SEPTEMBER 10, 2001
A little speculation
MCLAREN has not yet announced its drivers for the 2002 season and while this is not outrageously strange, it is still much later than all the major teams and the Formula 1 is beginning to ask what is going on. It is clear that the team will keep the same two drivers in 2002 but the more interesting point is what is going to happen in 2003. Team boss Ron Dennis says that there is no cause for alarm and the team knows exactly where it is going.
It is not the first time Dennis has made such claims. In the heyday at McLaren he once told the F1 journalists that everything was planned seven years in advance which caused much hilarity when the team was dropped by Honda, dallied with Lamborghini before going to Ford, then Peugeot and finally Mercedes-Benz.
Dennis, however, does like to plan in advance and just as Frank Williams and Ferrari know where they are going for at least a couple of years ahead, it is safe to say that Dennis is moving along a similar route.
Experienced Dennis-watchers reckon that he is about to spring a big surprise on the Formula 1 community but no-one is quite sure what it will be. Some rumors say that it will be the signing of Kimi Raikkonen as a McLaren driver in 2003. This is an obvious move to make. Raikkonen has been an exceptional performer in 2001 and he has made it quite clear that he is no great hurry to join Ferrari - which is what most people assumed would happen. It is widely held that Ferrari will crumble when Michael Schumacher retires as he has made it his team in recent years. When he goes, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and the rest of them will follow. It will be a good moment to leave.
With Williams having more drivers than he has drives in 2003, the only obvious move in the future for Raikkonen is a deal with McLaren and with Mika Hakkinen reaching the end of his career, it would be a good exchange. It might also solve Hakkinen's problem of what to do after Formula 1. He could stay on to help the youngster develop his career. The two Finns are close and this would keep him in F1. He may also do some touring car racing, which would explain a curious test of a Mercedes-Benz DTM car which Hakkinen did quietly earlier this summer.
The recent speculation has centered on the possibility of Sauber being given a secondary supply of Mercedes-Benz engines in order to agree to release Raikkonen. This may sound fanciful but Mercedes-Benz did agree to a deal to supply Alain Prost with engines a couple of years ago only to later cancel the deal. Sauber and Mercedes-Benz go back 15 years together and it is an arrangement which makes a lot of sense.
But no-one has yet been able to explain what happens to Raikkonen and Sauber in 2002. Ferrari is not going to be happy to see its number one customer disappearing off to fight with the opposition. It may be - and this is highly speculative - that McLaren is trying to get Raikkonen to leave Sauber at the end of this year and move to McLaren as the team's third driver. It would provide Kimi with the perfect seamless transition into a top team that marked Hakkinen's career back in 1993 when he left Lotus and joined McLaren as a test driver. It has echoes also of Olivier Panis's relationship with McLaren. It is the way that Ron Dennis likes to operate.
This would mean that Sauber would need a new driver, which perhaps explains team's recent interest in Marcel Fassler. He is a perfect candidate because not only is he Swiss (and quick), but he is also a Mercedes-Benz driver.
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