How do you solve a problem like 2013?

By on Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Felipe Massa has had a lacklustre season

The 5 week summer break allows those involved in Formula One to recharge their batteries before the circus reconvenes at Spa at the end of this month. It’s also a time where, traditionally, the topic of driver contracts is brought to the fore, but there’s a crucial question on the lips of many. Just who will partner Fernando Alonso at Ferrari next season?

After a couple of races it seemed utterly unthinkable that the Felipe Massa could continue into 2013. The beleaguered Brazilian had an atrocious Australian Grand Prix which was followed up by a disastrous performance in Malaysia, where Fernando Alonso won and Ferrari Academy driver Sergio Perez finished in second place. Speculation mounted that the Mexican would replace Massa before the sport reached Europe, although any such action was strenuously denied by Ferrari. The problem for Massa was – and still is - that it was the latest in an increasingly long line of underachievement: his 2010 season was disappointing, but far from dismal, but in 2011 his form dipped further as he became involved in numerous on-track incidents as he failed to finish in the top four all season.

Massa spun off in Montreal. Photo credit: Ferrari S.p.A.

His pace comparative to Alonso has been improving in recent races, but his inconsistency is a major problem. He demonstrated pace in Canada, but as soon as he started moving up the order, he spun at the first corner and ruined his race. Fourth place in Britain was followed up by a woeful German Grand Prix and a Hungarian race that saw him close to Alonso in pace yet finish four places in arrears. At this stage of the season, he sits fourteenth in the championship with twenty-five points; Fernando Alonso has a forty point cushion up front. Ferrari covets the drivers’ championship and will be pleased that Alonso has a healthy advantage. Conversely, Massa’s poor season means that they have little hope of securing the Constructors Championship and his lack of points could result in one driver winning the crown with his team managing just 4th in the title race. A very peculiar situation that will have sent alarm bells ringing back in Maranello. There has been a lingering hope among many to see Massa improve, but at this stage few believe that he can recover the form last shown towards the end of 2008 and start of 2009.

2013 team mates? Possibly...

But therein lies a problem. Who do the team plump for to support Fernando Alonso more capably? Conversely, would another driver opt to move to the team..?

There has been the suggestion that Ferrari declined to take up the option to renew Massa’s contract into 2013, leaving a long list of candidates – some realistic, some invented by the media or fans – to join the Scuderia.

The front-runner was Mark Webber. The Australian is known to gel well with Alonso but Webber opted to renew his contract with Red Bull Racing for another season. Could Lewis Hamilton join Alonso? It’d be the dream line-up for many Formula One supporters, but the smart money is on the British driver remaining with the team he has been with since he was just eleven years of age. Jenson Button has been linked by Italian media but he has a deal with McLaren until the end of 2013 with an option for 2014.

Nico Rosberg is tied up at Mercedes, while Michael Schumacher either appears to be staying with the Silver Arrows or quitting, not moving teams. Rumours sprung in Monaco that Sebastian Vettel had signed a pre-contract from 2014. But while it’s a rumour to keep in the ‘maybe’ pile, any world champion – particularly the youngest ever double champion – will be linked with the sport’s most prestigious team. What about the Lotus duo? Well, it’s highly unlikely that either will move, considering Raikkonen’s dislike of Italian politics and the fact that Grosjean has been Fernando’s number two in the past and that nearly ruined his career.

This man's pace has caused unexpected problems...

Discounting the top drivers at the moment, that leaves us with a group of midfield runners, the likes of Paul di Resta, Heikki Kovalainen, Adrian Sutil and Sergio Perez. The Mexican driver is the most likely to fill the void, but the team has commented on his inconsistency this season and feel that he could do with spending another season at Sauber to refine his driving, said with no hint of irony considering their current pilot. So, Perez for 2014? But where does that leave Ferrari for 2013? The likes of Paul di Resta and Heikki Kovalainen would be reluctant to sign a piece of paper that would result in short term gain but long term strain. Another sticking point is the pace of Alonso. Drivers regularly acknowledge that he is the strongest person in the field, so would anyone risk their reputation by lining up alongside the Spaniard, in a team that will be geared towards achieving success for Alonso until at least 2016, the year in which Alonso’s current contract expires.

So here’s the question for Stefano Domenicali, Luca di Montezemolo and the rest of the Ferrari hierarchy: how do you solve a problem like 2013?

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