FEATURE BY MAT COCH
Mat Coch writes:
The return of Kimi Raikkonen has stolen the headlines in the last day or so. The 2007 world champion's return has been much anticipated and speculated about as the season drew to a close.
Initially he was linked with a move to Williams, though, as we pointed out some weeks ago, that move never seemed to be based on any real logic. The Renault deal seemed a better option, and it has proved to be where the smart money was. Raikkonen's signing however has raised a number of points which don't seem to have a clear answer.
First and foremost, the simple fact is that signing Raikkonen is good business. It's good for the team, it's good for the sport and it's good for the fans. There are seemingly no losers from the decision, until one considers that Robert Kubica could return to the sport next season. As wild as that may seem it's a concept which has been actively discussed since Kimi was confirmed in black and gold, and with good reason. Kimi and Kubica in a team is a formidable combination. There's just one small problem; Vitaly Petrov.
The Russian became Renault's de facto team leader in 2011 though, if truth be told, probably wasn't up to the job. He's too inexperienced to really lead a team and has not proved to be the formidable competitor and personality Kubica was. His performances were solid, but not spectacular. Given the choice between a recovered (or recovering) Robert Kubica and Petrov the choice is comparatively simple.
It's not so cut and dry though. There is nothing to suggest Kubica will be ready for the start of the 2012 season, so while he may be road-mapped in to the teams longer plans it will need an interim plan. Given his service to Renault, not to mention the point at which he's at in his career, it's unlikely Petrov would be overly keen on the concept of a drive based on the assumption that Kubica won't be back, or perhaps on the understanding that he'll be the one to move aside should the Pole return.
Petrov's manager has announced that she will hold talks with Renault to confirm the team's plans so that a decision can be made over Vitaly's future there.
If Petrov was to move on there are precious few berth's available. The top four teams have confirmed their line-ups, though Petrov hasn't really done enough to show himself worthy of such a seat anyway. In the midfield Force India seem settled on di Resta and Hulkenberg, even if it has not admitted as much, Sauber is happy with what it's got while Toro Rosso has more drivers than it knows what to do with.
Caterham, which has been known as Team Lotus this year, has confirmed Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli however there has been speculation lately that Daniel Ricciardo could end up wearing green next season. When contacted for this article the team had nothing to say. Marussia, which has been Virgin for the last two seasons, has Timo Glock and Charles Pic. HRT has confirmed Pedro de La Rosa though exactly who will partner him remains up in the air, however it's expected to be Tonio Liuzzi.
That really only leaves Williams, who seem to have a seat free since Rubens Barrichello is believed to be leaving the team. On the face of it Petrov and Williams are a good fit, but there's more reasons to follow that thought through.
In need of money the team is on the look out for drivers with ability and funding. Petrov has both. His performances over the last two seasons are about as good as Williams can realistically expect to find in its current situation, and the funding is an added bonus.
It also seems to make more sense than the links between the team and Sutil. The German has visited the team's Grove HQ and is backed by Medion, which was recently bought out by Lenovo. A previous sponsor of Williams, Lenovo now has no connection with the team, having moved its support to McLaren instead.
Youngster Valtteri Bottas can't be ruled out of the equation though. He's been on the radar at Williams for a while, partly because the young Finn has had a hugely successful career in junior formula but no doubt thanks to the fact he's managed by (Williams shareholder) Christian 'Toto' Wolff. He is short on experience however, and although he's just wrapped up the GP3 championship he could probably do with another season or two in the junior formulae.
If Petrov were to join Pastor Maldonado it would give Williams a pairing no weaker than it currently has with the added benefit of additional funds; it's almost two-fold since the team would not be paying a retainer for Barrichello while gaining an income from Petrov. Based on finances alone the deal seems to be in Williams best interests, and in modern Formula One finance is usually the overriding factor.
All that leaves a bit of a mess at Renault though. If Petrov jumps ship it would leave Raikkonen alongside the most desirable seat left on the driver market. There is huge demand and little supply, meaning the team would have its choice of drivers. With Boullier at the helm, and there have been indications recently that he may not be come 2012, logic would suggest Romain Grosjean is promoted to the race drive until Kubica is in a position to return to a full time role. That doesn't leave any room for Bruno Senna, who, like Petrov, has been solid but unspectacular. If Boullier isn't in charge perhaps Senna will get another chance, though whatever happens it seems anyone in that seat will end up playing second fiddle to the whims of the recovering Kubica.
Given the incident with Eric Lux in China it seems rather unlikely Sutil would be considered for the role, but then what experienced driver would want to put himself in a position where he could be replaced once Kubica is fit again?
So with Raikkonen having previously been the key to the driver market, now he's been signed that mantle appears to have been passed to the man who would be his teammate. If Renault is accommodating to Kubica, Petrov is in a rather perilous position. His manager suggests there is a Plan B, and even a Plan C, and one can't help but suspect that the first option is Williams, and perhaps beyond that the role about to be vacated by Hulkenberg as test driver at Force India. The ignominy of being bumped to a test role at Renault seems unlikely.
Renault however remains Petrov's Plan A, and who knows, Kubica may well become the Alessandro Nannini of the modern era. If that does turnout to be the reality it would be a devastating blow to the man himself, the sport and his many fans. The sport would move on, and Raikkonen's addition to the grid would soften that blow. But Formula One would still be poorer for it.