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Ferrari Gets the Jitters

Once again, Ferrari has affirmed that Michael Schumacher will be closely involved with the team, even when he is not present at the race. This time, it’s their technical director, Mario Almondo, making the announcement.

Tri

The Triumvirate, Brawn, Todt and Schumacher

It all sounds wonderful, with Michael supplied with a remote connection to the team for instant communication, a big office at HQ for the man and even a role for him as talent scout at karting events. Well, okay, the karting is new but haven’t we heard all the rest before? Isn’t it a case of “methinks the lady (in red) doth protest too much”?

What this constant repetition and confirmation of Michael’s position within the team does tell us is that Ferrari too is a bit nervous about the coming season. For years they have relied on “the dream team” to deliver the results and suddenly it is broken and scattered. Who can blame them for wondering whether success has departed with the mighty three, Schumacher, Todt and Brawn?

So they cover their fears with frequent declarations that nothing has changed, Michael and Todt are still on board, even though in different roles, and the red machine will roll smoothly on into the future. It’s themselves they’re trying to convince, not us.

It is apparent too that Ferrari has begun to have doubts about Kimi’s suitability for the team. Last week he was promised a talking-to about his offtrack behaviour, this week we are given the promise that he will smile a lot more. Now there’s one that might not be so easy to deliver, and I’m not even sure I want to see what the frozen-faced Finn’s smile looks like. We are so used to the flat delivery of the men from the land of lakes and forests, after all.

My theory is that it’s not so much that the Finns have absorbed the icy nature of their homeland but rather that their language produces the deadpan, passionless sound that we hear when they speak English. We call them the icemen but in reality they are as passionate as anyone else – it just doesn’t come across that way when they speak a tongue foreign to them. Remember Mika Hakkinen’s despair and tears when he threw away an Italian Grand Prix through a silly mistake?

And now Ferrari wants Kimi to smile. Pardon me for saying so, but there is implied criticism of their new employee in that idea. And that is hardly the way to welcome your new hope for the future.

All signs of nervousness in the Ferrari camp. If I were to wish them well (and I don’t – you know I’m backing Button for 2007), I’d tell them that we already know that Michael will continue in an advisory role and just to get on with it. But as for Kimi, my advice would be to leave the poor guy alone; give him the car and he’ll produce the goods – who cares about his public persona if he’s the fastest man on the track?

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Jean Todt and Ferrari

It seems that all the rumors about Todt leaving Ferrari came very close to the truth. Todt has admitted that he was going to retire if Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Paolo Martinelli had not moved on. With the team splitting up, Todt felt that he needed to continue for a year at least, just to keep things moving in the right direction.

Team

I am no great fan of Ferrari but I have to admit that the team inspires great loyalty amongst its members. You don’t hear drivers complaining about the cars and no team members gripe about working for the company. That might have a lot to do with the way Todt has run the team and he demonstrates his own loyalty by his willingness to continue for the benefit of the company, but it also stems from how il Commendatore used to run the show.

Back in those days, if anyone criticized the cars or the team, they would find themselves without a job very quickly. Even former favorites like John Surteees had the boot for mentioning in public that the cars were rubbish. The style may have changed in that there is no-one of the stature of Enzo Ferrari to dictate as he did, but the effect is the same: Ferrari team members are Ferrari fans.

Which brings me back to my doubts about Kimi Rakkonen’s success in the red cars. He is just not the type to take easily to such a close-knit team. And there is tacit admission of Ferrari’s own fears on that score; apparently he will be asked to keep his partying out of the public gaze.

Which is all very well but does not take into account the fact that Kimi is big news these days. The press will find out somehow about his misdeeds and the rumors will abound. And Ron Dennis has already pointed out that talking to Kimi about such things achieves nothing.

The 2007 season looks like being one of the most interesting for a decade at least. On the track the number of pretenders to the throne has multiplied now that Michael Schumacher has gone. And part of the fun is going to be off-track, with everyone following Kimi’s latest escapade and its effect on Ferrari. I can hardly wait.

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Michael Schumacher and the Future

Now that the last wheel has turned on the 2006 season, the re-shuffles have begun in earnest and speculation is rife as everyone tries to work out what will happen next year. McLaren are hard at work designing a new car specifically for Alonso, Flavio Briatore is looking back over his king-making career and assuring us that the next one will be Heikki Kovalainen, Ferrari are about to announce their biggest shake-up since Michael’s arrival.

Michael

Michael Schumacher

In all of this, Michael has remained enigmatic over whatever plans he has for the future. Personally, I believe him when he says that he really doesn’t know what he will be doing in a few months’ or years’ time. He is taking the usual retiree route of getting away from it all, relaxing into the leisure of not having a schedule and generally enjoying life. Who can blame him? The man has concentrated all of his energies, determination, talent and time into F1 for years; he has earned a break.

You can bet that his thoughts will return to racing eventually, however, and he admits as much in an interview reported to Autosport magazine. He has seen how others like Lauda and Hakkinen have returned to racing after a time and knows that the same might happen to him. But he is talking about two or three years down the line; what will he do in the meantime?

We know that his relationship with Ferrari will continue – that has been repeated many times. Most seem to think that he will serve in a public relations capacity, allowing Ferrari to capitalize on his fame and popularity. But I don’t think this will be enough for Michael.

Take a look at the rumors surrounding Ferrari’s re-shuffle (and they are becoming stronger all the time): Ross Brawn is almost definitely going to take a year off, Jean Todt is slated for promotion to company president and Stefano Domenicali, a Ferrari team manager, is backed for taking Todt’s place. Even without the arrival of a very different driver from Michael in the form of Kimi Raikkonen (with Massa muttering in the background that he won’t find it easy to take number one slot), these are enormous changes to a team that had become very settled and was working with well-greased efficiency. Whoever takes over as team chief is going to have his work cut out with all these variables reacting in concert.

Jean Todt is Michael’s man; the two have worked together for so long that it is hard to imagine them apart. And if, as seems quite likely, the stresses induced by the change in personnel begin to affect the competitiveness of the team, there is only one place that Todt will look for a solution: Michael Schumacher.

Michael is the one who can pull everything together through force of his personality and his popularity with existing team members. It would make perfect sense for him to be attached to the team in an advisory capacity yet with considerable power. There would be no need for him to usurp Domenicali’s role – Michael would be there as a sort of “ultimate authority” to heal any splits and feuds that develop.

In a few months’ time, Michael is going to become very bored; people with his amount of drive and energy do not adapt well to endless leisure. And, if the call comes from Todt, I think he will be ready for it.

This is all idle speculation, of course, and things may pan out very differently. But remember that the man who started it all, Enzo Ferrari, began as a driver, started his own team and made it into the most successful outfit Grand Prix racing has ever seen. If anyone can follow in those footsteps, it is Michael Schumacher.

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Raikkonen’s Indiscretion

Amidst all the fuss about Michael Schumacher’s retirement and the Alonso/Renault championships, one little snippet of news about Kimi Raikkonen put a huge grin on my face. It seems that Martin Brundle, interviewing the Finn for ITV, asked about Kimi missing Pele’s presentation of a gold trophy to Michael Schumacher. Ever a man of few words, Kimi responded with a “Yeah”.

Ron Kimi

Ron Dennis and Kimi Raikkonen

Obviously amused at Kimi’s lack of concern over the matter, Brundle suggested that he would get over it. The Finn’s response blew Martin and live feed viewers away: “Hey, I was having a sh*t.”

Oh blessed moment of reality intruding upon the rarified world of F1! Suddenly we recall that this is the man with the reputation for wild nights in nightclubs, in complete contrast to his deadpan public utterances. Ferrari are getting themselves a character.

Now there’s a thought to give one pause. Could there be a greater difference between the Ferrari number ones of 2006 and 2007? Michael is probably the greatest exponent of press-handling ever seen in F1; Kimi is a public relations bomb waiting to explode.

This surely has to be a worry for the team that Michael built. Yes, they are getting probably the fastest guy on the grid but he will not be quite the same team player as his predecessor. And I can see trouble in store as a result.

Imagine Ron Dennis’ reaction to hearing of Kimi’s statement to Martin Brundle – a loud guffaw would be inevitable. But Jean Todt (if he’s still there next year)? Or Montezemolo? Somehow I can’t see them being very amused. Ross Brawn would probably shrug it off but strong rumor puts him on sabbatical for a while at least.

Historically, Ferrari have always been a difficult team for a driver to win over. Lauda managed it and Schumacher, obviously. Gilles was their darling. But other great drivers have departed in a huff: John Surtees, Jean Alesi, Alain Prost, to name just a few. It seems to me that, unless Kimi starts winning races immediately in 2007, a certain tension will develop in the Ferrari camp. And, once that happens, everything could fall apart.

Raikkonen has made no secret of the fact that he is moving to Ferrari because he wants to win races. I have heard no mention of a lifelong love of the Italian team or anything like it, something that is almost required of new Ferrari drivers. Maybe I’m wrong but it looks to me like a recipe for disaster.

Another interesting item was the news that the Turkish GP organizers have asked that their appeal against the FIA fine be withdrawn. Obviously, they’ve been reading my blog

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