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Silly Season in Full Gear

Jenson Button

Jenson Button

It has been rumored that Fernando Alonso will announce his move to Ferrari in 2010 as early as next weekend, at the Japanese GP at Suzuka.  Surely, once this has been made public, the annual drivers’ game of musical chairs will begin in earnest.  Alonso’s announcement would surely come in tandem with Kimi Raikkonen’s revelation of his own plans for next season.  Mercedes McLaren have refused to confirm or deny that story that the Kimster will rejoin the team where he was de facto number one for four years (2002 – 2006).

If this scenario plays out, it will officially place current McLaren number two, Heikki Kovalainen on the drivers’ market.  It will also open up a seat at Renault.  As current number two at Renault, Romain Grosjean, has not set the world on fire with his performances since replacing the equally underwhelming Nelson Piquet, Jr, Team Renault will be anxious to find a strong number one to replace Alonso.  Current paddock gossip indicates that Alonso’s seat will be filled by the capable Robert Kubica, who this year has been struggling with a lackluster BMW package.

While Sauber BMW has found a buyer for 2010, there has been no official confirmation that they will make the grid at next year’s opening race. This leaves the future of the second BMW driver, Nick Heidfeld, in doubt.  If Renault were wise, they might decide to put rookie Grosjean’s apprenticeship program on permanent hold, and give their second seat to either Heidfeld or Kovalainen, both of whom will doubtless be open to offers.

Meanwhile, although it has been rumored for much of this season that Nico Rosberg, the German driver currently filling the number one slot at Williams, would jump ship to Mercedes McLaren next year (they have been in the market for a German driver for over a decade, since the German manufacturer first partnered with the Woking team), it now appears that Rosberg will be off to Brawn instead.  This will still dovetail nicely with the German carmaker’s ambitions, however, as Mercedes is apparently hammering out a deal to acquire 70% of Brawn GP.  So apparently, they’ll be able to have their strudel, and eat it too.

This begs the question of who will move aside to make room for Rosberg at Brawn.  For much of the year, it has been assumed that Rubens Barrichello was on a one year retainer, and, as the oldest man currently on the grid, would likely step aside next year to make room for younger blood.  Considering that his younger team mate, Jenson Button, was easily out performing him for the first half of the season, this was an obvious conclusion to draw.  However, during the latter half ot 2009, Barrichello has clearly had the legs on his younger rival.  He has outscored Button at the last several venues, and is still in contention for the championship.

Nico Rosberg

Nico Rosberg

That said, Button still has the points edge (if he beats the Brazilian by 5 points in Suzuka, he’ll clinch the title), and according to reports the likely 2009 world champ is anxious to regain the salary status he had in 2008, before Honda sold out to Brawn.  Both Button and Barrichello took sizable pay cuts to help assuage Brawn’s budget uncertainties as they mounted a last minute effort to make the grid at the beginning of this season.  It is understood that Brawn is reluctant to meet Button’s demands.  Could it be that Ross Brawn, with possible funding assistance from Mercedes, will opt to release Button in favor of Rosberg?  It might make economic sense to do so, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a team discharged a reigning world champion (think of Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, both released from Williams after title wins).

Next question: If Rosberg replaces Button, where does the Briton go?  One likely answer would be a straight swap, which would see Button return to Williams, where he began his F1 career.  Although there might be some residual bad blood between Frank Williams and his former charge, owing to a much publicized legal squabble over who had a legal claim on the driver’s services, Williams or BAR Honda, such wounds are quickly forgotten in Formula 1, and, considering the alternatives, a move to Williams might a lot of sense for Button.

In addition to the driver swaps indicated above, there are also four new teams to consider: Team Lotus, Campos Grand Prix, Team US F1 and Manor Grand Prix.  While there is currently speculation that not all of these teams will realistically be able to make the grid come next March, if they do, that would mean eight new driver vacancies to be filled during the off season.  It will be interesting to see where they’ll come from.  It’s very unlikely that they would all be drawn from the feeder series, GP2.  An throwing in that many rookies from the lower formulas, e.g. Formula 3, Formula Renault, etc., would create a virtual mine field of inexperience on the track.  Jacques Villeneuve has been making frequent appearances at grands prix this year, hoping that he can offer an antidote to that.  What next, comebacks by the likes of Mika Hakkinen and Damon Hill?

Images by shelly-jo and eugeneflores, licensed through Creative Commons.

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