Drivers under pressure

By on Wednesday, June 1, 2011

After six races of any Formula One season, an order has been established and certain drivers have met expectations, whilst others have failed to deliver the goods. So after the opening stint of 2011, who is under pressure to improve and what will happen if they don’t?

Mark Webber

Of the drivers featured here, Webber is probably the one under the least pressure. It’s a strange case. Webber actually has one more point at this stage of the season than he did last year. However, there have been no dominant victories and his team mate has amassed 143 points, 64 points more than the Australian. After six events, that’s a worrying lead. What’s more is that since Monza last September, Webber has outqualified Vettel just once – in Barcelona and has not actually beaten him in a race – where both finished – since the Hungarian Grand Prix.

But does that constitute pressure? Last season, Webber’s competitiveness created headaches for Red Bull. They wanted both titles, but the Turkey crash, Webber’s pace, a few dodgy decisions along the way and Vettel’s poor reliability left them in a situation that they weren’t overly keen on. Red Bull still got what they wanted – a Vettel title and the Constructors Championship – but there was a lot of strain along the way.

This year, Vettel is running away with the title, whilst Webber is still collecting a substantial amount of points needed for his own sake and for the Constructors Championship. Therefore despite lagging behind Vettel, there should be little reason for Red Bull not to extend Webber’s contract.

Felipe Massa

Massa’s troubles have been well documented for the past two years, from that awful accident in Hungary right up to last weekend’s race in Monaco. The plain fact is that irrelevant of any team orders, Massa is not as fast as Alonso.  The problem is that he needs to be closer to Alonso and beat him more regularly. Massa put his problems in 2010 down to the tyres and troubles in heating them in qualifying. One year on and the pace is still lacking. Hockenheim arguably knocked Felipe back a bit, but that was one occasion in 2010 where he could have won. Even then, Alonso was faster. Whatever the problem, Massa hasn’t taken a pole position or won a race since the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. To stay at Ferrari that long – okay, 2009 can be classed as an exception – and perform so sub-standard, is almost unheard of. Furthermore, Massa isn’t doing a good enough job to even be considered as a number two driver. Out of the 5 occasions that Alonso won in 2010, Massa was runner-up just once. Since the start of Alonso’s relationship with Ferrari, Massa has claimed 168 points against Alonso’s 321. That is a substantial deficit.

There are other statistics that provide a damning indictment of Massa’s ability. Since the start of 2010 – 25 races - , Massa has spent 237 laps (out of 1394) in the podium positions, 45 of them in the lead. In 2008 alone, Massa led 363 laps out of 1057 laps. Compare that with Alonso in the same time period. In 25 races, Alonso (out of 1491 laps) was in the top three for 727 of them. A big difference. The silly errors that marred his early career have also crept back in.

Ferrari maintains that Massa will be with them in 2012. He is going to need to show them that he deserves such a lucrative seat, because since 2009, he has not performed to the expected standard. Ferrari has plenty of admirers, whilst the Sauber duo is also awaiting the chance to drive for a top team, having impressed many this year. But for a piece of illegal rear wing in Australia, Kobayashi would be ahead of Massa in the championship.

Nick Heidfeld

A surprise, perhaps? After all, Nick Heidfeld sits 6th in the championship with a respectable 29 points. Vitaly Petrov, meanwhile, is three places beneath him on 21 points. However, what Eric Bouiller, Renault’s team principal, said to AUTOSPORT suggests that Heidfeld needs to up his game. When asked about Heidfeld’s season so far, Bouiller responded "Let's say good, but not good enough.” That is perhaps a strange comment to make; after all, it doesn’t boost a driver’s confidence. Perhaps Bouiller knows that he can’t say that about Petrov, for sponsorship reasons. But why say that about Heidfeld at all? The fact is that Renault is in a strange situation. The lack of Kubica means that it is difficult to work out how much Petrov has improved. That means that Petrov’s form is being based on how Heidfeld matched up against Kubica. The problem with that is that it varied every year. Many think Heidfeld should be doing a better job, but the fact is that we just don’t know the potential of the R31. What will be a worry are the qualifying performances, but with Heidfeld taking points from the last two races despite starting 15th and 24th, surely Sunday matters more? Heidfeld is running out of time to win in F1 and options look bleak. He should be grateful for this chance, but maybe Renault expected more from him on the development side? Who knows. The fact is that Heidfeld is effectively ‘best of the rest’, but after these comments from Bouiller, you’d imagine that Bruno Senna is frantically ringing his sponsor, Embratel. Although with rumours circulating about Kubica’s future – and the fact that as a result of his accident his contract with Renault is thought to have been ended – Renault might be relying on Heidfeld for more than just 2011.

Toro Rosso drivers

Irrespective of their current form or points, both Toro Rosso drivers are inevitably under most pressure. But over in Faenza, you’d say the man under more pressure is Jaime Alguersuari. Nearly two years into his F1 career and the improvements have yet to materialise. Admittedly, 2009 was a write-off for his inexperience was worrying but throughout 2010 he showed signs of a performance increase and towards the end of the season, he was faster than Buemi, but this was masked by a myriad of misfortunes, largely with the car. This season though, he has been largely overshadowed by his Swiss rival. Buemi has finished in the points three times, amassing seven points. Alguersuari on the other hand, has a best finish of 13th in Australia, which later became 11th when the Saubers were disqualified. His admission that he deliberately hit Kamui Kobayashi during Q1 in Monaco – albeit at low speed – has left a sour taste in the mouth of much of the Internet community. That is not the sort of behaviour expected from a professional driver. It has not been a great start to the season. There have been flashes of promises – such as 7th on the grid in China – but overall, you’d tip Alguersuari to be dumped. Rumours linking an Abu Dhabi bank with Spanish sponsors buying into Toro Rosso could save the Spaniard. At only 21 years of age, he deserves another chance. Buemi too is not out of the water yet. This is his third season of F1 and unlike Alguersuari, he had plenty of testing before his debut at the start of 2009. However, despite Buemi has upping his game this year, paddock whispers suggest that Alguersuari is regarded as possessing more potential than Buemi and that is something that hinders the man from Switzerland. Whatever happens, Helmut Marko is lining up Daniel Ricciardo to drive for Toro Rosso from the start of 2012. Toro Rosso has been ruthless in the past – see their treatment of Scott Speed and Sebastien Bourdais – and many expect Ricciardo to line up on the grid in either Germany or, more likely, Hungary. A lot might depend on Mark Webber and whether he remains a Red Bull driver next season, but at this moment in time, Jaime Alguersuari is a man under pressure.

But what about the others?

These are just specific examples. But what constitutes a driver under pressure? You could argue that the entire grid is under some sort of pressure, after all, they are in the best form of motorsport in the world and they have to continue to deliver to prove that they deserve to be there. For example, Vettel is under pressure to keep his huge lead, to make sure he doesn’t choke. Alonso is under pressure to deliver results for the pride of a nation devoted to one team. Hamilton is currently under pressure after his comments last weekend. Nico Rosberg has to prove that he can keep beating Schumacher; Petrov has to show that his Australian performance was not a one off, whilst Adrian Sutil and Rubens Barrichello have to beat their rookie team mates, who – especially in the case of Sutil – have been more impressive. Equally the rookies – Sergio Perez, Pastor Maldonado, Jerome d’Ambrosio and Paul di Resta – have to prove that they deserve to be worthy of a place in the sport and that, in the case of the first three, are there through talent rather than the size of a cheque book. For d'Ambrosio, there have already been rumours about funds running dry. After all, they saw what happened to the rookies of 2010. Out of Karun Chandhok, Bruno Senna, Lucas di Grassi, Nico Hulkenberg and Vitaly Petrov, only the Russian remains. Whilst three of the others have found refuge as a test driver at a different team to where they made their debut, the pressure is there nonetheless.

Pressure is part of Formula One. The best know how to deal with it and if you can’t, you’re in the wrong industry.

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