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Michael and Kimi – Musical Chairs

Sometimes you just have to laugh. The rumor mill is becoming so desperate about the future of Michael Schumacher that its latest speculations border on the realms of fantasy. One rumor is that there will be three drivers on the card to be announced by Ferrari at Monza – Schumacher, Felipe Massa and Raikkonen – but their status for 2007 will be decided at a later date.

Schumacher and Massa

Schumacher and Massa

Ummm, yeah, okay. So are they saying that Michael might be retained as a test driver? I’m sure we can all see that happening (not!). All it really means is that nobody knows because Michael has not made his decision yet and probably won’t have by the time of the announcement. If anything, I suppose it gives some support to the view that Michael does not relish the thought of Kimi as his teammate next year.

This possibility is strengthened by a report that Kimi has signed two contracts for 2007, one with Ferrari and the other with Renault. The idea is that the Renault deal includes a clause that allows Raikkonen to drive for Ferrari if Michael retires. I can just about see Renault signing such a compromise, so desperate are they to get the Finn, but Ferrari is another matter. And there is no mention of a clause in the Ferrari contract to release Kimi if Michael stays. Will Kimi end up doing a Hockenheim on us by driving for the two teams alternately?

The whole thing is ridiculous and, to be frank, no driver is worth such insane contractual deals. Michael’s status has been so elevated over the years that it becomes almost possible to believe that team managers would squabble over the top drivers in this way but that gives them little credit for understanding the real abilities of drivers. Michael is pretty good, yes, but so are many more in the F1 paddock.

I do not have “sources close to Ferrari” and Flavio doesn’t even know my name. Any guess at the outcome of all this is based entirely upon observation and a bit of common sense. And my prediction, for what it’s worth, is that Michael will stay at Ferrari, whether or not he wins the Championship, and Kimi will go to Renault. Another week or so and we should see how close to the truth I am.

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Imola, Hockenheim and Istanbul

With the release of the FIA’s timetable for 2007, the focus has changed to circuits. Imola and Hockenheim are missing from the schedule, as expected, but both are still hoping to stage Grands Prix one way or another.

The organizers of the San Marino GP are pinning their hopes on the completion of required renovations to the Imola track before a race date in April. The existence of a four-week gap at that point in the schedule makes this seem possible. Although it would seem to contradict the FIA’s intention to reduce each participating nation to one GP, it may be that Imola will get a reprieve until some other country (India?) is ready to host one.

Imola

Imola

Things look much bleaker for Hockenheim. In its new, truncated form, it is not the most popular of circuits and the organizers’ attempt to alternate the GP with the Nurburgring seems more optimistic now that the circuit has been omitted from the FIA schedule. Increasingly, it appears that the circuit will just be quietly forgotten in the future.

Politics appears likely to do for the Istanbul race. The Turkish selection of Northern Cyprus’ leader to hand the trophy to Felipe Massa on the podium was both a deliberate political statement and a monumental blunder. Circuits have been dropped for less.

The FIA is taking the matter seriously after protests from the governments of both Cyprus and Greece, and is investigating the matter. With their determination to remain politically neutral, the banning of the Turkish GP seems inevitable, and rightly so. F1 should never be used for the political purposes of any country.

The wonderful new circuit at Istanbul Park may be lost to F1 therefore. That will be a great shame but is more than compensated for by the return of Spa-Francorchamps, indisputably the greatest circuit on the modern calendar. And it gives additional impetus to Imola’s prospects for survival. The loss of the Turkish GP would reduce the schedule to 16 races only and there would definitely be a good reason to keep the San Marino GP in that case.

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Alonso and the Engineers

In previous posts in this blog, I have wondered just how good a driver Fernando Alonso is. New evidence as to his abilities emerges all the time, but the Renault team have now released some thoughts on the matter. Fernando’s race engineer, Rod Nelson, had this to say about Alonso’s battle with Schumacher in Turkey:

“Fernando knew that the only passing opportunities were on the back of the circuit after turn 8, and he was saving his high revs for the two straights between turns 8 and 12 – literally turning the engine up and back down around the lap.”

“His engine engineer (Remi Taffin) and I were discussing what revs he had available to use, when we saw he was managing the situation already. It was typical Fernando – always thinking ahead, working his way around problems and delivering the goods. He was calm in the car – but I was pretty stressed on the pit-wall!”

That is a very revealing indication, not only of Fernando’s racing brain, but also of how complex driving an F1 car is these days. There are innumerable settings within the car that can be tweaked during the race and, to be able to fiddle with these in the heat of competition, is some measure of a driver’s ability.

Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso

It was Ayrton Senna who first admitted to using a two-foot driving style through corners, staying on the accelerator and adjusting the car’s speed with dabs at the brake. It took time for the others to copy this (some never managed it) and it is a useful example of how small refinements of technique can make the difference between a competent driver and a gifted one.

These days, everything about a driver’s style can be known; so much telemetric information is fed back to the engineers in the pits that they can tell exactly where a driver hits the brake, how he handles the throttle and what adjustments he makes. There is nowhere to hide.

So, when a driver’s race engineers offer an opinion on his skills, we can be pretty certain that they know what they’re talking about. If Rod Nelson thinks Alonso is the business, he is almost definitely right. Loyalty may have an influence on such judgments but no-one enthuses unless they mean it from the heart – and Rod was enthusing when he made those remarks.

I was coming to the same conclusions (honest) even before the Renault team offered their opinion but now I am sure. McLaren are getting one excellent race driver for next season. And he will probably be World Champion too.

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Reflections on the Istanbul GP

I am beginning to think that Brazil has a new star. Not only did Felipe Massa win in Turkey, he made it look easy. Michael can mutter about pace cars and pit stops as much as he likes but the fact is Massa was better all weekend and made no mistakes.

Felipe Massa

Felipe Massa in Turkey

There were a handful of occasions when Barrichello was Michael’s teammate that he too looked the better, but they were few and far between. The difference in what Massa is doing is that he keeps improving in both technique and maturity, leading us to wonder just how much better he can get as he learns the Ferrari. He is still in his first season with the team, remember.

You can say that Massa gained the pole only through a couple of Schumacher mistakes but that ignores the reason for mistakes; invariably, they are the result of trying too hard. And, if Michael was twice pressured into mistakes that cost him pole position, it would seem pretty clear that he knew he had his work cut out to beat Massa. The Renaults were never a threat to him.

As it happens, the result was both the worst and best possible for Ferrari. Worst, because Michael lost out on a victory that would have closed the gap to Alonso in the championship; best because the team gained on Renault and because they avoided the embarrassing scenario of having to order Massa to let Michael through into the lead. Would they have done it? Jean Todt won’t say now, of course, but Massa was ready to do it, slowing on his final lap in case Michael managed to get past Alonso.

It was a good race for the fans too, with plenty of battles and overtaking throughout the field. Button confirmed that the Honda is coming good with a strong and unchallenged drive to fourth. Barrichello reiterated the lesson with race-long duels ending in a well-deserved eighth place.

Kubica looked good in the BMW Sauber until the tires went off. Although the team were disappointed with their performance, I would say that they have great days to look forward to with the young Polish driver; all it needs is that they start getting the tire choice right.

Otherwise, it was pretty much business as usual, with the Toyotas making it difficult for themselves but showing what might have been, the Williams fading away after a good start and the little teams flying off the road at every opportunity. McLaren had a race they will want to forget as soon as possible.

But it was Massa’s day, even if we couldn’t keep our eyes off the Schumacher/Alonso battle in the last few laps. That is the way with dominant wins – they lack the excitement of a tussle, merely demonstrating the superiority of man and machine on the day. Who would bet against Massa having one or two more like that before the end of the season?

If he’s allowed to, of course…

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