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The F1 silly season is in full swing. Most of us have expected Sergio Pérez to be confirmed alongside Fernando Alonso at Ferrari. But, as explained in this exclusive GPUpdate.net column, whispers coming out of Maranello suggest that the Spaniard is pushing to retain Felipe Massa in order to lower the threat to himself.
Racing drivers are selfish, egotistical and arrogant; that tends to be why people employ them. When it comes to selecting your line-up, in any form of motorsport, the two simple goals tend to be: win the championships for drivers and teams. So, employ the best two drivers to do it? As we have seen on countless occasions in the past, that particular formula can often end in catastrophe.
Over the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix, Ferrari’s home race, all of the attention was on Lewis Hamilton and his possible switch from McLaren to Mercedes. That was great news for the red team, as they remained very much out of the spotlight. Behind the scenes, though, Luca di Montezemolo and Stefano Domenicali have a very tough decision on their hands. We already know - because the team confirmed it on their website - that the pair had a lengthy discussion on Monday.
Think back to the glory years. Michael Schumacher dominated and, although he was treated badly at times, Rubens Barrichello assisted for team glory all the way through from 2000 to 2004. After the episode of Monaco 2005, the Paulista finally slung his hook. But he put up with Austria, 2001 and 2002, because there was simply no other competitive seat that he could have filled. The McLaren and Williams arrangements were sorted and so Rubens lived with the stress. This was ideal for Ferrari; one driver had the edge, meaning the pair of them couldn’t fight each other, to easily sew up double titles time after time. Of course, big reasons for this were the particular struggles of their closest rivals, developing Michelin tyres as the Ferrari-Schumacher-Bridgestone partnership went from strength to strength.
They no longer have that luxury. Several teams are now contending, meaning Ferrari has to have two strong drivers in order to stand any chance of winning the constructors’ title. Think about it. Why wouldn’t Ferrari want Pérez? He is out-racing his customer-engined Sauber and overtook both Ferrari cars at Monza. He’s been on the podium three times and is impressing far more than Massa did in any of his three Sauber campaigns. Surely this one is a no-brainer? Think again.
Fernando Alonso is no idiot. His current circumstances are familiar to 2005 and 2006: race-winning car, slower team-mate and a half decent shot at the title. The problem for Ferrari now is that too many other cars are finishing between Alonso and Massa. Back at Renault, Giancarlo Fisichella may have been slower but, as the grid wasn’t as full of such competitive cars, losing a place or two didn’t prevent them from winning the teams’ title. This leaves Montezemolo in a tricky position.
Ferrari clearly needs Alonso. That has been proven this season alone and the fact that, back in May 2011, they agreed terms up to and including 2016 only backs that up. The issue: as much as Fernando may want Ferrari to win, his own intentions come first. Should a Mexican roadblock be put in place, there are obviously going to be tears. Alonso remembers 2007 all too well and we publically saw how the Spaniard, then the reigning double World Champion, reacted (childishly at times) against Lewis Hamilton, even though both were to blame for their eventual loss of the title. Older and wiser nowadays, there is no chance in hell that he wants a repeat performance. Pérez has a sheer ability when it comes to raw speed and simultaneous tyre management: a vital combination in the modern age of Pirelli tyres. So, could he take on Alonso with identical equipment? Given a while, of course he could.
Equally, Ferrari know as well as anybody that running two star drivers can end in, quite literally, a tragedy. In 1982, there was fierce competition between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. In front of their home crowd at Imola, the latter disobeyed team orders to win. Two weeks later, Villeneuve was on the limit in qualifying at Zolder, desperate to beat his team-mate, when he struck the back of Jochen Mass at high-speed and lost his life. Pironi suffered career-ending injuries in Germany that summer and Keke Rosberg won the title for Williams.
Having spoken to sources in Maranello, my understanding is the following. Alonso is desperate to keep Massa. The pair are on good terms and Felipe has proven that he can still perform. Drafting Pérez into the team would only be a distraction. Sure enough, if Massa always did what he did in Italy on Sunday – ie. finish one place behind Alonso in every race – then you can be sure that Ferrari would have signed a fresh contract long ago. One problem. As has been demonstrated between 2010 and now, that is not often the case. Perhaps some similar performances between Singapore and Brazil could yield Massa another year, but it is probably too late.
Alonso has power at Ferrari. Domenicali knows it. So does Montezemolo. And, quite frankly, neither of them can afford more lashings in the Italian press. They must perform and, therefore, they must keep their lead man happy. Pérez has already hinted that he intends to stay at Sauber and, as a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, his time will come. For now, Ferrari is in need of a solid performer. And that is not Sebastian Vettel, as the Scuderia keeps suggesting; this is no more than a smokescreen to mask reality. Can you really imagine Vettel being allowed to race alongside Alonso, in the squad Fernando is building up? Carnage would ensue.
What Ferrari needs is a proven race winner, hungry for success and deprived of any for the past four years. A cool-headed Finn with experience and respect for his employer and team-mate. I don’t mean Kimi Räikkönen. I mean the man who McLaren used to replace Alonso. Step forward, Heikki Kovalainen.
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