Over the Italian Grand Prix weekend, Ferrari confirmed an announcement is imminent concerning the identity of Fernando Alonso’s partner at the Maranello squad in 2014. With the Spaniard seemingly back in control after a tension-filled Saturday qualifying that sparked knee-jerk rumours he was packing his bag, can Felipe Massa hold on for a ninth season at the team that has become his home?
Contender Number #1 – Kimi Raikkonen
Perhaps the most well-publicised of the potential recruits, Kimi is nearing the end of his second year contract at Lotus and is ripe for picking by any F1 team that can afford his services. Fast, daring and with no strings attached, Raikkonen has already served the Scuderia well, netting them the 2007 World Championship in his maiden year at the team before collecting another three victories over the next two seasons; ultimately, the Italian’s would pay him to leave early to allow Alonso in, an indication of just how much Ferrari values having at least one top-line driver. And therein lies the problem – Ferrari operates a strict ‘Number One and Number Two’ driver policy. Think Lauda/Regazzoni, Schumacher/Barrichello and, since 2010, Alonso/Massa. At times they have dabbled with two stars in the garage, such as Prost and Mansell in 1990, but it has never ended well for a team that operates strictly along autocratic lines – the Massa and Raikkonen partnership eventually broke down on the track because the Brazilian began to challenge the Finn’s supremacy.
Could they be tempted to give it another go? Would Raikkonen and Alonso, old-time adversaries reading from the same page, be the ‘dream team’ needed to finally topple Red Bull? The constructor’s title would be a serious goal for 2014 with Daniel Ricciardo expected to take some time to settle in alongside Vettel, but any tilt at the driver’s championship could quickly become derailed with neither man agreeing to give quarter.
‘There’s no point in racing if I can’t win.’ Kimi has said before. Words that could win or lose him a second chance at Ferrari.
Contender Number #2 – Nico Hulkenberg
As something of a forgotten talent, Nico would probably be quite happy to accept the mantle of ‘number two’ at Ferrari if it gave him the chance to score regular points and podiums – maybe even some wins along the way.
One of only three men to win the GP2 title in his maiden season, (Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg the others) few would doubt current-Sauber man Hulkenberg to posess the nous and racecraft to forge a successful career at the Scuderia. Pole at Brazil in 2010 for Williams and an oh-so-near-victory in the wet at the same circuit last season for midfield runners Force India have proven Nico to be a bit of a wet-weather-wonder, but there’s no questioning his speed in the dry as well; his 5th on Sunday at Monza in the underperforming Sauber was timed perfectly to impress Ferrari’s decision-makers, and remind any who had dared to forget that here was a man who can get the job done.
Hulkenberg would be the second German to pilot a Ferrari in the 21st century. As Alonso enters the twilight years of his career Hulkenberg, six years the Spaniard’s junior, would be placed perfectly to jump into his shoes as Ferrari’s lead driver when he hangs his helmet up – something Raikkonen, a year older than Alonso, could not do. If Ferrari want continuity and experience, Hulkenberg is the man for them.
Candidate Number #3 – Paul Di Resta
Other than his Italian roots and thus his publicity advantage, Ferrari really have no need for the amiable Scot. A few flashes of brilliance in his first three F1 season’s has not been enough to really cement him as one to watch for the future in the minds of fans and team principal’s alike, and his recent form (or luck) has been anything but glowing. He’s done a solid job reviving his single-seater career after winding up in DTM, but the Paul Di Resta who once beat Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in F3 is not currently turning up to race on F1’s circuits.
It’s hard to see why Ferrari would pick Paul; equally it is difficult to imagine he would fulfil his role any better or worse than Massa has done. Perhaps a chance at a top team would revitalise him after being passed over for promotion to McLaren in 2013, but it might not be a chance the Scuderia are willing to take.
Candidate Number #4 – Jules Bianchi
Like Di Resta, the promotion of Bianchi would have serious risks attached -but unlike Di Resta, the Frenchman does not seem tired of Formula One or content to stay where he currently resides at Marussia. He has pounded team mate Max Chilton into the dust many a time this year and easily took the fight to Caterham when the green cars were within reach earlier in the season. A product of Ferrari’s driver development program, Bianchi was hurt to miss out on an opportunity with Force India at the beginning of 2013 but has knuckled down at Marussia to show his talent in a way few could ignore or fail to notice. Whether his customary one second qualifying gap to Chilton is the result of overwhelming talent from Bianchi or a lack of it from the Briton is still up for debate by some however, and Jules is in no doubt that Ferrari must see something extra-special to grant him such a top position in only his second season in the sport.
It could be the boost he needs – it could also be a bridge too far.
Candidate Number #5 – Felipe Massa
As a proven race-winner, pole-sitter and podium finisher, Massa’s CV is second only to that of Raikkonen in the list of potential candidates. The Brazilian has never had it easy – partnered first with Michael Schumacher, Raikkonen and now Alonso – but acquitted himself with aplomb until his terrifying accident at Hungary in 2009. Conceivably a winner in his first season back from injury, the ‘Fernando is faster than you’ call seemed to destroy a confidence that has never really returned.
Yet Massa continues to survive. Similar ‘replacement’ or ‘firing’ stories flew in 2011 and 2012, and both times he fought off potential usurpers who circled like sharks, waiting for a display of weakness from the Brazilian that would be his death knell. Felipe has always come back fighting to earn himself a second chance, and his 4th place at Monza was another show of his talent for getting results exactly when he needs them. That could be what saves him for 2014…