As the teams headed away from Budapest to begin the five-week break before the next race, at Spa, the standings in the Constructors’ Championship looked liked this: Red Bull 246, McLaren 193, Lotus 192, Ferrari 189. Among the drivers, Fernando Alonso (164) headed Mark Webber (124), Sebastian Vettel (122) and Lewis Hamilton (117).
The glaring anomaly, of course, is that the driver comfortably leading the World Championship works for the team lying only fourth in the constructors’ table. In one way, you could say that Ferrari’s place is the correct one, the F2012 being currently only the fourth best car in competition; in another, you could point to the virtuosity of Alonso, who has scored 164 points in the fourth best car; in another yet, the inescapable fact is that Felipe Massa has contributed but 25 points, and sits 14th in the drivers’ standings.
Ferrari’s option on Massa, to continue with the team for an eighth season, expired on July 31, and the team declined to take it up. Of late Felipe has shown better form, and it had been thought that maybe – maybe – he might be kept on board, after all. Ferrari’s decision not promptly to take up the option on his services does not definitively mean that he is out for 2013, but his retention seems, at best, extremely unlikely.
Upon the announcement of his re-signing with Red Bull, after all, Mark Webber admitted that he had seriously considered an offer from Ferrari before deciding to stay put. And in recent weeks several other names have been put forward as potential team-mate to Alonso next year.
In the past Ferrari has held talks with Jenson Button (or his management), and at Hockenheim the word in the Italian press was that Jenson was again at the top of the team’s wish list. It has often been said that a contract means nothing in F1, being no more than something available for sale at the right price, but in 2011 Button signed a new multi-year deal with McLaren, and it seems more than unlikely that he will move anywhere in the foreseeable future.
Next, Sergio Perez. Like the now forgotten Nelson Piquet Jr before him, the heavily-bankrolled Perez has long given the impression that his future is all mapped out for him, that ‘ere long he will slide into a Ferrari seat. Perez has indeed driven some excellent races this year, and it’s possible that some in Maranello think as highly of him as he apparently does of himself, but still his form has been erratic, and in June Luca di Montezemolo suggested that, while he rated Perez, he would prefer to have a more experienced driver alongside Alonso. Still a possibility, though.
Then there are the two Finns in the equation. At the end of 2009 Ferrari terminated Kimi Räikkönen’s contract a year ahead of time, so as to be able to bring Alonso into the team as soon as possible. It was not a particularly amicable parting, but in Hungary Räikkönen said that the past was the past, that nothing was impossible – as, say, a return to McLaren would have been, had Ron Dennis still been running the team.
To me, this is the biggest surprise of all, frankly. Since returning from two years’ rallying to F1 this season, Kimi has driven superbly for Lotus (although some in the paddock suspect that last ‘edge’ has gone), but there’s no doubt that he disappointed Ferrari, in terms of his commitment to the team, and in terms of his driving in 2008/’09, and that surely cannot have been forgotten. Räikkönen may indeed be back on form these days, and I’ve been wrong before, but still it would surprise me to see him in red again.
Last, Heikki Kovalainen. True, he disappointed McLaren in his two years – ‘08/’09 – with the team, and he well knows he didn’t make the most of a great opportunity, finishing seventh and 12th in the World Championships. That said, Kovalainen’s fundamental talent has never been in doubt, and he has quietly impressed a lot of people during his time with the Caterham (nee Lotus) team – it cannot be easy, after all, to go from McLaren to a backmarker team, and keep your motivation and sense of optimism alive, but that is what Heikki has managed to do.
In many ways, Kovalainen might be a very sensible choice for Ferrari; like Massa, he is an amenable fellow who doesn’t make waves – and assuredly he would score many more points than poor Felipe has done these two and a half seasons past. The importance of the Constructors’ Championship to di Montezemolo, let us remember, can hardly be over-stressed.
Heikki might, too, be prepared to accept a one-year deal, such as Webber has long had at Red Bull. In Italy the rumours have long persisted, after all, that for 2014 Ferrari’s sights are on Sebastian Vettel…