With the 2009 season only hours away, all the drivers on the grid will start with optimism, in the hope that 2009 can be their year. But for several drivers on the grid, 2009 will dictate which way their future in F1 will go.
It will either make or break their F1 careers—some will go on to bigger and better things, and some could find themselves on the F1 scrapheap like so many before.
Here I look at the drivers for whom 2009 is vitally important to their F1 future.
Heikki Kovalainen - McLaren Mercedes
Although most people will be surprised to see Heikki amongst this list, they will not be surprised at the reason why he is on it.
The Finn showed super speed on his way up to F1, winning the Formula Renault crown in 2004, defeating Michael Schumacher of all people in the Race of Champions that year and finishing second to Nico Rosberg in the inaugural GP2 season, he has failed to hit these heights during his time in F1.
Although he took his first win last year in Hungary, it was inherited rather than hard-earned, and Heikki finished a disappointing 7th in the championship, with just over half the points of team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
The hierarchy at McLaren will not accept another average season by their high standards, and Heikki will have to raise his game in order to keep his seat for 2010
Kimi Raikkonen - Ferrari
After dramatically taking the title at the final race in 2007, Kimi had an appalling season in 2008, littered with driver errors and poor qualifying performances.
Although his race pace couldn’t be questioned, with a record 10 fastest laps throughout the season, he just never seemed to be interested in fighting for the title. He had some stunning drives—dominating at both Malaysia and Spain, and having a strong drive until the final rain-affected laps at Spa—but apart from that he never looked like a world champion.
There was rumours floating about the paddock that the Ferrari engineers were not happy with Kimi’s technical input, which is a key element in modern F1, and having not won a race since round four in Spain last season, Kimi will need to up his game back to his brilliant best if he is to continue to be a top-level driver in F1
Nick Heidfeld - BMW Sauber
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the list, ‘Quick Nick’ hasn’t exactly been underperforming in recent years.
He had a very strong 2007, and followed that up with some excellent drives throughout 2008, especially in mixed conditions at the likes of Silverstone and Spa.
But his biggest downfall was his qualifying—too often Nick started well down the field compared to team-mate Kubica, and had to fight his way through the field in order to score some decent points.
With BMW wanting to challenge for the drivers title in the next few years, the pressure will be on Nick to produce top drives in order to keep his BMW drive and have his best shot at finally taking his first career win
Nelson Piquet - Renault
Having arrived in F1 with an impressive CV, 2008 was a major disappointment for young Nelsinho.
Many people, including several of our own members here on Wheelnuts, expected Piquet to push Alonso very hard from the start at Renault, considering he had a full season testing with the team.
But it wasn’t until the 8th round of the season at France that Piquet finally began to match Alonso, and even scored a podium before the Spaniard with a fine second place in Germany (although this was more down to circumstances than pace).
But throughout the season there was rumours that he could be replaced with Renault tester Lucas Di Grassi, and must have been mightily relieved to have been confirmed for 2009.
Having been out-qualified 18-0 by Alonso last season, Nelson must begin to improve his form and at minimum match his team-mate, otherwise his F1 career will end at the final race in Abu Dhabi.
Jarno Trulli- Toyota
The Italian vertern is moving into his autumn years of his F1 career, and needs to perform well in 2009 in order to make sure he can make it last longer.
Jarno joined the team back in 2005 and for the first half of that year looked like he could finally take the team’s first win. But fast forward 4 years and there is still no win. For most of the time in between Jarno has seemed to resemble a mobile chicane, holding drivers up instead of pulling away from them.
And despite a strong mid-season last year, with a podium in France, it has to be said that he was matched by team-mate Timo Glock.
There was rumours of him being replaced for 2009 by Toyota protégé Kumai Kobayashi, and Jarno will need to show just how good he is in 2009 so that he doesn’t suffer the same fate as compatriot Giancarlo Fisichella and settle for a lower-ranked team in order to stay in the sport
Mark Webber - Red Bull Renault
Out of all the drivers I have listed, Webber looks to be under the most pressure for 2009.
The Australian is moving into his 8th season of F1 having raced for Minardi, Jaguar and Williams before moving to Red Bull, yet only has two podiums to his name.
Although he out-performed a fading David Coulthard last season, he faces a far bigger challenge this year in the shape of recent winner Sebastien Vettel, possibly the hottest talent in F1 right now.
And with Red Bull continuing to run their driver programme, they constantly have new drivers pushing to get into F1. Webber will need to match Vettel in 2009 otherwise he could be ousted by the likes of Sebastien Buemi or Brandon Hartley.
Nico Rosberg - Williams Toyota
Having been touted 12 months as a possible placement for Fernando Alonso at McLaren, how Rosberg must be regretting staying with Williams.
He had a poor season in 2008, despite two podiums, and was often matched by his rookie team-mate Kazuki Nakajima, with the Japanese driver scoring more point-scoring races than Rosberg.
With Williams continuing to slip back down the field, Rosberg will have to re-consider his future at the end of the season, otherwise he could do down in history as yet another wasted talent
So there it is—my list of drivers who could have career-defining seasons in 2009 - but do you agree with what I have said?
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