It has been widely assumed that once Fernando Alonso made his long-anticipated announcment regarding his move to Ferrari next season the drivers’ market for 2010 would begin to heat up in earnest. In fact, this is exactly what hasn’t happened. Thus far, the only move that has occurred as a direct consequence of Alonso’s team switch is Kubica’s. Renault, faced with a very big vacancy to fill, reacted decisively and snatched up Robert Kubica before the likes of Toyota or Williams could snare him.
It was a smart move on Renault’s part. While it seems unlikely that Renault will be able to provide Kubica with a car that will be a real title contender next year, they will probably allow him to be the focal point of the team’s efforts, and confer upon him a de facto humber one status, much as they did with Alonso during his tenure with the team. Kubica should flourish in this environment, and he will probably not receive a serious challenge from his team mate, whether he’s partnered by Romain Grosjean (whose seat might be up for grabs), or Heikki Kovalainnen, should Renault take him back, or the other likely contenders for the second seat.
As for the other changes that have been expected, it seems that the annual driver shuffle has once again been stalled by a single pending decision – in this case, Kimi Raikkonen’s. Once it was announced that Kimi had been asked by the Ferrari brass to vacate his drive to make room for Alonso, a rumor quickly surfaced that Kimi would slink back to his old Woking stomping ground, i.e. McLaren. A fellow Finn, Kovalainnen, has been taking up space there in an unremarkable way for the past two years, and it is thought that Martin Whitmarsh would relish the chance of re-hiring a driver who is apt to match their current number one, Lewis Hamilton, in performance. McLaren have never supported the number one/number two approach to driver status. This has made some of their driver pairings interesting – and volatile.
As quickly as the deal with Kimi seemed to fall into place, however, it seems to have lurched off track. According to paddock rumors, the Kimster has balked at the contract on offer, which contains a provision which would require the laconic Finn to make a certain number of promotional appearances during the course of the year, for the benefit of sponsors. This sort of thing is de rigueur at McLaren, and always has been. Apparently, now that Kimi has worn champion’s laurels he feels that he’s above all that. Presumably Lewis Hamilton, the current golden boy at the Woking team, suffers no such delusions.
The net result of this is that McLaren’s negoatiations have come to a halt. Martin Whitmarsh now says that the team will probably not announce their drivers’ line up prior to the end of the season – a timeline which more or less matches Raikkonen’s agenda for making his decision. Kimi has said repeatedly that he’s in no hurry, and considering his perpetually blase attitude about most everything, it’s easy to believe him.
According to a secondary rumor that has been circulating through the paddock, Kimi’s manager, Steve Robertson, has been shopping him around to teams who might have a more liberal attitude towards Kimi’s sponsorship obligations. Apparently Robertson has suggested to team owner Dietrich Mateschitz, and team principal Chris Horner, that they might benefit from shifting current Red Bull driver Mark Webber to the B team, Toro Rosso, in order to make room for Kimi at the A team. Toro Rosso are currently suffering from lack of a decent lead driver, which they had in Sebastian Vettel last year. But whether they are taking this suggestion seriously is anyone’s guess. Certainly, Webber would consider a move to Toro Rosso a demotion, and it might cause him to seek his fortunes elsewhere.
Kimi’s delay has caused a ripple effect, stalling several other key decisions. Nico Rosberg has been expected to replace either Jenson Button or Rubens Barrichello at Brawn. This arrangement would be supported by the Mercedes partially buyout of Brawn GP. But if McLaren fail to secure Raikonnen, Mercedes might push to have him slotted at McLaren, instead. Meanwhile, there has been talk that either Button or Barrichello would move to Williams, but until Rosberg announces his plans, neither the Briton nor the Brazilian is likely to nail down their itinerary for 2010.
There are a number of other seats in play, as well (including those on the four new teams), but it seems as though everyone is waiting for the players at the top of the food chain to make a decision before the process begins. Which really means that everyone is waiting for Kimi.
Image by Vince Pettit, licensed through Creative Commons.