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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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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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Istanbul Qualifying

I told you Massa was coming good. All weekend he has been on Schumacher’s pace and it was no surprise to me that he grabbed pole in the last few minutes of qualifying. In the race, of course, it will be different – Michael will gravitate to the front and Felipe will ride shotgun.

Felipe Massa

Felipe Massa

Ferrari and Bridgestone still have their advantage in the heat, obviously, but Renault should take heart from the fact that they are back at the front of the Michelin runners. The gap closes and Alonso should be in with a chance of retaining his championship at the end of the year.

BMW Sauber continue to improve and benefited from Ralf Schumacher’s ten-place demotion from fifth, with Heidfeld inheriting Ralf’s position and Kubica in eighth. Jenson Button looked very fast in the Honda but had slipped down to sixth by the end. I suspect that he will have a good race tomorrow with the team still on a high after Hungary.

The surprise of the session was the disappointing form of the McLarens, Raikkonen managing only seventh and de la Rosa missing the second cut in eleventh. It seems this season that as fast as McLaren make improvements, their rivals do the same. For Mercedes, it must be especially galling to see BMW ease past them.

Michael must be favorite for the race win and a Ferrari one-two looks quite likely too. But racing is a funny old game and usually confounds our best guesses. So I’ll not make any prediction but admit that I would dearly love to see the Honda team amaze themselves and everyone else with another win for Jenson Button.

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Felipe Massa

Felipe Massa is putting on a bold face, maintaining confidently that he will have a race drive for 2007. Looking at his performances with Ferrari this season, I think it would be a shame if he is relegated to test driver status. In the last few races he has been getting very close to Schumacher’s times, something few of the German’s other teammates have managed.

There are signs that Massa has matured greatly in this year with Ferrari. From being the guy with a bit of a wild reputation, he has begun to put in some solid, responsible drives that have supported Michael’s campaign to overhaul Alonso in the championship. He is quick, too, and getting quicker.

Massa

Felipe Massa

But nothing is guaranteed in F1. There are plenty of talented drivers around, all looking for a seat, and the number of available places gets smaller as the season draws on. Unless Massa has something lined up already, he may find himself out in the cold.

It was only a few years ago that Michael Schumacher seemed unassailable at the top of F1. We looked around for drivers that could beat him, placed far too much hope in Frentzen, and almost gave up in despair. Times change, however, and now there is at least one Finn who looks more than good enough, a Spaniard who has already demonstrated equality at least with the Shoe, and several young drivers who have the potential to be world beaters.

Which is great for the fans as the competition warms up, but less so for drivers trying to hang on to what they’ve got. The old guard are thinning out and even the ones who were new two or three years ago are having to look over their shoulders.

Massa is one of these, of course. His experience and speed are enough to make him a good buy for any team. But, when all the seats are taken, what can you do…?

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