Monday, August 24, 2009

All the F1 action in Spain was off the track

It was perhaps inevitable that the European Grand Prix weekend in Valencia, Spain, was going to be a little flat. Michael Schumacher was there all right, and wearing Ferrari clothing--but not the driver’s suit virtually everyone hoped he would. Michael smiled a lot, and kept wishing Ferrari stand-in Luca Badoer well, but that didn’t really help. And as he stared at the timing screens, it was impossible to disguise his frustration at Badoer’s, er, modest pace.
During Friday practice, the hapless Badoer set a record by exceeding the pit lane speed limit on four different occasions-—as the paddock’s razor-tongued observers noted, somewhat cruelly, that no one could accuse him of excessive speed on the race track. In qualifying, the No. 3 Ferrari was dead last; 12 months ago, driven by Felipe Massa, it dominated the weekend.
You had to have some sympathy for Badoer, however, as he had not raced an F1 car since 1999, and though he is Ferrari’s official test driver, has virtually no experience of the F60 now that in-season testing is banned.
Some wondered why Ferrari did not draft a guy such as Sebastien Bourdais, whom Scuderia Toro Rosso fired recently. Bourdais may not have set F1 on fire, but he is at least very much race-fit, and fully conversant with both the Ferrari engine and Bridgestone slicks.
Though Ferrari will not make the announcement before the Italian Grand Prix at Monza next month, Fernando Alonso is to drive for the team in 2010, with Massa--assuming he recovers fully from his injuries suffered in Hungary--returning to partner him.
The suggestion in Valencia was that Ferrari reached an agreement with Kimi Raikkonen to end his contract a year early. During three years with the team, Raikkonen, despite nicking the world championship two years ago, has rarely looked anything like the driver he was at McLaren-Mercedes, and it is not known whether he will stay in F1--Renault has been mentioned--or perhaps turn his hand to rallying. During the recent summer break, Kimi took part in Rally Finland--he rolled his car--but not before impressing onlookers with his raw speed.
Given that it is now accepted that Alonso will join Ferrari, the driver market has come very much to life, and of course BMW’s forthcoming withdrawal has contributed to that: Robert Kubica, who has the measure of anyone in terms of natural talent, is unexpectedly available.
Kubica has been linked with three teams--McLaren, Renault and Williams--but the belief at the moment is that current Williams driver Nico Rosberg will join his old karting teammate Lewis Hamilton at McLaren. Renault, soon to lose Alonso, is believed to be keen to sign Kubica, but Robert himself is believed to have more enthusiasm for Williams, a team very much on the up at the moment.
Williams’ problem for 2010 could be engines, for it is known that Toyota, which has supplied the team for the last three years, is profoundly displeased by Williams’ stance in the recent FIA-FOTA battle, and may well terminate the contract. Rumors abound that Red Bull Racing will use Mercedes engines next year; if that happens, Williams and Renault could very well renew the highly successful partnership last seen in the mid-’90s.
Quite evident in Valencia qualifying was that McLaren is emphatically back on its game. Hamilton won in Hungary, but perhaps his car wasn’t the out-and-out quickest: at Valencia, though, Lewis won the pole, with teammate Heikki Kovalainen alongside him.
Only McLaren and Ferrari still use kinetic energy recovery systems, and as the teams improve their once lamentable cars, KERS can make a difference: An extra 80 hp for six seconds a lap can come in quite handy. Imagine the advantage it might provide in the next race, at Spa, up the long hill from Eau Rouge to Les Combes. Indeed, Hamilton will not retain his title this year, but he may well have a say in who takes it.


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