Its been one of the most fascinating 48 hours in Formula 1 for some time as silly season has been ramped into overdrive with talk of driver deals and contracts, signed and unsigned, flooding in. While confirmed deals would normally serve to give us some clarity, quite incredibly the F1 driver pool for 2014 now appears more clouded than ever. Each turn of events has, in its own way, created new questions.
Kimi, Quantum and Lotus
The Raikkonen / Lotus relationship is over and it is a shame it had to end this way. But end it had to, and so it is probably better that it’s been done now.
There seems, to me, no small coincidence that the day after having his seat fitting at Ferrari, Kimi or his management team decided to move forward his planned treatment on the back injury which nearly saw him pull out of the Singapore Grand Prix. The earlier he can get his rehab started, the better for his new employers, and while he’s not being paid by his present employers, what motivation was there to stay put?
There’s another facet in this however, and it sits with that now very public spat over pay. Kimi made it clear in Abu Dhabi that while he had not been paid, an agreement had been put in place and assurances given that he would receive all unpaid moneys. Quantum itself was vocal over the fact that as soon as its deal with Genii and Lotus was done, it would pay the Finn what he was owed, plus a sweetener for his troubles. Quantum was also keen to sign Nico Hulkenberg for 2014, something which seemed a mere formality as soon as the deal was done. Everything seemed to be moving in a very positive direction and we all expected news of a concluded deal in the days after Abu Dhabi.
But no news arrived. No confirmation of a done deal. No confirmation of Hulkenberg signing for 2014. And then… Kimi walks away from the team.
If Kimi said he would only race if the assurances were met, and he has now decided not to race, might one infer that these assurances had not therefore been met, and that perhaps the Quantum deal is no closer to being concluded now than it has ever been?
There has, as of the time of writing, been no confirmation over Raikkonen’s replacement for Austin and Brazil. Why not? The natural and logical choice is the team’s reserve driver Davide Valsecchi. If he doesn’t get the drive then the whole purpose of a reserve driver is nullified. He’s a GP2 champion and deserves his shot. But, as always things aren’t quite that simple.
Perhaps, Lotus is trying to lure Hulkenberg away from Sauber for the final two races to get him settled at the team for 2014. Perhaps, the team has been offered a sizeable amount from a potential 2014 sponsor to put a completely different driver in the car for the final two. Perhaps a driver has big budget to run the final two races of the year. Maybe a GP2 driver. Maybe an ex F1 star. There was even talk a few races ago that Rubens Barrichello was trying to raise enough funds to get himself a drive in Sao Paulo so as to afford himself a proper F1 farewell.
When you think about it, there are hundreds of options open to Lotus for the final two races. Some will help its 2013 plight and its attack on the constructors’ championship, some would help its short term funding, others its long term funding. And all of this at a time when word over the deal which should have assured its future finances, has gone particularly quiet.
Williams and Massa
So, Felipe Massa has his Formula 1 salvation and it has come in the form of the Williams F1 team. Funding will come from Banco do Brasil, which had in 2013 adorned the Carlin GP2 car of compatriot Felipe Nasr. He will partner the hugely talented Valtteri Bottas.
Of course the big news here is that Williams will split with Pastor Maldonado, and crucially with the cash cow that is PDVSA. That’s a huge investor to lose, although for PDVSA to have pulled out of its deal with Williams it will have had to pay handsomely. As such, Williams may well have come out of this with a decent wedge of cash to put towards pulling itself back up the grid.
With Massa it has a driver who knows how to win Grands Prix and lead a team to the very top. But is Massa the force he once was? It is such a debatable question. While there is no denying that he has not been the same since his accident, he has, since learning of his exit from Ferrari, shown flashes of the genius and racing brilliance which saw him crowned world champion for an agonizing 30 seconds in 2008. But flashes of brilliance do not form the basis of anything stable.
Perhaps this is just the chance he needs to re-establish himself as number one. With Mercedes-Benz engines, and momentum building around rumours that Ross Brawn is on the way to Grove, Massa could be arriving at the perfect time. There are also stories that Rob Smedley is on his way to Williams, although talk of that has been doing the rounds since before Raikkonen had even been confirmed to replace Massa at Ferrari. Smedley wants a new challenge, and coincidence may yet see him and Massa switching sides together.
Has Felipe had his cance? Yes you could argue that he has. Would I rather see young talent like Sam Bird, once a Williams tester, given a break? Absolutely. But Massa brings budget and experience, and while there is no place for sentimentality in the cold business world of racing, I am glad that he will be afforded one more crack. Whether he can make a greater success of his time at the team than his compatriot Barrichello however, is the ultimate question.
In the meantime, of course, the confirmation that Maldonado will not drive for Williams means that one of the most powerful and cash-rich players in the sport is now in open play on the driver market. While we always knew Maldonado was looking for a way out of Williams, we now know that he has it and so rumours of his availability have been replaced by cold hard certainty. Maldonado and his tens of millions of PDVSA bucks are in play.
McLaren and Magnussen
McLaren have signed Kevin Magnussen for 2014. Apart from the fact that the contract isn’t signed. So they haven’t. Not yet.
It’s sort of like saying Lotus have signed Hulkenberg because we know that a contract exists. But until it has been signed the deal isn’t done, is it? This isn’t Waynestock. Just because you book them doesn’t mean they will come.
What is fascinating is just how close Sergio Perez appears to be running to, at best, becoming a player on the open market and, at worst, losing his seat in F1 altogether. What a difference a year makes: from the golden boy of F1 and McLaren’s coming man, to being roundly considered a flop who will be replaced by only the third rookie McLaren will have taken a chance on in the last 20 years. And where would that leave Martin Whitmarsh, who 12 months ago was making noises about how the team was looking to build a future around Perez and give him time to flourish?
I’ve said from the outset that I didn’t think Perez was the right choice for McLaren for 2013 and beyond, but I will also say this: he has far exceeded my expectations this year. While he may not have been as consistent as the team had hoped, he has shown pace, grit and fight. This has not been an easy season for McLaren, but I think Perez has handled himself well and has delivered some fine performances.
When one looks towards 2014, it will be something of an odd season for McLaren. Huge technical regulation changes and the last year of their deal with Mercedes mean it may be a challenging, if not entirely wasted season. As such, perhaps the team would do well to put their rookie in the car simply to give him mileage before he and Button commit a full assault on the world championship in 2015? There’s a nice little bookend to it all as well, I suppose, in that Jan Magnussen, Kevin’s father raced for McLaren in 1995 – their first year with Mercedes power. There’d be an element of romance to his son racing in their final year as a partnership. But as we’ve already said, there’s little room for such romantic notions in F1.
Will Magnussen race next season in F1? Will he race for McLaren? Will he be the team’s third driver? Will he sign a deal with McLaren and race at Marussia? Right now, nobody knows. And that’s the truth. Sources can confirm this and that, but until pen is put to paper and we have the cold truth out in the open, it is all just talk. Yes there appears to be a very good chance we will se Kevin Magnussen in Formula 1 next season. And he’d deserve to be there. He’s hugely talented. But until ink hits paper, I’m not going to be nailing my colours to where or for whom he will be plying his trade in 2014 even if all the evidence seems to be pointing towards what would be a huge shock.
And make no mistake, it really would be a huge shock. Let’s be brutally honest here. When half of the F1 media centre can’t even be bothered to walk 100 yards to the GP2 paddock, let alone the extra 30ft to the GP3 paddock and are left baffled that there’s a 19 year old lad called Dany Cravat or something apparently racing down there who is going to be making his F1 debut next season, then even fewer will have been aware that Kevin even existed until he won the World Series title and suddenly twigged who the young, slightly awkward looking blonde chap in a McLaren shirt was.
The last two rookies McLaren fielded were Lewis Hamilton in 2007, and Kevin’s father Jan in 1995. If Kevin races for McLaren in 2014, it will be an almighty shock. Even to those who were aware of just how good Kevin was.
But, let’s play devil’s advocate and say that the deal isn’t done. Why let it play out? Why let this bubble to the surface the week of the US Grand Prix and the most important race of the season for Sergio Perez and his Mexican backers? Simple. Because Perez isn’t out of the picture yet. By allowing this to come out now, it applies tremendous pressure on the Mexicans to put more backing into McLaren after the rushed deal that saw Checo land the seat at the tail end of 2012. Why else has McLaren delayed the planned announcement of its 2014 title sponsor, which was due to take place the week after the Brazilian Grand Prix?
I get the feeling there is more to this than simple performance. Perez hasn’t been awful in 2013. Magnussen was impressive in WSR and absolutely mega in his McLaren young driver test. But ultimately, I get the impression that the presence of Magnussen, both with the team at races and now in the press, is to apply pressure on the Mexicans to up their backing of Perez and put more money into McLaren for 2014 and beyond.
I’m likely to be wrong and perhaps Perez really is out on his ear. There is an awful lot of potential investment behind Perez, and if McLaren do throw him away then he, along with Maldonado, could become the one of the most influential players in the driver market.
Lotus, Sauber and Force India have plum rides open for 2014. Silly season is reaching a tantalizing peak.
The last 48 hours have been fascinating. The next 48 could be equally as enthralling.