World champions Kimi RAikkonen and Fernando Alonso remain the keys to the Formula 1 driver market for 2009, as their plans for the future dictate the line-ups of teams up and down the grid.
Räikkönen is contracted to Ferrari until the end of ’09, and it is widely anticipated that the Finn will retire at that stage. Although he will only just have turned 30 years old, he’ll have raced at the top level for nine seasons – eight of them with the pressure of being in one of the two top teams.
Ferrari has acted well in advance and lined up Alonso as his replacement, just as it contracted Räikkönen long before Michael Schumacher made his retirement announcement. The complication is that Räikkönen may decide to quit at the end of this year, although he plays down such suggestions: “I only said that I have a contract until the end of next year, and then somebody made up that I will stop at the end of this year or the end of next year, but I never said that.”
It seems unlikely that the Finn would make such a decision before the outcome of this year’s World Championship is known. If he does stop Alonso could step straight into his place, but there’s a question over how long the Spaniard would be able to wait until he has to make a commitment for 2009.
If the Ferrari seat is not immediately available he faces the prospect of a single season elsewhere. Last winter he was keen to find a one-year deal that would allow him to keep his options open for ’09, but ultimately agreed to return to Renault in a two-year deal. It’s not clear what legal hold the Anglo-French team has on him, but Renault has not reached the performance targets that lured the Spaniard back.
Honda’s Ross Brawn has expressed a keen interest in hiring Alonso, even on the basis of a one-year arrangement, because the team feels that it can provide him with a competitive package. BMW has yet to confirm its drivers for 2009, and there are question marks over Nick Heidfeld’s future.
Alonso suggests that it may be a while before the picture becomes clear: “I have a contract with Renault for the long term. But of course at the end of every season you need to look at what the possibilities are. It is not the time now in the middle of August to think, but for sure in September and October, I will have a think and we will decide.
“Obviously I am just 27 years old and still have many years to come. Even Michael Schumacher, the guy with more titles, spent four years at Ferrari not winning, so I need to be patient and I need to work harder than ever now to win again as soon as possible.”
Should Alonso end up at Honda, either Jenson Button or Rubens Barrichello will become available, while a seat will also open up at Renault. Nelson Piquet’s form has improved of late and he may be retained, but Franco-Swiss GP2 driver Romain Grosjean is being groomed for promotion. Flavio Briatore could have a problem, however, finalising a line-up that will satisfy his bosses.