I looked around and couldn’t see anyone I knew.
“Will, hey Wiiiiiiiill!”
Nope, nobody there. An empty paddock but for a few mechanics and journalists, the odd driver skulking off to their motorhome.
I carried on my way.
Two hands slammed down on my shoulders and pulled me around.
“What, you’re just going to ignore me now are you mate?”
It was Mark Webber.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, a bit stunned. “I just didn’t think you’d remember who I was.”
It was the Magny Cours paddock, Friday night, 2008. It was my first season back in F1 as a journalist and I honestly didn’t think Mark Webber would know me from my short stint as a jobbing scribe four years previously or my three years out in GP2.
I have always liked and respected Mark. Never afraid to speak his mind, always thoughtful and attentive, he’s as honest as the day is long and just a wonderful bloke both on and off the track. But Mark is off to pastures new, and I wish him well for 2014. He’s no stranger to sportscars having competed for Mercedes a decade ago, and he will relish and I am sure flourish in the brilliantly exciting world of Endurance racing.
His departure, however, has opened up the silly season a few weeks early and the paddock has, of course, gone into a somewhat predictable meltdown of rumour over who will step into one of the most highly sought after seats in Formula 1. Many people seem to think that Kimi Raikkonen is a dead set certainty for the seat. The extreme sports tie in, the fact he’s been Red Bull backed before… the fact vodka goes rather well with the foul tasting stuff. Nope, it’s a done deal. Kimi is off to Red Bull.
Or is he?
The thing is, right now, it does both Red Bull and Kimi absolutely no harm at all to not deny the rumours. Red Bull has no need to give away its intentions because if everyone thinks Kimi is a shoe in, then if Red Bull starts negotiating with anyone else they can drive the financials lower.
For Kimi it makes no sense to deny interest, because if he starts negotiating with anyone else, including Lotus, then he can drive the financials higher.
Would it be good to see Kimi in a Red Bull? Absolutely. When you look at what he is achieving at Lotus, the thought of him in the best car on the grid is delicious. Equally salivating is the prospect of having a world champion lining up alongside Sebastian Vettel, and one who won’t give two hoots about Multi 21 orders.
While I wish to take nothing away from the incredible results Sebastian Vettel is accumulating at Red Bull Racing, to many in this paddock the belief exists that his ultimate level in the pantheon of greats cannot truly be gauged until he either moves to a different team to face a new challenge, or has somebody alongside him that can provide that challenge. And Kimi, as a world champion and a driver who doesn’t give a damn, would be a truly great challenge.
The question remains, however… would Sebastian want Kimi as a team-mate? Would Helmut Marko allow Kimi in as a team-mate? Is the risk of seeing Sebastian beaten too great?
And for Kimi, would he ever play number two if he was asked? Would he be happy with the increased media commitments? Red Bull Racing is not the partytown it used to be, it is serious business. The team travels in blazers these days! I’m not saying that Lotus isn’t a serious outfit, merely that its structure is loose enough and its media arm savvy enough to allow Kimi the space and freedom he needs to just get on with the job. Would Red Bull afford him such independence? I doubt it.
So no, I don’t believe the Kimi deal is done. Sure, he’s a genuine consideration and despite the recent investment in Lotus by Infinity the supposed financial issues at the black and gold team may yet cause the Finn to look elsewhere. But is he a certainty for that Red Bull seat? Absolutely not.
The Toro Rosso boys are both doing outstanding jobs in 2013, and if one of them doesn’t get the nod at the big team in 2014 you’d have to ask what in heaven’s name is the point of Toro Rosso, and for that matter, the entire Red Bull junior driver system? Now is the opportunity to promote from within. If it isn’t taken, what hope do any of the kids in that ladder realistically have?
The second seat at Red Bull will be the key to the driver market. Every racer in Formula 1 found out this morning that a dream opportunity has opened up. They’ll be fluffing up their tail feathers like brooding peacocks at every opportunity to try and get their backsides into that seat.
Who will it fall to? Right now, I don’t think even Red Bull knows. Let alone we paddock types. There’s a long way left to run on this one.
Anyway… back to Mark.
Back in 2006 I was doing PR for GP2. It was my first season running the Press Office and I’d organized a huge launch in Valencia. I’d invited Mark and Ann Neal along but they couldn’t make it. Because F1 was racing eslewhere that weekend.
When GP2 finally made it back onto the European F1 calendar, Mark came down to the paddock for a spot of dinner. On seeing me, he called me over.
“I’m really sorry we couldn’t make the launch,” he said. “It looked great though. I saw the photos. Well done, I heard it was a big success.”
Mark Webber. Just a properly good bloke.