APRIL 1, 2006
Schumacher and Kovalainen
The smart money in the Formula 1 paddock in Melbourne is on a Renault driver line-up in 2007 of Michael Schumacher and Heikki Kovalainen. This may sound an unlikely state of affairs but it makes a great deal of sense for all concerned. That does not mean it is going to happen but it is a logical argument.
Renault is losing Fernando Alonso to McLaren and that was a blow to the team's ego if nothing else. Renault will want to bounce back from that situation with some positive publicity and the best possible PR in the circumstances would be to sign a bigger name. Kimi Raikkonen is not a bigger name and anyway is going to Ferrari and there is no-one else in the same league, except Michael Schumacher.
And he's in a much bigger league.
The knock-on effect of such a deal would be considerable. Renault's tentative commitment to the sport in the longer term is based on the team being used more effectively to sell motor cars. As chairman Carlos Ghosn has pointed out, this is what Renault does. Hiring Michael Schumacher would have an enormous effect for Renault, even before he sits in a racing car. It would raise then profile of the team to a completely new level - and would be a great coup as Schumacher jumping from glitzy supercar manufacturer Ferrari to the considerably less sexy Renault is just the sort of thing that would appeal to Ghosn, a man who is into big gestures. For Renault team boss Flavio Briatore it would be the cement for his immediate future with the team and make him look very clever while for Michael it would offer the chance to be in a winning car. Michael is not a man who is going enjoy a gradual slide down F1's ladder into retirement. Great champions always want to go out on top, as Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost did. For two seasons now Ferrari has not given Michael a winning car (except for the rather flawed event at Indianapolis last year). Michael might be forgiven for wondering if that story will change in 2007. He has raced with the Renaults enough to know that they are the most impressive cars out there and so a deal with Renault is the obvious choice for him to fulfil his ambitions.
Michael would be expensive because a retainer of $48m a year is on the steep side for a cost-effective team like Renault, but if Michael wants to drive the car, the price will inevitably come down because Renault is in the driving seat for negotiations. Michael does not need the money and while he may be a tough negotiator, he is inevitably going to be willing to settle. If you wish for an illustration of this, one needs only to look at the deal that was struck between Ayrton Senna and Williams in 1993. Senna wanted the Williams drive and he was willing to compromise to get it. The deal struck was for a very small amount of salary in 1994 and a huge payment in 1995. That meant that success in the first year would help the team raise the money to pay Senna a great deal more in the second year, without Senna having to lower his financial demands.
Bernie Ecclestone is not going to be arguing against any deal which puts Michael Schumacher in a winning car again. Ecclestone does not want to lose Michael because that would threaten revenues. Out in the real world, beyond the racing fans, few people have heard of Alonso and Raikkonen. Neither man has the huge brand value of Michael Schumacher.
Signing up Kovalainen for 2007 is a no-brainer. He is young, fast, cheap and looked after by Flavio Briatore's management company. He will go well. His value will increase and Briatore will end up with a bigger asset than he had at the start of the year. Renault will have a new star to step into Michael's shoes when he heads off into retirement.
When asked about Schumacher, Briatore said that Michael has not won a race for a long time and asked the questioner to "please be serious". That is not a denial. It is simply a neat way of not answering the question that was asked.
Obviously, Renault does not want to announce anything about 2007 drivers for a while because the knowledge that neither might be there in 2007 is something which could disrupt motivation in 2006. As we saw a couple of years ago with Jarno Trulli, having a demotivated driver is a disastrous thing for a top F1 team.
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