We may have only just passed the mid-way point of the 2008 season, but already the majority of next season’s grid has been organised. And in now typical Formula One tradition, there are too many drivers vying for too few seats. Let’s take a quick look at the 2009 grid and assess the choices the teams have made as they attempt to better their operation prior to next season’s Australian Grand Prix in March..
The best way to describe Ferrari’s driver performances this year is simply up-and-down. Both Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa have looked blitzenly fast on some days, and child-like on others. They’ve managed to similtaneously impress fans and pundits alike, as well as make us laugh our socks off at their silly mistakes.
However, despite popular belief, they both have contracts for next year. The Finn is in a strong position though and if he really wanted to retire, I’m sure Ferrari wouldn’t put up too much of a fight. As long as Raikkonen didn’t drive for anyone else, Ferrari would likely shake his hand and wish him well. As for Massa, well, he can be devastatingly quick, but then the Brazilian can also spin five times in a race.
Either way, they are both contracted to the Scuderia for another year, and I think we will all know more about Kimi’s plans once Fernando Alonso’s are announced, likely to be in mid-September.
The Woking squad have already sorted out their chariot riders for next season, with both Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen staying on. The decision was a no-brainer really, and while Heikki has been a little slow out of the blocks, he has been making steady progress, qualifying well recently and winning in Hungary. The pair also like working together and they happily admit to enjoying each other’s company. On the track though, they are both pretty formiddable drivers; Hamilton has the pace, Heikki has the brains.
At the start of the 2008 season, I said BMW would do well to retain both their drivers, Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica. At the time, Heidfeld had just finished a solid 2007 campaign and Kubica was brimming with talent. Roll forward eight months and now I’m hesitant to offer similar advice. Kubica has been enjoying a remarkable season, although recently his performances have tailed off. Heidfeld has been having a tougher year, partly because of his team mate and partly because the car just doesn’t seem to suit him as much. Should BMW retain their line-up or get someone else in? It’s difficult to judge, but I think I would still stick with both pilots for at least another year if I were in charge.
2008 has been a difficult year for Renault fans. Last year was expected to be difficult, but now Fernando Alonso has returned to Enstone, we all thought that things would start to look a little brighter. Unfortunately, the R28 isn’t much of a car and while both drivers have put in some stunning performances, Nelson Piquet Jr may not have done enough to save his Formula One career. A very slow start that was riddled with errors, the young Brazilian has consistently frustrated fans. And with Alonso waiting around to see if the Ferrari seat will be available, it cannot be easy being Flavio Briatore right now. Clearly Alonso wants to jump ship and Piquet probably isn’t good enough. What is a team boss to do?
Both drivers have been retained for 2009, despite Jarno Trulli having to wait a very long time to be announced for this year during the ’07-’08 break. Back then, the squad had an outside chance of getting Fernando Alonso to sign a contract in Cologne, but after Trulli and Timo Glock’s performances this season, I think they will do well in keeping both around. Trulli has been driving well and Glock has improved steadily during the year.
Red Bull Racing
Mark Webber has been given a twelve month extension to his contract and following the retirement of David Coulthard, the team will receive Sebastian Vettel from sister squad, Scuderia Toro Rosso. Again, pretty much a no-brainer. Webber is doing okay and has shown some flashes of excitement when the car works, and Vettel is a real talent waiting in the wings. My only concern is that Vettel will need to be nurtured into a race winner, which I’m not sure Red Bull will be able to do properly having never won themselves. Still, the Australian and the German make a promising line-up and if the car is good enough, I think they will work well together in progressing the team forward.
They’ve managed to hold on to Nico Rosberg, a feat I consider impressive for the midfield team, but the German driver is getting impatient. Rosberg has shown great loyalty to the team that gave him his break, but with car performance standing still in the past three years, it is easy to understand why Rosberg is now talking about wanting to be in a winning car. If Williams wish to retain their number one, they absolutely have to show improvement in the standings. As for the second seat, I’m not so sure Kazuki Nakajima has done enough. At times he has looked very fast, but on other occasions he has looked mediocre. Maybe another season will do him some good, and if Williams are to improve they will need consistency in the drivers.
The Japanese team kinda need Jenson Button, but as with Rosberg in the Williams, how long can the team continue before the driver goes looking elsewhere? Button was overjoyed when Ross Brawn joined the team from Ferrari, and the squad have many of the correct ingredients to make a winning team, but it simply isn’t happening. They would do well to hang on to Button, but his team mate isn’t looking so sure of a ride for next year. Rubens Barrichello became the most experienced driver ever this year, but with experience comes age. But as Michael Schumacher used to say (and still asserts during tests), why retire when you can still keep up with everyone else? Other factors may come in to it though, and a recent rumour linked Alonso to the team. If that were to happen, I don’t think it is rocket science to work out who would get the boot.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
Currently, the team is up for sale and they have no drivers contracted for next year, and one of their current pilots will definitely leave. Yep, STR aren’t looking too strong at the moment and of all the squads, Gerhard Berger’s team are the most likely to receive a rookie next season. The driver they’re losing is Sebastian Vettel, and this is not a good thing. However, they have an option on Sebastien Bourdais and despite the French driver failing to set the track alight, he isn’t doing a terrible job. STR would do well in keeping some consistency, and many believe Bourdais will improve next year as the cars change.
The second seat could go a whole raft of rookies or perhaps-fired drivers: Bruno Senna, Nico Hulkenberg, Lucas di Grassi, Romain Grosjean, Marco Asmer, Nelson Piquet Jr., Nick Heidfeld, Rubens Barrichello, Christian Klien…
…And you never know, it could even go to a certain Vitantonio Liuzzi. No, I didn’t think so either.
The Force India team may still be at the back of the grid, but they have made progress largely thanks to Vijay Mallya’s investment. I also believe that although he may be past his prime, Giancarlo Fisichella has been doing the team some good with his experienced hand. The team should try and keep their Italian ace for now – he may not race as well as he used to, but he is helping the little back-of-the-grid squad. Adrian Sutil is, I believe, on some kind of long-running contract. Although most say he doesn’t have anything for next year yet, when he was signed to Spyker 18 months ago, the deal was said to be long-term, thanks to his connection with the team boss (who transferred over when the Spyker team were sold). Thus, I expect Sutil to remain, and I also expect Fisichella to continue driving for them.