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Lewis Hamilton and McLaren

Ron Dennis has a very difficult decision to make in the coming weeks – who should get the second McLaren seat alongside Fernando Alonso? Naturally, we want him to pick the young shooting star of GP2, Lewis Hamilton. And, looking at BMW Sauber’s success in finding potential winners in Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel, it would seem well worth giving Hamilton a chance.

Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton

Personally, I don’t go for the “he needs more experience first or you’ll spoil him” argument. Most drivers are young when they start in F1 and, if they are going to be any good at all, they survive and prosper. Also, the jump from GP2 is not as great as the difference between F1 and F3, which supplied a lot of drivers in times gone by, and this has a lot to do with Kubica’s and Vettel’s apparently effortless promotion; there is no reason why Hamilton should not adjust just as quickly.

It must be admitted, however, that Pedro de la Rosa has done a good job of stepping into Montoya’s seat after his departure. He has experience behind him and is quick enough to support Alonso in 2007. And Alonso has already said that he does not mind who gets the second McLaren – in typical champion fashion, his goal is the crown again next year and he knows that he will have to work for it, regardless of who his teammate happens to be.

But it matters to Ron Dennis. He has the constructor’s championship to think about as well, after all. And the sensible thing would be to stick with the driver who has proved he can bring in the points – de la Rosa. Common sense would suggest that a place be found for Hamilton in another team until he has won his spurs and I think this is what Ron will try to arrange.

Yet there are not a lot of seats left and, should there be nothing available for the young Brit, Ron still has the problem of which driver to put in the second McLaren. In that scenario, he could go for Hamilton. He must have memories of how Hakkinen stepped up to the plate when Ayrton Senna left and he has seen another young lion, Kimi Raikkonen, go straight to the front when given his chance. I can imagine Ron wanting to prove that Flavio Briatore is not the only one in F1 who can pick a future star.

In fact, Ron’s record of replacing one great driver with another has been just as good as Flavio’s over the years. So I think Ron might well opt for Hamilton in the end – and Lewis seems to think so too.

Now that would be a team to watch – Alonso and Hamilton, a champion and a potential star.

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Shanghai Qualifying

The qualifying sessions for the Chinese Grand Prix have confirmed what we already knew: Michelin’s wet tire has an advantage over Bridgestone’s. With the track very wet from the start and then drying slowly and in patches, the Bridgestone runners were in trouble. Of them all, only Michael Schumacher managed to squeeze into Q3.

He then put the Ferrari into sixth spot on the grid, almost a superhuman feat, given the disadvantage of the tires. Whatever we think of him as a man, there is no doubting his driving skills.

Alonso

Alonso in the wet

It was Michelin’s day, however, and they made the best of it. The Renaults were the class of the field, easily grabbing the front row, Alonso on pole. Perhaps surprisingly, the Hondas were next up with Barrichello third and Button fourth. Their times were identical but the Brazilian set his before Jenson and so goes ahead.

Then came the McLarens, sandwiching Michael. Raikkonen did very little running until Q3, perhaps confident that he could get the time when he needed it. And, although Pedro de la Rosa spun his McLaren into some elegant manouvers off-track, he will be sufficiently close to his teammate to support him in the race.

The BMW Saubers were next up, Heidfeld ahead of Kubica, and tenth spot was claimed by Robert Doornbos – an excellent effort for his first race for Red Bull.

Now thoughts turn to the race, of course, and that means the weather. The meteorologists seem a little confused and some are predicting dry conditions, others opt for rain. All we can say for sure is that, if it rains, the Renaults will win. If it turns out dry, they will still be in with a very good chance but Michael and Kimi are not likely to make it easy for them.

Highlight of qualifying? That has to be Scott Speed in his Toro Rosso – for a few minutes it looked as though he would make it into Q3. And his time in Q2 would have put him in seventh spot, had he been able to repeat it. As it is, he starts from eleventh – not a bad effort at all.

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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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Webber Waits

Much of the gossip of the moment centers on where Mark Webber will be heading for 2007. Frank Williams is in no hurry to sign him up for another season, it seems, and has let his option expire, perhaps with the intention of offering Mark the drive but for less money. Former champion, Alan Jones, has advised Mark to stay put and this might be a good plan, provided he gets the offer. Meanwhile there is the possibility of a drive at McLaren or Renault, although this looks a little unlikely, given the numerous driver options available to those teams.

Mark Webber

Mark Webber

Much hinges on Kimi Raikkonen’s eventual decision. If he leaves McLaren for Ferrari, Webber’s stock must increase in view of his talent and experience. And, if Kimi goes to Renault, it would make sense for McLaren to take Mark on for the second car alongside Alonso. But, if Kimi stays at McLaren, all bets are off and Mark would do best to stay where he is.

It looks as though Alan Jones is right; Mark should stick with Williams. The chances of a drive with Renault are remote to say the least, especially when we remember Fisichella’s statement that his teammate for 2007 will be a Finn. McLaren already have a star signed up in Alonso and so are most likely to offer the second car to someone they know, Pedro de la Rosa or Gary Paffett. So Mark can do little but wait to see what Frank will offer him.

Formula 1 is perhaps the only sport in which it becomes fairly common for drivers to take a pay cut. I think Ayrton Senna started the trend when he once offered to drive for Williams for nothing. But it is only the stars who can afford to do that; at the back of the grid new drivers are on a pittance and often bring much-needed sponsorship money with them. Webber must have been receiving a good wage at Williams and could afford to settle for less, I would think.

However, if I were Ron Dennis, I’d be thinking seriously about giving the second seat to Webber. Experience counts and his other options can get their experience in lesser teams – their time will come. David Coulthard spent many years with McLaren and always did a sound, competent job for them. Mark Webber could do the same but with the added frisson that he might just prove quicker than we’d thought. His performance in Germany gave some hint at that.

Whatever happens, I hope Mark does not run out of options. It would be a pity if he were to find himself without a decent drive for next year.

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