Formula 1: The Six Drivers with the Most to Prove in 2012
The 2012 season is less than a week away, and while everyone has something prove over the next nine months, some have more to prove than others.
The underachievers. Drivers who got blown away by their teammate in 2011. Men who appear to have been given one final chance to show they can cut it at the top level.
And of course the pay drivers, desperately seeking the affirmation that they deserve to be there because of talent, not because of money.
For some, their standing in a top team is on the line. For others, it's their entire F1 career.
First-season rookies generally have plenty to prove, but I've left this year's class out and focused on men we've seen in F1 before.
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I chose to focus on the six drivers I felt had the most to prove, but that doesn't mean others aren't worthy of a mention.
Michael Schumacher will never again be the dominant force he once was. He knows that as well as anyone, but being behind his teammate Nico Rosberg must chip away at him a little bit. He showed improvements last year, especially in his race driving—but he really needs to start matching Rosberg in qualifying as well.
Romain Grosjean replaced Nelson Piquet Jr. for the last seven races of 2009, and never really had a chance to settle in. Renault (now Lotus, the team he's driving for in 2012) decided against keeping him on for 2010, in favour of Vitaly Petrov's sponsorship.
Now he has a second chance to prove his worth, after using his sponsorship to get the seat after Petrov was dropped. Funny how things work out, isn't it?
And speaking of Petrov, he did reasonably well last year and perhaps should not have been dropped. But this will be his third season, and the pay-driver chain remains firmly around his neck.
Paul di Resta and Sergio Perez had good rookie seasons, and are already being touted as future stars for top teams. But unless they build on what they've already achieved, they could easily drop off the radar.
A good 2012 will put them in a strong position if—as expected—one or two prime seats become available.
Finally, Nico Hulkenberg. Many fans think it was something of a travesty that he was dropped by Williams after a good rookie year in 2010. Now that he's back, he'll be under pressure to show he should never have been away.
Now for the six I picked.
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In 2008, Felipe Massa very nearly won the F1 World Championship. His car was rather good, but that's beside the point—you don't get that close unless you're doing something right.
In 2009, Massa wasn't going badly in a woefully uncompetitive Ferrari, but then he suffered a horrific injury during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. The freak accident put him out for the rest of the season, and he came back in 2010 with a new scar and a new teammate—Fernando Alonso.
Whether it was the psychological impact of his injury, or the presence of so strong a character as Alonso within the team, Massa wasn't quite the same. Relegated to the role of clear No. 2, Massa finished the year sixth overall, only two points ahead of Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.
Alonso, on the other hand, was a mere four points behind the champion, Sebastian Vettel.
2011 was even worse for the Brazilian. Over the two years they've spent together at Ferrari, Alonso has scored 509 points and won six races. Massa has managed just 262 points and zero wins (though he did gift the 2010 German Grand Prix to Alonso).
Alonso is one of the best drivers on the grid—perhaps the best. Massa isn't. But the gulf in performance between the two men is just too great.
It's uncommon to hear a team make public statements demanding better performances from a driver, but Ferrari have done just that on more than one occasion.
If Massa can't find a way through the psychological barriers holding him back, this will be his final year with the team. And, just maybe, his final year in F1.
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Not many rookies have caught quite as much flak from fans as Pastor Maldonado did in 2011.
After a good debut season in 2010, Williams driver Nico Hulkenberg was unceremoniously dumped from his race seat after Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA paid the cash-strapped team a hefty sum of money to place Maldonado in the cockpit.
If there's one way to get on the bad side of F1 supporters before you've even driven a race, it's arriving on the grid because of sponsorship— especially if you take the seat of a less-funded driver who deserved to stay.
The best possible response to cries of "pay driver" would have been to blow us away with exceptional performances, to prove he deserved his place on merit.
But, as we know, that didn't exactly happen. A best finishing position of 10th led to Pastor being awarded the unwanted distinction of being the worst-performing full-time Williams driver in history*.
In his defence, Maldonado was driving the worst-performing full-time Williams car in history, and he was taken out of the Monaco Grand Prix by Lewis Hamilton while lying sixth—just five laps from the end.
That would have been eight points. And if he was outperformed over the course of the season by veteran Rubens Barrichello, it wasn't by very much. He had a few shaky moments, but by rookie standards, he wasn't really that bad.
But nothing can hide the fact that Maldonado came out of the 2011 season with his reputation severely dented. Rightly or not, nearly every salvo aimed at Williams hit himd, and though he was GP2 champion in 2010, we could be forgiven for thinking that he'd hopped straight into F1 from karting.
Maldonado is a friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, so despite questions being raised regarding the legality of his sponsorship deal by the political opposition in his homeland, it's unlikely he'll lose his PDVSA funding any time soon.
But as a racing driver, he wants to be there on merit. No one wants to be remembered as a mediocre pay driver, and Maldonado is no exception.
So he absolutely must take some huge strides towards repairing his image in 2012.
* He did score a single point—one more than Kazuki Nakajima in 2009—but the Japanese managed a few ninth-place finishes, back when points were only awarded to the top eight.
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It's a bit odd that one of the best drivers on the grid has found himself here, but when you're as good as Lewis Hamilton is, expectation is always higher.
2011 was his worst year in the sport. The McLaren was generally the second-best car, and while no man could have stopped the Sebastian Vettel/Red Bull combo taking the championship, a driver of Hamilton's calibre should have run him closer.
That didn't happen.
Hamilton was hit with numerous penalties for questionable driving and criticised by fellow racers for being too aggressive. His performances simply weren't at the level they should have been at.
He had frequent run-ins with Felipe Massa, but he shouldn't have been anywhere near the Brazilian in the first place. He should have been several miles up the road.
If your professional life takes a turn for the worst, solace can usually be found in your personal life. But his relationships with girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger and father Anthony were experiencing difficulties too.
Being caught in the global spotlight between the worlds of F1 and celebrity can't have helped either.
Often alone at races, Hamilton lacked the solid foundation so necessary in a driver's life. As he said himself, he'd lost his "big positive bubble."
And it left him struggling even more.
Hamilton was outdriven by his less-regarded teammate Jenson Button and finished fifth overall. He knows that can't be allowed to happen again, and over the winter things have certainly looked better.
Lewis has a new manager/advisor to assist him at race weekends, and his relationship with his father is much stronger than it was at the same time last year.
Questions remain over his other major relationship—that with Scherzinger. It's on, then it's off, then no one is quite sure. A great deal of love must exist between the two for them to still be trying to make it work, but uncertainty like that can't be doing him any good.
Whatever impact it's having, Hamilton absolutely must produce better performances in 2012. I don't doubt he's one of the top three on the grid, and—when his mind is on the job—could even be the best.
But raw talent can only get you so far—psychology is just as important. Hamilton, a little bit like his old nemesis Massa, needs his head in the right place.
If he can get that part right, there'll be no problems. If he can't, he may find the McLaren door swinging shut at the end of the year. And that could leave Hamilton with nowhere to go.
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Kimi Raikkonen became something of a joke in my house towards the end of his first career. If he wasn't doing very well, he was asleep. If he was behind Massa, he'd got drunk the night before and put Felipe's helmet on by accident. If he crashed, he'd been distracted by a dancing bottle of vodka in the crowd.
And when he set a fastest lap seemingly out of nowhere—as he often did in 2008—it was during the few minutes between his alarm clock going off and him falling back to sleep.
Believe it or not, this was race talk between people who love the guy. He showed a few flashes of excellence in the two years after his title win in 2007, but most of the time he just didn't seem bothered.
While his general demeanour had always led to him being accused of not caring, he'd always produced the goods on the racetrack. Now, he wasn't even doing that.
There are two Kimi Raikkonens, and that is my memory of the second one. But the first was a very different beast.
When he first arrived on the scene, I picked him out as a future champion after four races. McLaren poached him from Sauber, and his performances during five years with the British team were often sensational.
But the cars—especially in terms of reliability—were not. 2005 in particular left him frustrated with the fragility of the McLaren, and he jumped ship to Ferrari for 2007.
Raikkonen never quite seemed right at Ferrari, but in his first year with the team Lewis Hamilton's self-destruction in the final two races gave the Finn an unlikely, but deserved, first title.
It was expected to be the first of many. That wasn't to be—Raikkonen Version 2.0 gained dominance, and he left the sport at the end of 2009 after two mediocre years, and few expected him to return.
But return he has. And Lotus have either pulled off a spectacular coup or made a colossal mistake. The only question anyone is asking of Raikkonen is whether or not he can find the motivation to drive what is almost certain to be a midfield car.
It's somewhat absurd that one of the greatest natural talents to ever sit in an F1 car has to prove himself all over again, but Raikkonen is starting from zero.
Despite his two-year absence (it seems longer, doesn't it?) Kimi will be expected to easily beat his teammate Romain Grosjean. Personally, I think he will.
But if he doesn't, that sea of exasperated faces we became used to seeing at Ferrari will make plenty of appearances down the pit lane at Lotus.
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A name can be a blessing, a curse or both—and the nephew of legendary three-time world champion Ayrton Senna knows this more than most.
Bruno had a very unusual route to F1. He began karting as a child, and was by all accounts very good at it. In 1993 his uncle Ayrton supposedly said of the nine-year-old: "If you think I'm fast, just wait until you see my nephew Bruno."
But tragedy struck less than a year later. The death of Ayrton at Imola brought young Bruno's budding career to a shuddering halt, and he didn't drive competitively again until 2004.
His record in the lower formulae was good but not spectacular, the highlight being second overall in the 2008 GP2 championship. After a few false starts, he got his first chance of an F1 drive in 2010 with what is now HRT.
Driving a milk float gave him few chances to impress, and for whatever reason Bruno left the team at the end of the season. He joined Lotus-Renault as test and reserve driver for 2011.
Replacing Nick Heidfeld for the final eight races, the circumstances were again less than ideal. The team had already abandoned work on the RS27, but Senna qualified seventh for his first race at Spa and started in the Top 10 in half of his races.
Sadly he wasn't great at starting. He lost a total of 27 places on the first lap over the course of eight races, and scored just two points. In the same time period, teammate Vitaly Petrov scored four.
Overall, he didn't do badly for a guy who was shoehorned into a seat halfway through the season with little preparation time.
But, like Pastor Maldonado, Bruno caught a lot of flak. Maybe it was his surname. Maybe it was his failure to capitalise on decent qualifying. Maybe it was the sponsorship which contributed towards him getting the drive.
Maybe—probably—it was a combination of all those things. Or perhaps Nick Heidfeld had more fans than we ever imagined.
Whatever the cause, using sponsorship to take over popular veteran Rubens Barrichello's seat at Williams for 2012 only made it worse. Ask the average fan, and they won't have many kind words to say about Bruno.
Perhaps that's unfair. I'd call him unproven, rather than unskilled.
But fair or not, that's the way it is, and he needs to change a lot of minds this year. He's had testing time, he has a midfield car, and he's driving it for an entire season.
Excuses—bad car, no preparation time—worked before, but they won't work in 2012. If Bruno can't perform, there's a good chance he'll be consigned to history as just another kid with a famous relative who couldn't live up to the family name.
"Well, at least I'm better than you at cricket..."
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For Mark Webber, see Felipe Massa.
The two are in remarkably similar situations, playing the role of clear No. 2 to one of the best drivers on the grid. Both were title contenders not long ago. Both have contracts ending after the coming season.
And, like Massa, Webber's cause will be aided by the fact Red Bull don't expect—or want—him to beat Sebastian Vettel. They want him close behind, taking points away from the German's title rivals, picking up the occasional win.
But in 2011, he wasn't close enough.
The Red Bull was the class of the field in qualifying. Webber only managed eight front-row starts, and was an average of 0.414 seconds down on his teammate's time. It was usually the fastest race car as well. Webber finished in the top two on just three occasions.
He won only one race, gifted to him by Vettel's "gearbox problem" in Brazil. And he finished the year just one point ahead of Fernando Alonso—the Spaniard is a brilliant driver, but he was in the third-best car.
If you have a machine like the Red Bull at your fingertips, that just isn't good enough.
As I mentioned above, Webber's future will be aided by the fact Red Bull want a backup man for Vettel, so he doesn't have to be fantastic. But while that side of the team setup is helping him, another part will be heaping even greater pressure upon his shoulders.
The Red Bull Playpen, also known as Sebastien Buemi and Toro Rosso. By the end of 2012, Red Bull will possess three younger, cheaper and (one might expect) more pliable racing drivers with at least one full season of F1 experience.
OK, Buemi is highly unlikely to get the nod—I think he's purely a reserve. But a great season from Toro Rosso kids Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne won't do their chances any harm.
Promoting one of the three would, like all driver changes, pose some degree of risk. And recent history tells us the top teams love stability. But if Webber has another poor season, the team won't have much to lose.
Mark has to perform well enough to make replacing him seem too much of a gamble.
If he can't, he'll be out. And having already said he would not accept a drop down the grid to a lesser team, it could well be the last we see of him in F1.
And That's It
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Hopefully, the numerous subplots playing out in the background should be enough to keep 2012 interesting all the way to the final race, even if it turns into another Red Bull procession.
The six men listed will take leading roles in the drama, whether near the front of the grid of the back - and it's difficult to predict exactly how each one's final scene will unfold.
But we'll hopefully get some idea on Sunday at the Australian Grand Prix.
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