Nigel Roebuck

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Reflections
– Button won his championship in the right way
– Mosley offends royalty on the campaign trail
– Piquet Jr has no one to blame but himself
– Alonso could have joined Kimi at McLaren…

He made us sweat for it, but at Interlagos Jenson Button finally put a lock on a World Championship that looked a forgone conclusion as long ago as May.

At that stage of the season he had won six of the first seven races – already more than the number achieved by Lewis Hamilton in his championship year. Sebastian Vettel had won for Red Bull in the rains of Shanghai, but otherwise it seemed that only a Brawn – and only Button’s Brawn – could win. We began to think back to the bonanza years of Michael Schumacher, to envisage a title clinched by August.

Then the rest, initially caught on the hop by the ‘double diffuser’ controversy, began to catch up. Had the intra-season testing ban not been introduced this year, assuredly it would have taken less time than it did, but you play the hand you’ve been dealt, and it was quite a while before the likes of McLaren and Ferrari came properly into the picture.

Not so Red Bull, though. Silverstone’s long sweepers were a perfect fit for Adrian Newey’s aerodynamic genius, and Vettel and Mark Webber were untouchable. Button never really figured in his home Grand Prix, which at the time we thought unfortunate, but probably just one of those things. In point of fact, it was to be the start of a long and worrying phase for Brawn; certain aerodynamic updates seemed, if anything, to detract from the car’s competitiveness, and when Webber won conclusively at the Nürburgring Jenson’s World Championship began to look emphatically less secure. True enough, he retained a very sizeable lead, but suddenly he was scoring two points here, three there, rather than 10-10-10. Poor qualifying meant that he was giving himself too much to do on race day.

It was to Rubens Barrichello that Brawn primarily looked at this stage of the game. While Button complained of not being able to get sufficient heat into his Bridgestones, Rubens put his naturally more aggressive style to good use, won in Valencia and Monza, and began to look like the championship contender he had claimed to be in the early part of the season.

Best of all for Button, though, was that different drivers were winning. Jenson himself might have lost the victory knack in a car sometimes competitive, sometimes not, but the crucial point was that no one put together a string of wins such as he had enjoyed from March to June. The McLaren may not have metamorphosed into a silk purse, but on some circuits – notably those where KERS had an important part to play – it was a contender, and Hamilton won with it in Hungary and Singapore. It was also KERS that won the Belgian Grand Prix, this time in Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari.

As well as all that, Red Bull’s anticipated challenge wilted, thanks in part to a dangerously low stock of Renault engines available to Vettel for the remainder of the season. And what all this added up to was that Button, while not scoring many points himself, faced no consistent challenge from any one quarter.

Through all this the murmurings began that Jenson was going to back into this World Championship, and while this seemed a touch unfair – he had, after all, won six Grands Prix – still the perception was that he had become… tentative.

One might have expected more of the same in Brazil. Monsoon conditions made something of a farce of qualifying and in Q2 Brawn were perhaps too conservative, sticking with ‘full wets’ throughout when intermediates might have better served them. But whereas Barrichello just made it into Q1 Button did not, and thus qualified 14th. Rubens, meantime, went on to take pole position and Jenson’s only consolation was that Vettel, his other challenger, was starting even behind him.

On Saturday evening it looked unlikely that the World Championship would be resolved at Interlagos, and Button confessed that he actually ‘felt sick’. But perhaps thoughts came back of last year’s race, when McLaren’s over-conservative approach very nearly cost Hamilton the title, for at some point before Sunday afternoon Clark Kent headed into the phone box, and in the opening laps of the race looked like a man transformed, one who wanted this thing settled right there and then.

From the outset Button was assertive and brave, and quickly – further aided by an accident which accounted for Alonso, Trulli and Sutil – he was up into the points. “I personally think that drive was deserving of a World Championship,” he said afterwards, and he was right.

Some will always say that a championship is a championship, no matter how you won it, but I don’t doubt that in his dotage Jenson will remember his as a title clinched the right way, with a fighting drive. To racing aficionados, too, these things matter. Three years ago, also at Interlagos, Schumacher raced a Grand Prix car for the last time, and he wanted to remember it well. Although Michael was never likely to win, and a puncture ruled it out completely, in the late laps he drove perhaps as hard as at any time in his life. He ended with a flourish, putting an imperious pass on Räikkönen, the man who would replace him at Ferrari – and, of course, the man whose signing had ended his Formula 1 career earlier than he might have wished.

Unlike some, Schumacher did not play his last race safe, did not limp into retirement, and in the same way Button did not assume his World Championship, but rather made sure of it with a strong, hard drive.

The post-race behaviour of his vanquished rivals could hardly have been more disparate. Barrichello, ever the consummate team player, smiled sadly after his 287th Grand Prix: “I know how to win and lose…” That he does.

Vettel, though, was simply angry. Memories of the smiling schoolboy have faded more than somewhat this season, as anyone at Red Bull can attest, and there was no pleasure apparent in the team’s victory (by Webber), nor much in the way of congratulation for Button. This, of course, is why Sebastian will himself be World Champion, and probably more than once. Not this year, though. Salute, Jenson.

*****

As I write, election day for the FIA presidency looms, with both the Todt and Vatanen camps confidently anticipating victory.

One shouldn’t, probably, be any longer taken aback by the actions of the outgoing president, but still it has been impossible to be other than shocked by the stance taken by Max Mosley in this pre-election period. From the outset Mosley, far from keeping out of the debate, has made it abundantly clear that he wishes Todt to succeed him – indeed, in his original letter to the FIA member clubs confirming his decision not to stand again, Max strongly suggested they should give their support to the ex-team principal of Ferrari, and there has since been no let-up.

Certainly it may be said that Todt’s campaign, run by ex-FIA man and Mosley spin doctor Richard Woods, has been unrelenting. One has lost count of the e-mails received from ‘JeanTodt&Team2009’, in which the Frenchman’s candidature is apparently endorsed by everyone from Jesus Christ down.

The tone throughout has been one of seamless transition from Max to Jean… the gushing mutual admiration, the undertaking that Todt, while having some ideas of his own, would strive ‘to continue the great work of President Mosley’.

In the eyes of some, this was something of a double-edged sword. “I would be inclined to support Todt,” one F1 team principal chuckled, “only if Max were endorsing Vatanen…”

Not that this fellow has a vote, of course. Only the FIA member clubs, from the USA to the UAE, decide who shall be president.

Throughout the campaign Vatanen, while stopping short of employing phrases such as ‘Augean Stables’, has been openly critical of the manner in which the FIA has been run these years past, and perhaps Ari, only too aware of where lay the sympathies of the FIA hierarchy, figured he had little to lose.

Clearly, though, Vatanen’s words resonated with some, not least the bulk of the Middle East region, which was expected to side with him. Predictably this did not go down well in some quarters, the extent of that revealed in a quite astonishing letter from Mosley to Prince Feisal of Jordan.

‘It is very unfortunate,’ he wrote, ‘but the campaign run by Ari Vatanen has been marked by untruthful claims (such as the false allegation that the FIA provided a private jet to take Jean Todt to Africa), and has now descended to insults such as his recent statements that the FIA is a “stagnant pool” which stinks, and that the entire FIA system is unfair, autocratic and unjust.’

In comparison with the opinions of some of my acquaintance, Vatanen’s remarks would rank as a generous tribute. But as we have seen many times before – notably on the recent occasion of Luca di Montezemolo’s reference to him as ‘a dictator’ – Max, while himself expert at dishing out gratuitous insults, is rather less adept at receiving them. His letter now took a somewhat sinister turn.

‘The great majority of the FIA member organisations fully support the FIA’s current policies. After all, they voted for them. The more Vatanen criticises these policies, and the more insulting and untrue his claims, the more he damages the interests of those associated with him. The FIA membership will naturally assume that his supporters fully endorse his statements.

‘Any thought that, after the election, everyone can unite and work together can now be forgotten. It is not possible to make outrageous and divisive statements like Vatanen’s, and then expect the victims of insults and untruths to forget what has been said.’

I know of a ‘certified half-wit’ – with three World Championships and a Scottish accent – who feels like that.

Mosley: ‘The simple fact is that Vatanen will lose the election, and lose badly, not least because he chose to denigrate the FIA, and those currently in office, rather than run a constructive and civilised campaign.’

Perhaps Ari felt the odds were stacked against him, Max. In every respect.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to read between the lines of the letter to Prince Feisal: vote for Vatanen, and your sin – and that of anyone else who supports him – will be neither forgiven nor forgotten. I confess to being astounded that Mosley would commit something like this to print.

Why do I use a word like ‘sinister’? Because the letter appears to suggest that, after the election, it will be known who voted for Vatanen – to be thereafter consigned to outer darkness – and who did not. But surely, given that the vote is supposedly conducted – according to the FIA Statutes – by secret ballot, that cannot be. Can it?

We have talked about this, my colleagues and I, and someone voiced the opinion that, in some respects, this election put him in mind of that recently conducted in Iran. The rest thought that a horrid thing to say.

Whatever, Mosley’s letter to Prince Feisal achieved precisely the opposite of what had been intended. Outraged, the prince showed it to his brother – King Abdullah – and he reacted in much the same way, the gist of their response being, ‘Who the hell does this man think he’s writing to in this fashion?’

It is perhaps the more remarkable that Mosley should have chosen to send such a letter to Prince Feisal, since it was to the Jordan Rally that he was invited last year in the immediate aftermath of the News of the World affair, when the Bahraini authorities at once made it clear he would not be welcome at their Grand Prix, and Max found himself mighty short of friends.

At a motoring conference in Amman on October 1, the prince responded in dignified, yet unmistakably firm, tones. “Jordan,” he said, “has always maintained a strong relationship with the FIA president, so I am deeply disappointed by the content and the insinuations of his letter, which have raised serious questions as to the credibility of the upcoming and future elections.”

By the time this is read, the result of the election will be known. At the time of writing, the general belief was that, yes, Todt would duly reign in the Place de la Concorde – indeed, such has been the case since note was taken of Mosley’s original letter to the FIA clubs – but still there were many who thought it not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

“Actually,” an insider told me, “this letter to Prince Feisal suggests to me that there is a great insecurity in the Todt/Mosley camp. All the ‘motor sport’ people in the various FIA member clubs and federations are supporting them, and for all the reasons you and I know only too well.

“That’s the ‘motor sport’ clubs, though. The ‘mobility’ clubs are very different. Many of them, like AAA in the States, came out strongly against Max in the News of the World thing – and they haven’t changed. There’s a view that because Formula 1 has the loudest voice that’s what will carry the day, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case. Funny… it was Max who brought in all the mobility clubs, the touring clubs and so on a few years ago, believing he was building his empire: it would be ironic if in the end that worked against him, wouldn’t it?”

I wonder how it all turned out. If his letter to Prince Feisal were anything to go by, Max Mosley seemed to know in advance.

*****

Until recently we tended to think of Timo Glock’s tyres – dry on a wet track – as being the reason why Felipe Massa lost the 2008 World Championship to Lewis Hamilton, but now there’s a case to be made for suggesting the real culprit was Fernando Alonso’s fuel hose in Singapore qualifying.

After practice Alonso – fastest in two of three sessions – had expected to qualify his Renault in the first couple of rows. Had he not been halted out on the circuit in Q2, he would undoubtedly have been up there with the Massas and Hamiltons and Räikkönens – in which case there would have been no need of the skulduggery which followed.

As it was, Alonso qualified only 15th, and it was at that point the plot took seed. For it to have any chance of success, Fernando’s Renault needed to go to the grid with a minimal fuel load, so that he would then make a very early stop, after which Nelson Piquet Jr – before anyone else had stopped – would obligingly park his Renault against a wall, thus bringing out the safety car.

Deadlines being what they are, last month I wrote on this subject before the decisions from the World Motor Sport Council – the suspended penalty for Renault, the bans for Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds – had been announced. Fortunately there was time enough – just – to re-write part of the column, revealing the decisions from Paris in brief, but not to discuss what came later, most notably the content of Symonds’s written statement to the WMSC.

‘The idea for this incident,’ Symonds wrote, ‘was entirely conceived by Nelson Piquet Jr. It was he who first approached me with the idea. At the time I naïvely believed it was something he wanted to do for the good of the team. I was not aware of the position of his contract negotiations, although with the benefit of hindsight I now consider that he believed his actions would have a favourable effect on these negotiations.

‘In mitigation I would like to acknowledge my role in this incident. I was the one who, when the idea was first suggested to me, should have dismissed it immediately. It is to my eternal regret and shame that I did not do so. I can only say that I did it out of a misguided devotion to my team, and not for any personal gain whatever. I consider the role I have played in bringing the team to where it is today to be my life’s work. The last thing I ever wanted was to jeopardise that team and the many people to whom I had an overwhelming responsibility.’

Symonds went on to say that he had always ‘tried to be an honest person’, and no one who has known Pat these many years would dispute that. He got this wrong, knows it, and has acknowledged it, but I personally think it a tragedy that he has been brought down by it. Like Piquet, Symonds was offered immunity by the FIA; unlike Piquet, he chose not to accept it, and has paid the price.

Symonds insisted, however, that the decision to send Alonso to the grid with little more than fumes was not originally anything to do with a plan for Piquet deliberately to crash, but rather with the intention that Fernando should run a short, light, first stint on Bridgestone’s super-soft tyres so as to get them out of the way. A similar strategy, Pat pointed out, was employed this year on Hamilton’s McLaren in Melbourne, where he, too, qualified 15th.

Be that as it may, we all know what happened in Singapore 12 months ago, and I have to say that I find Piquet’s latest outburst of self-pity even more distasteful than those which went before. “Some people have suggested I should have been punished by the FIA,” said the poor boy, “but in reality no one has been punished more than I have. I am at the beginning of my career, unlike the others who have been punished in this case. I am going to have to overcome many obstacles. I more or less have to start my career from scratch in F1 or whatever category I might race in.” Diddums.

According to Symonds, the idea behind ‘crash-gate’ came from Piquet alone, but even if that were not the case the fact remains that he deliberately crashed his car in order to affect the outcome of the race, and to come out with a lot of excuses for his behaviour, to claim he was ‘fragile’ because of the delicate state of his negotiations with Briatore – and to suggest, finally, that it wouldn’t have happened if he’d had his daddy with him in Singapore, is pathetically contemptible.

I think back now to something Jackie Stewart said as we anticipated the 2008 F1 season: “As far as Piquet Jr’s concerned, I don’t dislike the boy, but I think daddy’s too rich and mummy’s too adoring – he’s spoiled, he gets anything he wants. Daddy flies a Citation 10 – and he’d travel from Brazil to watch him in an F3 race! Nelsinho expects everything to come his way… he’s got a short attention span… I think life’s been too easy…”

In the paddock there is remarkably little sympathy for him, not least among his fellow drivers. Robert Kubica put it inimitably well: “Normally, if you go to the police and say you killed someone but you know someone else who killed three people, you will still go to jail…”

The attitude to the whole ‘crash-gate’ episode has been the same throughout motor racing. At Goodwood Stirling Moss, literally stunned by the revelations, said he thought it the worst thing he had ever known in the sport.

It reminded me, I must say, of a line from An Englishman Abroad, Alan Bennett’s sublime play about a meeting in Moscow between the exiled spy Guy Burgess and the actress Coral Browne. When Burgess, desperately homesick, wonders about the possibilities of one day returning to England, the acerbic lady slaps him quickly down: “You pissed in our soup, darling – and we drank it…”

There has been no hint from Piquet of the degree of remorse required by his actions – everything appears to have been someone else’s responsibility – and most view his behaviour as cynical and self-serving: so long as he kept his Renault drive he was willing to keep his mouth shut; only when Briatore dropped him did his father call Max Mosley – who had been aware of the saga for some time – to press the ‘go’ button, which of course saw the end (at least for the time being) of Flavio in F1. QED.

Piquet, we now learn, is to test a NASCAR Toyota truck in the near future. It would surprise me if we were to see him in a Grand Prix car again, but there again the young man has always had substantial backing, and in F1 a fool and his money are soon popular. There is no shortage, God knows, of teams looking for ‘drivers with a budget’, but, that said, this one is very obviously no budding Schumacher – were such the case, indeed, one suspects that memories of ‘crash-gate’ might fade more readily into the past.

It is doubtful, though, that they ever will for one of Piquet’s countrymen. When the safety car went out in Singapore, Massa’s pole position Ferrari had gone away in the lead, and Felipe was looking set for another of his flawless lights-to-flag victories. As it was, he was obliged to join the scramble into the pits, and there – because of the unusual congestion – the team decided to play safe with its green light ‘release’ system, switching from automatic mode to manual. As it was, someone pressed the button too soon, and Massa accelerated away with the refuelling hose still connected.

Although he eventually rejoined, his night, in terms of scoring points, was done; five weeks later, it will be remembered, Felipe was again dominant at Interlagos – and lost the championship by a single point.

One trusts all this has registered with the Paulistas.

Much has been written and said – for and against – about the WMSC’s decision to confine punishments in this lamentable episode to Briatore and Symonds. Renault per se got away with a suspended ban from F1, which is to say scot-free, and that was widely anticipated for more than one reason. First, the company, having carried out its own investigation, lost no time in showing Flavio and Pat the door; second, in then offering no defence against the FIA’s allegations, Renault tacitly admitted it was a fair cop. Always goes down very well with the governing body, that does, as Renault has found in the past.

The other reasons were perhaps rather more pragmatic. Suspension from the World Championship or a fine perhaps comparable with the $100,000,000 demanded from McLaren two years ago would, it is sure, have led to Renault’s immediate withdrawal from F1, and that was not to be risked. For one thing a great many jobs would have been lost, and, for another, let’s bear in mind that Renault not only operates a team but – unlike McLaren – also manufactures engines and supplies them to others. That being so, it perhaps comes into the ‘too big to fail’ category, a phrase we have heard numberless times in reference to banks.

But this is not a time for anyone to be holier-than-thou. In the last couple of years we’ve had spy-gate, lie-gate and now crash-gate, to say nothing of what went before, so it’s fair to say that F1’s unsullied virgin ship sailed a long time ago. Perhaps the rewards of winning – and the consequences of losing – have simply become too great.

*****

Once in a while it comes to pass that a lot of driver contracts expire at the same time, and this is one such: when the 2010 F1 season begins in Bahrain next March the grid will look very different from the one at Abu Dhabi in November.

Nearly always on these occasions there is a pivotal figure involved, a star on whose decision all others depend, and in 2009 that has been Fernando Alonso. He may have had a depressing season at Renault, but what never fails to impress about Alonso is that, competitive car or not, he gives it his best shot. I have thought Fernando the best, most complete driver for some years now.

It is 18 months now since he signed a Ferrari contract for 2011, and from the outset he had his hopes that maybe that might be brought forward a year, for Ferrari’s frustration with the inconsistencies of Kimi Räikkönen have been apparent for some time.

They can hardly be blamed for that: here, after all, is the highest-paid driver of all time, yet so often he has been outshone – and consummately so – by Felipe Massa.

In 2007, yes, Kimi won the world title, and in the second half of that season he was devastatingly good, demonstrating the brilliance of which he is capable, and doing it at race after race; earlier in the year, though, he had disappointed.

That has been Räikkönen’s problem throughout his F1 career: while it is abundantly clear what he can do, it is less so why he doesn’t do it more often.

Since Massa’s accident at Budapest in August, Kimi has been notably more to the fore, and we wondered about that: had he stepped up to the plate in his team-mate’s absence, as has happened many a time through this sport’s history – or would Felipe, had he still been competing, have continued to overshadow him?

“Kimi’s been a different driver since Felipe’s accident,” a Ferrari man insisted at Monza. “But… six great drives in two years is not enough…”

For a long time the Scuderia faced a dilemma. On the one hand there was a strong desire to bring forward Alonso’s contract, to have him in the car as soon as possible. But there remained an admirably resolute commitment to Massa: assuming that he was able to get back to full fitness, to show he had lost nothing, one of the red cars was for him in 2010.

Problem was, how long would it be before the facts were known about Felipe? Around the time of Monza word was that his doctors had suggested he did not test an F1 car until the end of January, and that was of course a concern: what if he were to drive again and find that he wasn’t quite what he had been? Ferrari people didn’t want to give public voice to that thought, and had faith in the medical reports from Brazil and America, but still it was a concern. If Massa were not sufficiently recovered from his injuries, or simply unable to regain his old pace, then what? They could hardly, after all, keep Räikkönen hanging around on the off-chance that they might need him.

For some little time it has been, of course, a matter of money. If Kimi’s deal were to be terminated a year ahead of its expiry date, that was going to cost, and it took some time for Ferrari to reach an accommodation with Räikkönen’s management. That done, the way was clear for the team finally to confirm Alonso’s three-year contract.

They liked Kimi at Ferrari, but in temperament he was unlike any driver they had come across before, and his insouciance – beyond any other I have come across in F1 – they found very difficult to comprehend. Perhaps, as people have said, fundamentally he was better suited to an English team than an Italian.

As I write, Kimi has made no statement about his future, beyond saying that in 2010 he would drive for a top team, or not at all. There was no point, he suggested, in being in F1 for the sake of it – he wasn’t that type. On the face of it, though, only a return to McLaren could fit his bill, and while no announcement has yet been made it has been confidently expected for many weeks.

Just as Räikkönen and Alonso, in different circumstances, could have been Ferrari team-mates, so at one time they might have driven together at McLaren, for that was very much what the management had wanted as they planned for the 2007 season. At a pre-Christmas lunch in Woking, indeed, they spoke of their disappointment in not managing to pull it off.

“To be fair to Kimi,” said Ron Dennis, “if we’d done a better job, he’d have won two World Championships with McLaren. I think he could have contributed a little more sometimes, in terms of how he looked after the car, but broadly it was our failure, not his, and I’m sure that must have contributed to his decision to leave. Overall, Kimi’s period with McLaren was positive, not negative. Of course, it was a little difficult towards the end…”

Indeed it was, and, truth be told, the relationship between Dennis and Räikkönen was, er, never an easy one. As many predicted when he joined the team in 2002, Kimi’s resolute determination to do his own thing was never going to sit easily with Ron’s obsessive sense of order. Monosyllabic in a paddock he may be, but away from a race track Räikkönen, as we know, is a party animal of legendary standing, and when his indiscretions hit the papers Dennis found it hard to smile. Kimi stayed with the team for five seasons, but over time his relationship with Ron deteriorated to a point of no return. Although he didn’t leave McLaren until the end of ’06, he had signed a letter of intent with Ferrari some 18 months before.

“In the autumn of 2005,” said Martin Whitmarsh, “we decided to have a punt at getting Alonso, and we succeeded – he was contracted to Renault for ’06 but able to join us for ’07. Fine. At the time it looked possible that Schumacher would stop at the end of ’06, so it was obvious who you’d want in your car if you wanted to win the world title in ’07: either Alonso or Räikkönen.

“In an ideal world, we’d have had both. We’d signed Fernando and made a good offer to Kimi, but I suppose we felt we’d got the driver we wanted, and if Kimi stayed that would be terrific, but if not, so be it…”

As it was, Räikkönen was off to Maranello, and it was only when Dennis and Whitmarsh knew they had lost him that they started thinking seriously about Hamilton as a team-mate for Alonso in 2007. That saga, of course, has been told too many times to bear repetition here: by mutual agreement Fernando left after a single season, since when he has largely wasted his talents at Renault, while McLaren has largely wasted its second car on Heikki Kovalainen.

So now Alonso heads to Ferrari, while Räikkönen is expected to return to McLaren. It is interesting now to reflect on Whitmarsh’s feelings about Kimi at the time of his departure three years ago.

“There were times,” Martin said, “when his brilliance was apparent – and times when it was less so… Over a season Kimi’s performance was extremely fine, but by the levels of genius he could show on occasions, there were times when his performance was… less than we might have expected.

“Kimi is a feisty individual, who doesn’t like any intrusion in parts of his life that he feels are his business. He’s a very independent, free-spirited guy, and perhaps he objected to our trying to direct and control him too much. He does things his own way, and isn’t going to be dictated to by anybody.”

At the time I wondered how Räikkönen’s personality would gel with Ferrari’s way of going racing: he was unlikely, I suggested, to become a true ‘disciple’, to give his heart and soul to the team. To any team, in fact.

“I’d agree with that,” said Whitmarsh, “but then I don’t know how much Michael became a ‘disciple’ and how much he was an intelligent pragmatist. I think Michael said to himself, ‘How am I going to create a team focused on me?’ He had a very pro-active approach to the team, and recognised that he could contribute to its morale, its commitment, its self-belief.

“The thing is, Michael Schumacher believed in Michael Schumacher. I think he was smart enough to say, ‘If I can bring this team together, as a cohesive, focused outfit, it’s going to make my job easier’. I think the same quality was there in Senna, Prost and Lauda – but I don’t think Kimi has yet tried to do that, and maybe he never will.

“At the time we were trying to persuade him to stay for ’07, with Fernando, he didn’t have a fully signed contract with Ferrari, but I think they’d paid him a sum of money to… not re-sign with McLaren, in effect.

“I suspect Kimi and his management thought, ‘OK, McLaren have signed Alonso – so they aren’t going to be focused on Kimi’. All these drivers want to believe the team is primarily focused around them – they might not articulate that, or even admit it, but you can understand it. After all, that’s what Michael had – the whole team, including his team-mate, committed to maximising his chance of winning the championship.

“Senna was like that. He didn’t have that right contractually, but he was brilliant at managing the team and his team-mate, so that de facto he was number one.”

Alonso and Massa at Ferrari, Button and Rosberg at Brawn, Vettel and Webber at Red Bull, Kubica at Renault, Hamilton and Räikkönen at McLaren, Barrichello at Williams: that’s how it was looking at the time of writing, and, with refuelling banned and KERS out of the way, everything is looking very promising for 2010.

The presumption of Kimi’s return to McLaren is based primarily on his insistence that he will drive only for a top team: no other opportunity suggests itself. Such a move would have been out the question, from Räikkönen’s point of view had Dennis still been at the team’s helm, but Whitmarsh’s less authoritarian regime will be more to his taste. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception in the paddock that anyone who partners Lewis at McLaren is always going to be ‘the other driver’, and not everyone relishes that prospect. Will the Hamiltons be enthusiastic about Räikkönen’s arrival? Maybe yes, maybe no. Kimi won’t care either way.

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