Silly season has gotten off to a sputtering start this year. Sauber bypassed silly season altogether by unceremoniously dumping Pedro de la Rosa in favor of ex-Sauber pilot Nick Heidfeld, with immediate effect. Poor Pedro missed out on the several weeks worth of gossip by paddock pundits and media divas that usually precedes such a swap.
Beyond the situation at Sauber (and at HRT, where Karun Chandhok has been replaced by Sakon Yamamoto, a change that has gone largely unnoticed, since the HRTs are essentially moving chicanes for the first tier drivers), the drivers’ market buzz has been relatively quiet thus far this year. One reason for this is the fact that most of the first tier drivers are locked into multi-year contracts. (A notable exception to this is Mark Webber, who is on a single year deal for 2011.)
Nevertheless, there are at least a couple of seats potentially up for grabs for 2011: Vitaly Petrov’s at Renault and Nico Hulkenberg’s at Williams. Both of these teams have shown improvements this year, and clearly many drivers from the middle portion of the grid might be interested in slotting into one of these positions, should either one become available. As for potential candidates, aside from currently active drivers such as Timo Glock and Adrian Sutil, who are reportedly looking for a step up, there’s always the wild card of Kimi Raikkonen.
At the end of last year, having been dropped by Ferrari, Raikkonen surveyed his options. McLaren had an offer on the table, but apparently the money wasn’t up to Kimi’s standards. The Kimster would’ve been paid double-digit millions by Ferrari just for sitting on his arse and doing nothing during the 2010 season, and, per the terms of his severance, would have lost a portion of this largesse should he have opted to drive for a rival F1 team. Small wonder he chose to spend a year experimenting with rally driving.
Another deal-breaker for Kimi would have been the Woking squad’s demand that Raikkonen be available for sponsors’ events on a regular basis. This has long been a provision for McLaren drivers, and it takes up a good chunk of their annual schedules (although one suspects that the fiery Ayrton Senna would’ve shown Ron Dennis an expressive middle digit had the pugnacious McLaren boss tried to put his foot down on that score).
Kimi likes to think of himself as a maverick who goes his own way. He also made it clear last year that, while he still enjoyed driving Formula 1 cars, he had tired of the broader culture of Formula 1, which is to say its commercial aspects. In other words, don’t count on the Iceman to turn up at the opening of a new Mercedes dealership in Brighton to sign baseball caps. So I suspect that the conversation he had with Martin Whitmarsh was probably almost as short as a similar conversation that occurred between Michael Schumacher and Ron Dennis at the close of the last millennium.
Background: Schumi had yet to win his first title at Ferrari. He was getting impatient, and Mercedes (McLaren’s partner at the time) wanted him back in the fold. But Ron Dennis made it clear that Schumi was to do things the McLaren way, which is to say the Dennis way. Schumi, who you might say is a Teutonic version of Senna, politely told Dennis to sit on his gearshift and spin. Flash forward: Schumi did indeed make a return to Mercedes, the outfit that had sponsored his first tests in F1, but only when Ross Brawn was part of the package, and not Ron Dennis.
But back to Kimi. At the end of last year, Renault, then in disarray, also apparently made a tentative bid for the laconic Finn’s services, but Kimi turned his nose up at the offer. Not only was the money too paltry, but last year’s Renault seemed to be stuck in reverse much of the time. It looked like a tank with wings.
But how things can change in the space of a year. Kimi now is reportedly sniffing around the Enstone factory, looking for a potential offer. Apparently, rally driving is growing old already for the Finn (he seems to have the attention span of a gnat), and the glitter and bling of the F1 world doesn’t look half so bad from a distance. Also, the Kimster will be 31 this year. Many F1 drivers peak in their early thirties, when the curves of their experience (ascending) and physical fitness (descending) intersect.
In other words, if Kimi has any intention of returning to the F1 grid, he shouldn’t keep the idea on the back burner for too long. He should also keep in mind that, no matter how great the driver, the longer he waits before making a comeback, the more challenging it’s apt to be. If Kimi has his head about him (and some paddock wags might voice doubts about this), he’ll be taking note of Michael Schumacher’s current comeback effort. Schumi was gone for three full seasons, and undoubtedly the length of that gap has left him playing a tough game of catch-up this year.
Renault, for their part, are still in the process of evaluating the rookie Petrov. Like his fellow rookie, Nico Hulkenberg, who also might be on the bubble, Petrov has shown flashes of brilliance, but the flashes have been dimmed by a generally lackluster or at least inconsistent performance. Keeping Petrov might make fiscal sense for Renault: he’s been a pay-to-play driver this year, and would likely not command a very exorbitant salary next year. And Kimi’s price tag probably wouldn’t be cheap.
On the other hand, Kimi would no longer command the kind of salary he did at Ferrari (about $50 million per year), and he would doubtless be scoring more points than Petrov would. And for F1 teams, points translate directly into dollars at season’s end, when they collect their shares of TV rights money. If Renault boss Eric Boullier can get Kimi at a reasonable price, the Finn might effectively pay for his own keep on the basis of points earned. This might be the calculus that decides which driver will partner Robert Kubica next year.