Lee Towers: On the Throttle
After three years of stagnation in the driver market within F1′s top four teams – McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari & Mercedes, it looks like fans will finally see a driver switch in 2013. Ferrari’s option to retain Felipe Massa’s for next year expired on July 31st, whilst this doesn’t completely mean he still won’t be with the Scuderia come the Australian Grand Prix next Spring, Ferrari could in theory come back with an offer, it would be extremely unlikely.
The Brazilian’s form since his accident in qualifying at Budapest in Summer 2009 is a far cry from that before it, two podiums in his first two races back seemingly like a false dawn. Sadly Massa’s form dropped off as the season wore on, although it was still comparable to Alonso, something one could not say of 2012. Then came the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.
Ferrari brought updates for it’s 2010 challenger to the Upper Rhine Valley that July, which turned the car from one fighting at the mid to lower end of point scoring positions into a genuine front runner – the two F10′s finding themselves second and third on the grid, behind Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull. At the start Alonso got a good run at Vettel, the German moving to the inside to squeeze the Spaniard, opening the door on the outside of the Nordkurve for Massa to sweep around the two lead cars and streak off into the lead.
What happened later in the race, with the infamous “Felipe, Fernando is faster than you” radio message, has received plenty of discussion since and re-visiting it in this article would be fruitless. The only thing tangible to take away for Massa after he took the opposite approach to team orders than Carlos Reutemann did, was a second place finish behind Alonso. If anyone was unsure about who wore the trousers at Maranello before the German race, they were certainly not afterwards. Massa picked up two third places later in the year, at Monza and Korea, races which Alonso won, but has not visited a Grand Prix podium since.
Massa could surely take some hope with him into 2011, but the season fell flat. A difficult car the F150 Italia may have been, but the finish 139 points behind Alonso, with a best finish of just 5th, six times, was far short of expectation. Massa finished 10 races in a row mid season, taking fastest lap in Hungary, but rarely threatened him team mate, next mind for a victory. A few eyebrows were raised when Ferrari retained Massa for 2012, and an article written about the Brazilians current predicament could not be complete without complimenting Ferrari on the loyalty they have showed to the man who almost won a drivers world title for them in 2008, something which is often found lacking in modern day F1.
Unfortunately for the Sao Paulo born man, he has failed to buck the trend this season which has seen him continually fail to live with Alonso, although the Spaniard has been driving particularly well this season, as well has he ever has done even. It would be difficult for even the likes of Hamilton or Vettel to show consistently well against Alonso on his current form, which perhaps skews the light in which Massa’s performances are being viewed slightly, but one has to believe there are other candidates who would make a better fist of a Ferrari drive around. So who are they?
Ferrari’s first target appears to have been Mark Webber. The Aussie however signed a one year contract extension with Red Bull Racing after winning this years British Grand Prix. Webber confirmed after having signed for another year alongside Sebastian Vettel that he received an offer from Ferrari and did consider it. It is easy to understand Webber’s decision however, in the twilight of his career sticking with Red Bull, where in reality he has been since 2003 under it’s guise as Jaguar, surely gives him a better shot at sealing a World Championship before retirement than moving across to Ferrari and presumably playing second fiddle when push comes to shove to Alonso.
The most obvious target for the second Ferrari seat in this author’s view is current Sauber driver Sergio Perez. The Mexican is the standout driver in Ferrari’s Driver Academy, which he was signed up with upon it’s inception in 2010, along with Jules Bianchi, Raffaele Marciello, Brandon Maisano and Canadian Lance Stroll. Perez has showed much promise in his year and half in F1 with Sauber, arriving with some impressive credentials, a runner up spot in GP2 in 2010 behind seasoned veteran and F1 race winner Pastor Maldonado, and a fourth place in the 2008 British F3 Championship, behind the Carlin trio of Jaime Alguersuari, Oliver Turvey and Brendon Hartley.
Perez’s debut in Australia in 2011 saw him announce his arrival at the top echelon of the sport by making only one tyre stop all race and finishing in a stunning 7th place, only to later be disqualified, along with his team mate Kamui Kobayashi, for a rear wing infringement. This however did not detract from the impression the young Mexican had made. There were five points paying finishes throughout Perez’s debut season, as well as a big accident at Monaco, which saw his Sauber smash hard into the barriers at the chicane at the end of the tunnel, ruling him out of the Grand Prix the following day, and the next race in Canada. Sergio said it took him four races to get over the accident, but showed resilience to score points in three of the last six races of the season.
Sauber’s 2012 car, the C31, has moved them up the grid from last year, it is quick in the wet and is crucially kind to it’s tyres, both the soft and medium compounds, which has enabled Perez to score some fantastic results, two podium’s, one of which was almost a win in Malaysia. Perez’s stock was at its highest after Malaysia, where he finished second after pushing Fernando Alonso all the way in inclement conditions, only to run off track in the closing stages just as it looked like he was shaping up to pass the Ferrari. With Massa finishing this race back in 15th, the “Perez to Ferrari” noises became louder. Points finishes in Australia, Europe and a fighting 6th place in Germany backed up this promise, but Perez performance in Canada ranks above any of these races. Third position was his reward as on fresh tyres he battled though the pack at the race drew to a close, past the likes of Alonso and Vettel, who were grimly trying to make their tortured Pirelli tyres last to the end of the race.
With the hype linking Perez to the Scuderia growing, Ferrari president Luca Di Montezemlo issued a statement at the start of June announcing he was not yet ready for a drive with his team, and they would not look to sign him for 2013 as they had yet to make a decision around Massa. Was this just a curveball to pour cold water on the rumours and ease the pressure on the young Mexican? Only time will tell, but we must also remember that performances like the ones in Malaysia and Canada are much more than Massa ever managed in his Sauber days before he was promoted to the Ferrari team in 2006.
Other names banded around included Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen, not names I believe can be taken seriously. Button signed a multi-year contract extension last year with McLaren, a team which he seems settled and happy at, despite some below par performances this year. Raikkonen returning to Ferrari is too far fetched for this writer, the drivers and teams split was not amicable at the end of 2009, where Raikkonen was essentially released a year early from his contract to accommodate Fernando Alonso. His commitment to the team was open to question, while his driving was not at the level it was in 2007.
Another Finn who’s hat has been thrown into the ring is Heikki Kovalainen, who has impressed the entire paddock with his performances for what is now Caterham over the last two and half seasons. Kovalainen’s stock took a hit after his McLaren years alongside Lewis Hamilton, but most are in agreement he is a better driver than can be deduced from his two seasons with the Woking based team. Heikki’s contract is up at the end of the season, and he recently was quoted as saying he had not spoken to any team, even Caterham, regarding 2013 yet. If he got a Ferrari seat for 2013 ahead of Perez it would be a surprise, but he is an interesting addition to this discussion for sure.
Follow Lee Towers on Twitter @On_The_Throttle