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The case for Kovalainen at Ferrari

With so many options being considered to replace Massa -if his seat becomes available- the buzz around the possible scenarios keeps mounting. Let's take a look at the former, Renault, McLaren and current Caterham driver.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

August 20th, 2012 (F1plus / Rob Myers).- Probably the most talked about of the potential driver moves come the end of the season is Felipe Massa’s expected departure from Ferrari. Despite Massa’s recent improvement, it seems unlikely that the Brazilian will stay at the Scuderia beyond the end of his current contract, which expires at the end of 2012.

Given that Massa’s departure has yet to be confirmed – team boss Stefano Domenicali recently said that Massa “knows that he has in front of him some very important races”, perhaps indicating that there’s a chance that he might be retained – the question of which driver might replace him as Fernando Alonso’s team-mate in 2013 cannot yet be answered. That hasn’t stopped the speculation, though, with various drivers having been linked to a Ferrari drive in 2013, including Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez. Also linked recently with the Ferrari drive has been Heikki Kovalainen. Here’s why I think that the Caterham driver might be the perfect solution for Ferrari.

One important factor is that Kovalainen is available, with his contract at Caterham coming to an end at around the same time as Massa’s at Ferrari. Kovalainen said, when asked about his future last month “I think everyone knows my contract is coming to an end at Caterham but I haven’t spoken to my current team and I haven’t spoken to any other teams yet”. That’s certainly not a clear statement of intent from the Finn, but until a decision is made and a contract signed you wouldn’t really expect one.

The contract situation does, of course, mean that Ferrari wouldn’t need to buy Kovalainen out of his contract, but the same could be said of many of the other drivers that have been linked with the Ferrari hot seat. More importantly, though, Kovalainen is the only driver out of the many linked with Massa’s drive that is not currently driving a car that’s capable of winning races. Having driven around at the back of the grid for three years with Caterham (in its various guises), Kovalainen would presumably jump at the chance of driving for one of Formula 1’s top teams. Race wins wouldn’t be guaranteed, but fighting for podiums would be, as would scoring points on a regular basis; something that Caterham have been unable to achieve after three years in the sport.

I think that it’s fair to say that the lure of Ferrari itself is a pretty big draw for any Formula 1 driver, but for a driver in Kovalainen’s position the motivation to join a top team must be particularly strong. This is a plus for Ferrari who will certainly want a motivated team-mate for Alonso, someone with the desire and ability to compete at the front and score points regularly, something that Felipe Massa has been failing to do in recent seasons.

Massa's seat a Ferrari is still not available. 

Ferrari can also be confident that Kovalainen has what it takes to drive for a top Formula 1 team. Kovalainen is now 30 years of age and has spent six seasons racing in F1. Although, as I’ve already mentioned, the most recent three of those years has been spent at the back of the grid with Caterham, 2007-2009 were spent at two of the sports front running teams; Renault (now Lotus) in 2007 and McLaren from 2008-2009.

So, in Kovalainen, we have an experienced Formula 1 driver who has already driven for two of the sport’s top teams. If that’s not reason enough for the Finn to be of interest to Ferrari, Kovalainen also has a Formula 1 victory to his name, having taken the chequered flag at the 2008 Hungarian grand prix, in doing so becoming the 100th Formula 1 race winner.

Despite all of these points in Kovalainen’s favour, I don’t think that these would necessarily be enough to land him the drive with Ferrari without one crucial final factor. So what is the vital missing ingredient? Kovalainen also has experience of being the ‘number two’ driver – having spent two years in just such a role at McLaren, alongside Lewis Hamilton – and I suspect that he would be happy enough to play this role again at Ferrari.

In any other team I think that this particular factor wouldn’t necessarily be all that important, but at Ferrari I think that it’s crucial. As we know, in the recent history of Formula 1 Ferrari has been built around one dominant lead driver, with a capable number two in support. We first saw this when Michael Schumacher joined the team in 1996. Schumacher’s first team-mate at the Scuderia was Eddie Irvine, who played the supporting act to Schumacher for four years before Rubens Barrichello joined the team in 2000. Barrichello himself played the number two role for six years at Ferrari.

The same sort of driver pairing was recreated at Ferrari in 2009, when Fernando Alonso joined Massa at the Maranello based team. Like Schumacher, Alonso joined Ferrari as a double world champion and quickly asserted himself as the clear lead driver with Massa forced to play the role of the number two. Perhaps the clearest example of this pecking order was at the 2010 German grand prix when Massa was told by his race engineer “OK, so, Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?” and two laps later dutifully pulled over to let his team leader pass him.

Given Ferrari’s recent history, and the fact that Alonso remains with the team, clearly established as the number one driver, Ferrari will want a driver that can play the same number two role. Indeed, the only reason that it looks like Massa himself will not continue in this role is that he is not doing it well enough. Kovalainen would, I think, be the perfect replacement.

As I mentioned earlier, though, Kovalainen is certainly not the only driver to have been linked to the possible vacancy at Ferrari. Before announcing that he had extended his contract for another year at Red Bull Racing, Mark Webber admitted that he had spoken to Ferrari. Jenson Button has also been linked, but given that he is under contract at McLaren this seems to be one of the least credible rumours. He certainly wouldn’t fit the ‘number two’ criteria either.

Slightly more credible were the rumours linking Kimi Raikkonen with a return to the team that he won the world drivers’ championship with in 2007. Raikkonen is out of contract with Lotus at the end of the season, but given the breakdown of his relationship with Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo by the time that he left the team, and Formula 1, to go rallying at the end of 2008 I suspect that a return to Ferrari is not one the cards. Furthermore, like Jenson Button, I would think that as a championship winner in his own right, Raikkonen wouldn’t want to go to Ferrari to play second fiddle to Alonso.

The most credible option of the other drivers that have been linked with the Ferrari drive is Sauber’s Mexican driver Sergio Perez. Indeed, I’ve previously written that I thought that Perez was the most likely replacement for Massa at Ferrari. He’s young, quick and undoubtedly talented and what’s more he will be out of contract with Sauber come the end of the season and he is a Ferrari development driver that drivers for a team using customer Ferrari engines.

However, there is a good case to be made against Perez being the right choice for Ferrari at the current time. Perez is, as I mentioned, still a young an inexperienced driver and he might not be the right option for Ferrari to fill the role of solid, consistent support act to Fernando Alonso. Indeed, Ferrari have themselves intimated that the time might not be right for Perez, with Ferrari Driver Academy head Luca Baldisserri saying earlier this season that the Mexican was “too aggressive”. Even more importantly, when asked about the possibility of Perez joining Alonso at Ferrari in 2013 Luca di Montezemolo responded by saying “to drive a Ferrari you need more experience”. This may well be a smokescreen, however, and I suspect that Perez will end up at Ferrari, just not quite yet.

The lack of suitable alternatives does, therefore, strengthen the case in support of Kovalainen joining Alonso at Ferrari next season, especially when considered alongside the other factors in the Finn’s favour. We might have to wait a while for our answer; Stefano Domenicali stated last week that “There is no rush on our decision”, and as with everything else this season, the final outcome remains hard to predict. It’s quite possible that we’ll end up with a surprise team-mate for Alonso at Ferrari in 2013 – there’s certainly no shortage of drivers that would love to drive for the Prancing Horse.

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