Changing drivers in a haste is not the Ferrari way.
The reality is, however, that one seat is very much up for grabs at the moment, possibly both if you like to analyse the dynamic between lead driver Fernando Alonso and team boss Luca di Montezemolo.
Just to be clear: Ferrari would be out of its mind to let Alonso go. The bosses know it, the engineers know it, the fans know it and Alonso himself knows it.
All signs point to a renewed push for 2014, which, given the change in regulations, could swing the Formula One pendulum back toward Maranello.
To nip this one in the bud quickly, what chance of a Kimi Raikkonen return? Never say never in F1, but don’t count on it. His relationship with Di Montezemolo is tumultuous at best; a consequence of a difficult falling-out after the Finn’s underwhelming two seasons after winning the world title.
By definition, therefore, there is one seat to fill. The spot most drivers fear filling—Alonso's teammate.
The Scuderia has two legitimate options: go with what it has, or bring someone else in. The shortlist for the latter isn’t large, though. In fact, you’d suggest there’s only one standout candidate. But first…
The sentimental argument against ousting Felipe Massa is that the man has bounced back from a career-threatening injury in 2009 and came within a whisker of winning the 2008 world championship for Ferrari.
Unfortunately for him, the Italian squad is hardly a place for sentimentality. Just ask 2009 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, or perennial No. 2 driver Rubens Barrichello.
What would be the strength in retaining Massa? He is, usually, a safe bet for points, albeit not nearly enough in recent seasons to contribute to a significant Constructors’ title push. But as he proved in Spain, if it all comes together he is still more than capable of netting a podium finish.
Therein lies his key weakness—he’s maddeningly inconsistent and more than ever is prone to psychological defeats; just look PlanetF1.com's report of how he described his poor run of form as “like a movie.”
That’s rubbish; the only person writing that movie script is the Brazilian. He looked like he’d turned a corner at the end of the last year and started this season on a high, out-qualifying Alonso in Australia and Malaysia.
Last year should have been Felipe's wake-up call. He was under serious review at the end of the year and almost lost his seat then.
He’s fallen in line and accepted his No. 2 role with little alternative, but he’s not performing sufficiently well enough to justify the patience Di Montezemolo and Co. are investing. The silly errors have crept in, and there’s no better time for Ferrari to replace him.
That’s because leading F1 teams have committed a cardinal sin in not snapping up Nico Hulkenberg. If justice existed in motorsport, either the German or then-Force India teammate Paul di Resta would have landed the McLaren driver alongside Jenson Button.
That’s not to deride Sergio Perez in any way—I am a firm believer in the Mexican’s Grand Prix-winning potential—but it’s just a marker of how highly related Hulkenberg and Di Resta are.
Hulkenberg—whose future this very website explored last week—has more than paid his dues in F1. He impressed at Williams and even took the bold step of taking a test driver role when the competitive midfield seats were filled in 2011.
Returning last season, he excelled and put Di Resta in the shade in the second half of the year. With a bit less exuberance in Brazil, might he even be a Grand Prix winner already?
That’s a potential sticking point: Is the German too good? Would he challenge Alonso too much? The Spaniard tends to dislike fast, young drivers…
There’s no obvious route to any seat, unless family money is lining the pockets of the team owners. But Sauber hierarchy have already indicated they will not stand in Hulkenberg’s way should he wish to leave after just one year with the team.
Ferrari have also been previously tempted by a much-less experienced Hulkenberg before, as GPToday reported at the time. Will their choice be between Di Resta and Hulkenberg again?
The problem for the Scot is he needs an outstanding third year at Force India. It looked like that might well happen after the start to the campaign, but circumstances outside his control have conspired to limiting him to points finishes and nothing more.
And, in a straight fight between the two, Hulkenberg would probably edge it.
You can rule out protege Jules Bianchi, as his inexperience makes him a gamble not worth taking. But, he can act as an excellent bargaining chip.
Here lies a potential compromise, and one well worth exploring. Should Ferrari go with Hulkenberg, they could then offer the Swiss team—with which the Scuderia has always enjoyed fantastic relations, as the cars are Ferrari-powered, was the proving ground for a young Felipe Massa, and acts almost as a satellite outfit—some kind of subsidised deal for Jules Bianchi.
The young Frenchman deserves a shot at a midfield team, would arrive with far greater readiness then Esteban Gutierrez did this year and is a far, far more promising bet than an early arrival for Sergey Sirotkin.
It’s also a fantastic opportunity for Ferrari to keep moulding him into a well-rounded Formula 1 driver and also gain a serious asset in Hulkenberg.
Is Switching A Gamble?
Yes, but not in the way Perez was/remains at McLaren, because Hulkenberg is more a proven quantity.
Any team that brings in a new driver over a trusted pair of hands is gambling, because it can always backfire.
Ferrari stands more to lose because of its history and, of course, its title ambitions. Look at the ill-fated 2009 Ferrari career of Giancarlo Fisichella, who could not pass up the opportunity to drive for the Scuderia in Massa's absence and could not adapt to the car.
Hulkenberg would have a full preseason to acclimatise, though, and wouldn't be driving another car regularly for nine months before making the switch immediately.
All manner of logic aside, common sense dictates Hulkenberg would be a fantastic addition to the Ferrari team.
Act now, and not only do they trump their rivals and secure a talented drier, but they solve another potential problem.
Hulkenberg can afford to spend two years serving almost as an apprentice to Alonso.
He most certainly will not see it like that, but he would then be perfectly placed to lead the team after the Spaniard leaves.
Felipe is a nice guy and a good driver. But there is better out there.
And Ferrari need to sign him from Sauber.
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