The Silly season in F1 just got sillier than ever this week. As if the permutations and combinations around the championships weren’t enough to keep everyone on the edge of their seats, the whole “will they – won’t they saga” involving McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez was simmering away on the side burner. The pot finally came to roast this week, with two major announcements coming back-to-back.
The media had been carrying stories about Lewis Hamilton’s rumoured move to Mercedes for months now, right from the time his contract renewal didn’t happen in the summer break. A full two months later, everybody was primed and ready to announce Hamilton’s move, when the other big news officially broke: Sergio Perez, Sauber’s sensational Mexican driver, was signed by McLaren on a multiple year contract. While it made Lewis’ announcement a mere formality, it also laid to rest all speculation about Perez and a Ferrari seat. The reasons for the moves may be manifold, but the implications fascinate me more:
1) The Obvious: Jenson Button is the #1 driver for McLaren in 2013
While the all-Brit team of Button and Hamilton was doing pretty well as a combination, McLaren’s policy of treating both drivers equal is bound to have caused some sparks to fly time and again. After-all, Lewis had been the protege, the man who almost overshadowed reigning double World Champion Fernando Alonso in his rookie year, missing the title by just one point; the man who won the title the very next year, touted as the next big thing and a serial champion in the making. Button, on the other hand, came to McLaren as the World Champion, while Lewis was #1 at the team. It was an adjustment for both, to not be the unanimous #1 driver, who gets that extra bit of backing to go for the title each season. Lewis’ move means that Button is now the team’s #1, while Perez will be his wingman. It’s anybody’s guess how long that status quo will remain, given the Mexican’s impressive performances over his two F1 seasons, and the extent of improvement he has shown. At least for the 2013 season, it would seem like Jenson Button will enjoy the unrequited #1 status at McLaren.
2) The other obvious bit: Lewis Hamilton is Mercedes’ #1 for 2013-15
It is clear why Mercedes went all-in for Hamilton. He’s a former World Champion, he has good relations with Mercedes since his early McLaren days, he still hasn’t realized his potential of becoming a multiple time World Champion, and he is hungry. Lewis Hamilton brings a certain killer instinct to the table which hasn’t quite been seen from Nico Rosberg, and is quite comparable to Michael Schumacher in his early days. Schumacher’s return to F1 had been less than spectacular, and clearly, with the new engine regulations coming in force from 2014, Ross Brawn is widely expected to pull another rabbit out of the hat a la 2009. It therefore makes sense for the team to have a proven contender who has time on his side to champion their cause when the time is ripe. The same works for Hamilton as well, since he would like to put himself in the best possible place to challenge for the title. At McLaren, it was a closer tussle between the teammates than with the rest of the field, due to their equal status. Here, Lewis is expected to be the #1 driver, and get all the push he needs. Its a win-win for both, with probably Nico Rosberg having to settle for a backup role. He still has 2013 to build on his first race win this season, and emerge as a strong championship contender, otherwise it will be Lewis all the way.
3) Michael Schumacher finds himself without a race drive for the first time since the Benetton days
Michale Schumacher has a dilemma. Probably not too tough, but a dilemma nevertheless. Hamilton moving to Mercedes means Schumacher is on the way out. At age 42, it is really upto him to decide whether he is still enjoying his racing. The results that were expected of him after his return, haven’t yet materialized. While Peter Sauber had expressed interest in signing Schumacher if he became free, one wonders if Michael will find enough motivation to drive for an emerging midfield team, and probably play second fiddle, too. With Mercedes, at least there was the hope of a podium or a win lying just around the corner, but that won’t be as prominent should he decide to continue lower on the grid. In the end, it’s all about the fire. He’s been there, done it all, 7 World Championships, 91 race wins, 155 podium finishes from 301 starts is the best stats in the history of the sport. One would love to see him go out on a high with win #92 this season.
4) Felipe Massa’s seat is safe for the time being
Felipe Massa fans can breathe easy now, since two of the drivers rumoured to replace him at Ferrari next season are officially not going to do so, with Mark Webber staying at Red Bull and Sergio Perez moving to McLaren. Although Massa’s performances since his injury lay off haven’t been anywhere near his teammate’s, his Ferrari drive hadn’t come under this much scrutiny earlier. The Brazilian has now been with Ferrari for 6 seasons, and his contract is due to expire at the end of 2012. With Ferrari’s policy of having a clear lead and support role assignment amongst its drivers, and the comfortable relations between Massa and the Ferrari team, a contract termination at the end of this season seems unlikely now. Although rumour mills are rife with a possible switch featuring Nico Hulkenberg!
5) Paul DiResta isn’t racing for McLaren next year.
While the Scot was being linked to a move to McLaren in the event of Hamilton’s departure, it is now clear that any such move will not be for a racing seat for the 2013 season. DiResta has shown good pace and racecraft during his two years at Force India, but he might just have to wait a bit longer to really get into the big leagues.
6) How’s the rest of the season going to play out?
We have a very curious situation now, where Lewis Hamilton, McLaren’s only realistic title hope this season is certain to be leaving them at the end of the year. Being the thorough professionals that they are, it shouldn’t really affect the efforts put in to give Hamilton that push in the remainder of the season. McLaren have been struggling with reliability issues though, and a failure on Hamilton’s car is sure to look that much uglier.
Michael Schumacher might be competing in the last few races of his illustrious career, and won’t we all love to see that victory leap on the top step, one last time!
Amid all the chaos, the drivers’ Championship picture is just getting more and more interesting. Fernando Alonso is sitting pretty at the top of the charts, with only Vettel, Raikkonen and Hamilton having any chances of catching up with him. With six races still to go, it is a wide open championship, but the unpredictably close nature of this season can only help Alonso’ case as long as he keeps finishing races in the top 5-6 places. At any rate, the 2012 season has been a fascinating watch and the events of the last week have certainly heightened curiosities about 2013 already!