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Movers and Shakers

November 21, 2009
Often when things heat up in the world of Formula 1 and the IRL, a tendency to just sit back, relax and watch what happens sets in as I am very well aware that things move very fast – often too fast to assert any sort of reliable thought or opinion.
On many occasions, a potential will be announced, only for it to be discarded later and to find out that it was just a negotiating ploy; so rather than keep knocking 100 word reports (I tried it once), I decided to wait until everything was done before I launched into an article (or tirade).
There is, naturally, only one place to start – Jenson Button, McLaren and Mercedes – for these three elements factor together to create one truly unusual story. It seems incredibly odd that a driver would choose to jump ship after winning a title with that team, but it would appear on paper, that that is what happened – only four weeks after securing the Formula 1 World Championship, Jenson Button has signed a deal with McLaren; some days after the Mercedes team announced that they had bought Brawn GP.
Now I will be the first to admit that Button is an excellent driver and a deserving World Champion – after not all titles are won in a blaze of glory; you only need to see Alain Prost’s championship years to understand that, but does he really have the raw skill to challenge Lewis Hamilton in a team that the younger driver has bedded in?

Admittedly, I don’t believe for a moment that the McLaren will instantly side with Lewis, but they may do so if Button is not up to speed quickly and that is the factor that may become an uphill battle for the reigning champion. Hamilton’s knowledge and experience with the McLaren group – which goes back long before the start of his F1 career will mean he will have a psychological head start, irregardless of Button’s current World Champion status.
Another issue the team must face is the driving styles of the two drivers is utterly different and this could have a negative impact on how the team approach car design and set-up status. It is well known that while Hamilton favours a car with light rear-end and that Button loves a car that pushes up front and McLaren may find it difficult to find useful dual set-ups at certain tracks next season.

However, Button can at least lay claim to the fact that he has a drive for 2010 season; something that Kimi Raikkonen cannot say. The Finnish 2007 World Champion has found himself locked out of a drive after being dropped by Ferrari in favour of Fernando Alonso and unable to secure a seat back at McLaren – even Brawn-Mercedes have passed on the subdued Finn.
Unfortunately for Raikkonen, since winning the title in 2007, he has had two seasons during which he has showcased flashes of brilliance (especially in the latter half of 2009), but has switched off if the car and team hasn’t been geared towards him and it nails his attitude in one foul swoop. The inability that he has displayed to guide a team to victory if the team is not 100% behind him has made many other teams wary of him and as fast and as skilled as Raikkonen is, none of the top teams are likely to build a squad around him when the Constructor’s battle is looking to get fierce between four outfits.

In the meantime, it appears as if Nico Rosberg is going to have one seat the Mercedes team; however if it is not Raikkonen in the second car, then who will it be? Since the announcement of the Brawn-Mercedes deal, rumours have been bouncing round regarding an all-German team for 2010, with a keen eye for Sebastian Vettel to be with the team in 2011; but who would possible go to a team like Mercedes for one year only?
Initially, there were whispers of Nick Heidfeld, but as good as the BMW Sauber driver actually is, it must be remembered that neither he nor Rosberg after yet to win a Grand Prix – despite having 237 starts between them and that is a number that will not sound appetising to either Ross Brawn or Mercedes team.

Since then, rumours of a Heidfeld have fallen away and talk of a Michael Schumacher return have come about again. Schumacher was initially thought to be replacing the injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari earlier this year – a return made impossible following an unhealed neck injury sustained in a German Superbike race in February.
The possibility of a Schumacher return raises one or two questions; such as “why bother?” The legacy of the 7-times world champion is currently intact; however he runs the risk of damaging his stellar reputation if his comeback is a failure. Not only is three years out of the car is a very long, but the Formula has moved on with giant steps since then – never mind the fact that Schumacher has not raced cars competitively for over three years and has only had marginal testing time.
Yet he may be the most sensible option available – his ties with Mercedes are well known and he has the comfort of not having to worry about a contract for 2011 which is the one thing that other drivers would naturally fear and brings me back to the question “who would possible go to a team like Mercedes for one year only?”
It is rather unlikely than an experienced driver would jump to Mercedes in the middle of career for one year as come July, he will be back in the situation of having to search long for a drive again – with few other top seats available for 2011, anyone that drives for Mercedes next year might find themselves on the scrapheap or with a minnow for the following year. It is also a questionable move for a new driver to the sport and could lend itself to the Verstappen / Button factor; whereas a driver starts with a big team for one season before spending years mired at the back of the grid trying to rebuild their career.

However, there is a huge potential for Schumacher to not be the final option and it all boils down to whether or not Renault will be on the grid next year. Toyota’s number 2 driver, Timo Glock, had been rumoured to partner Robert Kubica with the French team, but has instead signed for the new Manor Grand Prix team amid nervousness regarding the ongoing uncertainty as to whether Renault will be in F1 next year. Should Renault jump ship, Mercedes may indeed be the perfect spot for Kubica to kick-start his career following a disappointing final year with BMW.

Indeed Robert Kubica is not the only driver looking to restart his F1 career now that Heikki Kovalainen has been expectantly ejected from the McLaren team. Following two rather poor seasons that granted him one very fortunate Grand Prix victory in Hungary 2008 (Massa led every lap until the car broke two laps from the end), Kovalainen has been removed from the Woking squad and word has been very quite regarding his next move. What must worry Formula 1’s second Finn is that many of the top and mid-field slots have been taken up and unless he takes a step backwards, he career could be finished after only three years – Mercedes could halt that slide backwards, but will the German manufacturer want to take on Kovalainen after having dealt with him at McLaren?

There is still a seat available at Force India, but it is questionable as to whether they can maintain the good form that they produced in the latter half of 2009; however as it stands, the lamentable Nelson Piquet Jr is one of the favourite for that drive – pending on whether he delivers ample sponsorship or not.
For a moment I am not going to refer to Piquet Jr’s antics at Singapore in 2008; however I will point to his substandard performances with Renault during the eighteen months he was with the squad. There were far too many accidents and races where he was near the back and as sad as it may appear, the quality was simply not there.
This is the time that Force India need to produce results to follow on from 2009 and they may not find that with Piquet Jr. Adrian Sutil is still with the team for 2010, but he needs to crash less – when he was on it, he was very good, but he now finds himself in a very different position than in previous seasons as this is the first year that he will lead a squad.

As you can probably tell from the above, this has indeed been a very big week with regards to the movers and shakers of Formula 1, but I will finish this with one quick paragraph from the IZOD IndyCar Series – the Australian driver, Will Power, will be driving the number 12 car for Penske Racing next season and for that, the series can only benefit as I believe that Power can challenge for the title.

Interestingly enough, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Penske squad is grooming the Australian as a permanent replacement for Helio Castroneves when he contract is up. Admittedly, Castroneves may get a year’s extension on his contract, but following that, the Brazilian will be 36 years old and both Power and other team-mate Ryan Briscoe will be at the peak of their abilities.  Power was initially brought in to cover races missed by Castroneves last year following his tax evasion trial, but it is questionable as to whether anyone believed he would be as good as he was and although Power’s oval skills need to be finetuned somewhat, Penske team president Tim Cindric may have just stumbled on of the finest drivers to have entered the IRL in its short history.
At 28, Power has both time and ability on his side to become champion of a series that is looking to become more and competitive as it rebuilds itself following the merge of the IRL and Champ Car in 2008. Next year is looking to be something special indeed.

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