AUGUST 5, 2008

The 2009 driver market

The end of July - a classic option date - came and went with little action in F1 this year. McLaren confirmed Heikki Kovalainen for 2009 and Nico Rosberg let it be known that he will be staying with Williams. This was no surprise because at the moment Rosberg's poor results and many mistakes for Williams have meant that his value has been slipping. The big question that is holding up the market at the moment is what happens with Kimi Raikkonen. There is much speculation in F1 circles that the Finn will retire at the end of the year, despite being only 28. Raikkonen has made no secret of his dislike of the F1 lifestyle, has made all the money he needs in his life, and does not seem to be hugely motivated, despite still being in the running for the World Championship. He has a contract to stay at Ferrari next year, but in a case of retirement this would be forgotten. One can argue that the obvious replacement for Raikkonen is Fernando Alonso - although some might say Robert Kubica. Given that the Pole is under a BMW team option and has little room to manoeuvre, it is not likely that he will be seen at Maranello for a while. There has been talk for some months that Alonso has already signed some kind of option to join Ferrari in 2010.

This has been denied by Ferrari.

Fernando says he could move from Renault and he is believed to have been talking to various teams, including Renault, Honda and BMW. The problem he has is that while his on-track performance remains strong, teams are a little wary about him because of the troubles that developed at McLaren in 2007 when he found himself under pressure from Lewis Hamilton.

The latest suggestion is that Alonso will go to Honda for a year before moving to Ferrari in 2010. There is no question that Honda is looking for a star name and that the market is a little short of them at the moment. Our sources say that Honda has looked at Alonso, Kubica, Sebastien Vettel and Rosberg. With the last two having signed elsewhere and Kubica likely to stay where he is, Alonso is the only practical option, but it is not clear whether there is much logic in a driver going to a team for one season. It takes time to settle in to a new team and to get everything moving in the right direction and most drivers today prefer longer-term deals to give themselve a better chance of success. There are high hopes that Honda will move up the ladder next year with the first car overseen by Ross Brawn, but F1 is such a complex business today that there are no guarantees that all the people are yet in the right places. If there were no Ferrari possibility in the background Honda might be a good move for Fernando, so that he can lead the team to success (and ensure that it is built around him) but the rumours of a Ferrari deal seem well-sourced. Alonso was recently spotted in Lugano, Switzerland, and while he says he was there on a holiday, it is well known in F1 circles that for many years Ferrari deals have been done in that city, thanks to the fact that Lugano is the headquarters of the legal firm Peter, Bernasconi & Partners. This is headed by Dr Henry Peter, Ferrari's lawyer. If Alonso was there just for a visit as he claimed, it was not the smartest thing to do if he is trying to quieten down rumours of a Ferrari deal. However, it may be that a visit to Lugano is a good idea as it increases the Ferrari speculation and thus enables Fernando to discuss his future with other teams with a stronger negotiating hand.

There is also much speculation about Bruno Senna, the 24-year-old nephew of triple world champion Ayrton Senna. Bruno is currently second in the GP2 standings and will not much benefit from staying where he is in 2009. There has been talk for a while that he might be on his way to Scuderia Toro Rosso, a team that is run by his late uncle's friend and former team-mate Gerhard Berger. The team has already lost Sebastian Vettel to Red Bull Racing and is wondering what to do about Sebastien Bourdais, who has had a disappointing year. The team will enjoy some support from Red Bull in 2009 but needs not only to find money for 2009 but also to invest to create the infrastructure needed to become a constructor in 2010. With money hard to find these days, driver who can open doors are more valuable. Senna is definitely one of them, as the name has huge promotional value, particularly in South America.