OCTOBER 25, 2008
The Silly Season - where are things at?
The Formula 1 driver line-up for 2009 has been sneaking up on the sport for a while now - with not much left available these days. Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, BMW Sauber, Force India and Red Bull Racing have all declared their intentions with the only movement being Sebastian Vettel's departure from Scuderia Toro Rosso to replace the retiring David Coulthard at Red Bull. Toyota has yet to make an announcement but will keep the same two drivers, at least according to most sources.
So that leaves just three teams to get excited about: Renault, Toro Rosso and Honda.
Renault is making an effort to appear positive about F1 and the two recent victories - strange though they were - has obviously helped the team at a time when not much is right with the French car company. The firm has just cut its expectations for this year as a result of slumping sales. These will be more or less the same as last year, despite the stated aim of a 10% increase. Shares in Renault are now 74% down from where they were at the start of the year. Stocks of unsold cars are building up and job cuts have already been announced. Renault has also said it plans to scrap some of its vehicle programmes. None of this is very cheering, but as long as the F1 programme reduces its costs and gives the company something back then it is probably safe. Fernando Alonso will almost certainly stay (for want of a better option) and although Nelson Piquet has been lacklustre this year there is little sense in dumping him and training up another young driver. It is better to see whether Piquet can use what he has learned in 2008 to better effect in 2009. By the end of next season he will either have established himself or he will fall from F1.
Honda has been waiting around for Alonso but it is increasingly clear that Fernando is not going to move across to the Brackley team. This means that Rubens Barrichello has a good chance to stay as there is no obvious replacement as Alexander Wurz is not interested in moving up from being test driver. The team will test some young bloods in the coming months, including Bruno Senna and some his GP2 rivals but logic suggests that Barrichello is probably a better package, if he can convince the team that he is still super-motivated. There is a possibility that Piquet might join the team if he is thrown out although one could still argue that Barrichello makes more sense than Nelson.
Scuderia Toro Rosso has two seats available - in principle - but it would be less than intelligent to dump Sebastien Bourdais given his recent performance against Vettel and the fact that he will almost certainly be quicker next year now that he has learned more about F1. This does not mean that the team will not do it. Red Bull will obviously have some influence in the decision and the word is that the Austrians want to see Sebastien Buemi in Vettel's car. Having two new drivers is probably not a situation that is desirable, but there is still a question of money. Toro Rosso is championing cost-cutting (because it is serves its purposes at the moment) and hopes to be able to continue in the long term with customer cars. This might allow for a driver to be chosen on the basis of ability rather than cash. The other name that one hears a lot is that of Senna, but the logic here seems flawed. Senna is a good name and Gerhard Berger was a friend of his uncle and has played some role in helping Bruno's career. He might bring some money with him, but he still has a fair bit to do to convince the F1 cynics that he has the talent to be a long-term F1 driver. He has had good machinery throughout his career, which helps one look good, and there are some who want to see how he does when the cards are not stacked in his favour. He may do well but the element of uncertainty cannot be discounted at the moment.
The hopes of other GP2 men are pretty limited. Lucas di Grassi and Romain Grosjean are dependent on Renault and the likes of Karun Chandhok would need a push from Red Bull to get him into anything other than a test drive - and these are becoming more and more meaningless at the moment as testing is cut back. GP2 champion Giorgio Pantano, Russian Vitaly Petrov and Pastor Maldonado have all done well this year but that is no really going to help them as teams looking for new blood would first look around the current test drivers before going or a new boy.
The advantage of being a new boy is that one is cheap but the older F1 will quickly start to bring down their financial demands if their drives seem to be threatened.
Some will probably drive for nothing.
There is little doubt that the financial crisis will ultimately hit the driver salaries. It may take a year or two for the effects to be felt but the days of $50m salaries are not likely to return for the next five years.