Silly season is upon us, and that means the F1 rumour mill, as if it needed an excuse, is in full flow. It seems slightly odd to think about it now, but back in Hungary, word on the street was that most teams would likely stick with their current line-ups for 2013. Today, if you believe everything you hear, the roundabout is in full swing and we’re going to see massive shifts across the board.
So let’s start with what we know. Red Bull Racing will run an unchanged line-up of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. Its sister team Toro Rosso will likely also field an unchanged team of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean Eric Vergne. Both of these boys however will be under pressure to perform. Should Red Bull hotshot (and this kid is super talented) Antonio Felix da Costa go well in WSR in 2013, I can see Dr Marko doing what Dr Marko always does, and not allow the Portuguese youngster to complete his season in WSR, plucking him instead before he’s truly ready and replacing one of the STR boys with him mid-season. Afterall, that Red Bull scrap heap isn’t going to grow on its own.
I also see little chance of a change at Lotus. Raikkonen is happy in the non political atmosphere at the team, and Grosjean is keeping him honest. The duo make a good pairing, and are both marketable in their own rights. There seems little reason for Boullier to look elsewhere.
The real interest, of course, lies in Lewis Hamilton. Ever since Eddie Jordan sparked the fire over Hamilton’s move to Mercedes it is all anyone has been able to talk about. Some say Jordan is off his rocker, or that he’s simply buying into a line fed to him by Bernie. But the last time Eddie made a claim like this, it was about Michael Schumacher’s return. People thought he was bonkers then, but he was right. And I’ve got a feeling he will be proven right once more on this one.
Michael Schumacher is past it. One only need look at Kimi Raikkonen’s 2012 season to see how successful a comeback can be to fully appreciate just how much of a disappointment the seven time world champion’s exploits overt the past three seasons have been. Rather than adding to the legend, he is damaging it with each passing grand prix. Deep down, I think even he now realises that it is time to go.
But Norbert Haug needs a name. Rosberg isn’t yet a big enough star to shine over the Mercedes brand and keep board level interest in the Formula 1 programme. Sebastian Vettel is tied into his current contract and has something in his pocket for his future (more on that later.) Fernando Alonso will finish his career at Ferrari. That leaves Hamilton as the only driver with real star power.
Hamilton would be a neat fit for the team. Mercedes likes to play on its history and its long and glorious past in all forms of motorsport. Heritage is a huge part of the Mercedes marketing programme. And what better heritage is there than the fact that Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton were, a decade ago, team-mates in karting, sponsored by AMG? The link is just too perfect.
But who is going to pay for the reported £60 million contract? I’ve heard some talk of Santander, but that doesn’t ring true for me. I can’t see why Santander would jump ship from McLaren. They, like all banks, are struggling. Why bother to up their level of sponsorship simply to move one driver they already sponsor to a team they don’t sponsor? Fernando made sense because of his nationality. Lewis does not.
By chance, on my flight to Singapore, I was sat next to a fascinating single serving friend (Ref: Fight Club) who worked in the bottling and distribution of soft drinks for Pepsi Co. I realised over the course of our conversation how much I’ve actually picked up on the subject over the years and our lengthy conversation, spread over two incredible hours, was fascinating.
In the UK, Energy Drinks are now the market leader in soft drink sales, last month knocking Cola drinks off the top spot for the first time in history. Think about that for a moment. It’s huge. But most surprising was the fact that Red Bull is not, and has not been for some time, the market leader in energy drinks sales. Quite simply it is too expensive to compete with smaller cheaper brands. Even halving its price would leave it twice as expensive, so Red Bull has stopped doing money off deals. It has a price and it sticks to it. Those who can afford it will still buy into the brand. Those who can’t won’t. But Red Bull will keep making money. So it may not be the UK market leader in terms of sales, but in terms of profit it is still up there.
Interestingly, the brand which Red Bull reportedly fears the most is Monster. Its rival is doing big business globally, especially in America, and unlike Red Bull has the fall back position of numerous flavours in full time rather than limited edition production.
Coca Cola wants to buy Monster. It has been trying for months.
Coca Cola is interested in entering Formula 1. Company bosses were guests of Bernie in Valencia.
Coca Cola, however, is unlikely to sponsor a team. It doesn’t do things that way and never has. It sponsors events, championships etc. But it probably won’t become a sponsor of the sport itself, because that would create a political issue for Bernie with Red Bull.
But what about Monster?
What if, and I may be putting two and two together and coming out with 37, but what if Coca Cola buys Monster, ups its already existing sponsorship of Mercedes, and facilitates Lewis Hamilton’s move to the three pointed star, at the same time turning Hamilton into the poster boy for one of the world’s biggest soft drinks companies… and by that I don’t just mean Monster. I mean the Coca Cola Company.
Doesn’t sound so silly now, does it?
Makes sense for Lewis, makes sense for XIX Management, makes sense for Monster, makes sense for Coke, makes sense for Mercedes. Makes Sense full stop.
OK, so what about McLaren, you ask?
Sergio Perez? No way. A Ferrari driver sponsored by Telmex is not going to go to Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.
Paul di Resta? A lot of people would seem to think he’d be a shoe in. He’s not universally popular at Force India, and is considered difficult to work with. But he is fast and would no doubt work well at McLaren. But he is managed now by Richard Goddard. So too is Jenson Button. And I just wonder, and it’s a personal thought process I’ve been following, but would McLaren allow such a considerable part of the team to ultimately be ruled by one person? I’ve got nothing against Richard, don’t get me wrong. He’s a great guy and a damn fine driver manager, but if you were McLaren would you sign both your drivers from one source? It would give Richard a tremendous amount of political power at McLaren, and I’m not convinced Martin or Ron would allow that.
To my mind, the perfect fit is Nico Hulkenberg. Easy to work with, media savvy, cool, calm, understated… blisteringly fast: he is the perfect McLaren driver. Working alongside Jenson Button I believe they would form the perfect pairing of youth and experience. Nico would push Jenson, but Jenson would teach Nico so much, and help to forge a bright future world champion driver and team leader for McLaren. The only thing which would stand against such a move is that it probably makes too much sense and is thus unlikely to happen. But if I was running McLaren and Lewis jumped ship, I’d have my eye on Nico Hulkenberg and I’d be signing him up.
There is also the prospect of Valtteri Bottas, Williams’ third driver. Blisteringly fast, but also very young, his name remains, for me, a flight of fancy at McLaren… although he would fit in there rather well.
What, then, of Ferrari? Fernando Alonso will see out his career driving a red car, of this we are certain. But what of the future? Ferrari lost its intended perfect partner for Alonso with the Rallying accident that befell Robert Kubica. The Pole would have been driving for Ferrari this year, but with Robert out, Felipe Massa got a reprieve. And it is not working out. Massa has now entered the record books as the Ferrari driver to have gone the longest without scoring a podium in the team’s F1 history: 35 races and counting. His drive in Singapore was outstanding, but one wonders if it is too little too late.
Ferrari, however, has no real need to replace him because it has only one season to wait before a new driver arrives. That driver will be Sebastian Vettel, and he will race for Scuderia Ferrari come 2014. It’s one of those widely known secrets in the paddock, just as Robert Kubica’s move was known about. Ferrari doesn’t do spur of the moment. It does pre-contracts at least 18 months in advance. And Vettel is understood to have signed one such agreement.
That means the Scuderia has only got to fill a seat for a season. And that’s why Luca di Montezemolo keeps on saying Sergio Perez isn’t ready. Of course Perez is ready. He’s so ready, he could jump in and take on Alonso today. But if Ferrari fields Perez next season then they know they have to drop him in 2014. So why do that to the kid and to his career? If Ferrari ever gets its way and is allowed to run three cars, OK, maybe then. But as things stand, Perez will be kept at a satellite team until Alonso retires, and he will then be moved across to join Ferrari, perhaps even alongside Vettel. But that’s going a bit too far down into the future.
So maybe the team sticks with Massa, and there is every chance that it will do just that. Or maybe it signs someone who needs a feather in their hat, someone who is flying under the radar… someone who needs a bit of positive PR for a season to relaunch their career. Hulkenberg has been mooted, and discussions have apparently taken place, but as I said, I see McLaren as by far the better option in that respect. But there is another name that keeps on cropping up, and he, too, has reportedly been to Maranello to have a bit of a chat.
Heikki Kovalainen was team-mates with Fernando Alonso at Renault. The duo are friends, and have much respect for each other. Caterham isn’t reinvigorating the Finn’s career in quite the way he would have hoped. But a season in a Ferrari? It’s perfect. The Finn would be a neat fit. Technically gifted, a good car developer and a tidy racer, I could see Heikki slotting in alongside Fernando for 2013.
Then it all gets a bit more difficult to predict.
Who stays and who goes at Force India? Rumours are that neither driver has been paid this season. Vijay Mallya’s money troubles are well documented and Sahara’s not exactly enjoying the easiest of financial times right now. All of which begs the question of where that leaves the Force India team at all in 2013. It’s a sad state of affairs because that team produces consistently quick cars and is one of very few teams in F1 to utilise a ladder scheme for its drivers, promoting youth after giving it a chance to shine in practice sessions. Force India does its racing the way racing should be done. Vitaly Petrov’s name has ben linked to the team, so too Kamui Kobayashi and Jaime Alguersuari, who we understand has some very good offers on the table for next season.
It appears that Kobayashi may be let go by Sauber at the end of the year. Will Perez stay? Will Telmex money be increased and Esteban Gutierrez enter the fold? What about Alguesuari? Kovalainen has been mooted too. Interestingly, so too has Charles Pic, who has kept Timo Glock more than honest at Marussia this season.
Bruno Senna is believed likely to become a free agent after a season at Williams, with the aforementioned Valtteri Bottas taking the second seat at the team alongside Pastor Maldonado. Bottas has a big fan in Toto Wolff, and with an increasing number of Finnish sponsors showing up on the Williams it now seems only a matter of time until the inevitable promotion for the young, talented, and mega quick Bottas into a fulltime race seat.
As for the other teams, it is all a bit up in the air.
Caterham may have to find two new drivers next season. Charles Pic has been mentioned, but what the team really needs is someone with experience and a keen eye for car development. Marussia will keep Glock who is tied in for another few years, and I expect to see Max Chilton graduate from GP2 and line up alongside him. And as for HRT, I have genuinely no idea.
There are question marks over what happens to the likes of Massa, Petrov, Kobayashi and Pic in 2013, none of whom have any guarantees. There are questions over the GP2 graduates such as champion Davide Valsecchi and runner up Luiz Razia, both of whom will need to find big sponsors to make the next step. So too will WSR drivers such as Sam Bird and Jules Bianchi who have impressed hugely with their roles as reserve driver in F1 this season. And speaking of reserve drivers, Jerome d’Ambrosio handled himself tremendously at Monza standing in for Grosjean and fighting valiantly without KERS.
As always the ratio of seats to drivers is weighted heavily against the drivers and some highly talented racers will be left without a place at the top table.
And, as always, the driver market relies almost entirely on one key happening.
When Michael Schumacher walks away, or when Lewis Hamilton announces he is leaving McLaren, all hell is going to break loose.
Until then, it’s all just talk. And at the end of the season, everyone will have re-signed with their current teams and we’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.
Don’t you love Silly Season?