Pressure mounts on Kimi Raikkonen as Ferrari F1 chief asks questions after China
"We would never have given a team order, it would not have been correct" The words of Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne after the Chinese Grand...
"We would never have given a team order, it would not have been correct"
The words of Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne after the Chinese Grand Prix, where Sebastian Vettel's strategy gamble failed to pay off and he ended up in second place, where he had started the race.
Although the Safety Car deployment a lap after Vettel's stop was the reason why Vettel's bold move did not come off, there have been questions asked about the time the German subsequently lost behind his team mate Kimi Raikkonen, as the race leader Lewis Hamilton got away.
Once Max Verstappen passed Raikkonen on Lap 8, Vettel followed in the trail of his team mate for 11 laps during which time he dropped from 4.6 seconds behind Hamilton to 9.8 seconds. As the track dried out, the pace of the Ferrari came through and Vettel was able to pass both Red Bulls and then trade fastest laps with Hamilton. He finished 6.2 seconds adrift.
But all chance of a second strategy move around the second stops was lost due to the margin Hamilton built in that early phase. Raikkonen finished 48 seconds off the winner and behind both Red Bulls, prompting Marchionne to ask questions about a driver he has protected in the past.
The problem for Ferrari is that the Constructors' Championship will not be decided between the lead drivers Hamilton and Vettel, it will be decided between Valtteri Bottas and Raikkonen. They need him, which is why on the one hand you can see Marchionne's message here. But on the other hand, it's early in the season to be calling a driver out and Ferrari will need Raikkonen as this year goes on.
Speaking to the Italian media after the race Marchionne said, "Perhaps we need to sit down and discuss with Kimi, because today he seemed to have other things on his mind. It was not his day. Was he tired?"
Team boss Maurizio Arrivabene, who has been Raikkonen's greatest protector in the team simply added, "He was talking too much on the radio."
Raikkonen had many complaints about the engine performance on the radio and especially the issue with getting the front tyres to work. Later in the race, he questioned the decision to leave him out until Lap 39 before making the second stop. There is no question that this cost him a chance of a podium and seemed to be aimed at trying to leave him out to split strategies and try to get him involved in the action at Hamilton's second stop.
But Mercedes easily had it covered and it ended up costing Raikkonen, because he had spent much of the race stuck behind Ricciardo and his tyres were damaged, so he could not push when he got into free air when the Red Bull pitted.
Interestingly Vettel seems able to follow other cars closely and not damage his tyres, as we saw in China and in Melbourne. It may be a combination of a small difference in aerodynamic set up on the two Ferraris as well as a degree of driver factor.
Raikkonen has had a tough start to the season, failing to reach the podium in either Australia or China in a car that has won a race and finished second in the other. Whereas last year he out qualified a disaffected Vettel in the second half of the season, this year Vettel has had two front row starts and was 3/10ths faster in China qualifying.
It is not a crisis by any means for Raikkonen, who has always performed well in Bahrain and has a chance to redeem himself this coming weekend. He finished second there in 2015 for Ferrari and 2013 for Lotus.
And it is a track which should really suit this year's Ferrari, being more about the rear end of the car than the front, unlike China. And the Ferrari performs better in a hotter ambient temperature; both factors that favour the Ferrari over the Mercedes. The team will be aiming to take their first pole of the season and target a 1-2 finish there.
But reading between the lines, Marchionne's intervention is a warning sign to the Finn not to take another contract renewal for granted this summer.
That said, the landscape for replacements for Raikkonen, who is now 37 years old, is not obvious. Although Marchionne is all about promoting Italian talent, as witnessed by his upheaval of the technical department last summer, Antonio Giovinazzi showed this weekend that he still has some way to go to cut it at the front in F1.
Discussions on the top driver contracts tend to start around the time of the Canadian GP in June. If Marchionne is looking around for someone to replace Raikkonen, then one strong candidate looks like Carlos Sainz, who has been on Ferrari's radar for a couple of years, albeit behind Verstappen and Ricciardo in order of desirability. Renault were keen to sign him for 2017, but Toro Rosso blocked it. They may try again for 2018.
But he is coming on strong now; the Spaniard will have three years' experience at the end of 2017. He fits the profile of a young driver who rises to 'la sfida' (the challenge) beloved by the 'tifosi' (Italian Ferrari fans) and has started strongly in 2017.
Romain Grosjean will also stake a claim, having moved to Haas to be closer to Ferrari and for their engineer to be able to fully appraise him.
There will also be an eye kept on the relationships within Red Bull, for signs that Daniel Ricciardo may become unsettled. Although there still remains the question mark over pairing Vettel with Ricciardo (presuming Vettel stays at Ferrari beyond this contact which expires at the end of the season).
If Vettel were to look elsewhere Mercedes is the only real destination and it would be hard to imagine him and Hamilton together in the same team. Nor is it really what F1 needs, but nothing is impossible.
It is very early days and there is plenty of time for Raikkonen to earn his renewal, but Marchionne's comments in China have fired an early starting gun on these considerations.
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