela – Williams might want to pick up another experienced F1 driver who’s not at retirement age, and it might prove to be the saving grace for Massa’s F1 career. He’ll be out of a drive and Williams will be his only option left, so he’ll gladly take it. Who knows, getting out of the Maranello politics might even see him get back to his 2008 level.
Massa to replace Barichello at Williams
As said before, Glock has been confirmed at Virgin so that leaves D’Ambrosio’s seat up for grabs. While doing better than his predecessor Di Grassi against Glock, he has been having trouble to keep Liuzzi behind him in the HRT; While he has made little to no rookie mistakes, people may start doubting his raw speed. He got the drive thanks to Boullier’s gravity management, not his sponsorship which is quite underwhelming reported at 5 million Euros – peanuts really. If Virgin find another driver with a bigger budget, they won’t hesitate to replace him, and I fear that’s exactly what will happen. Their recent deal with Mclaren might present an opportunity for Mclaren to slap a young driver in there, but they don’t really seem to have anyone in the pipeline with 3rd driver Paffet getting too old to make an F1 debut. Virgin also have a few young drivers too with Quafe-Hobbes and Robert Wickens but I’m unsure what sponsorship clout they might have therefore I’m just going to predict this:
D’Ambrosio gets booted out of Virgin
HRT, well, they’re HRT, who the hell knows what they will be up to. I sure don’t.
Let’s wrap it up now, and be sure you submit your predictions in the comments and laugh at my outrageous choices!
Red Bull: Webber- Vettel
Ferrari: Alonso – Rosberg
Mclaren: Hamilton – Button
Mercedes: Schumacher – Kobayashi
Renault: Petrov – Grosjean
Force India: Di Resta – Hulkenberg
Sauber: Perez- Bianchi
Toro Rosso: Vergne – Ricciardo
Virgin: Glock – ?
Team Lotus: Kovalainen – Sutil
Williams: Maldonado – Massa
HRT – no frickin idea 😉