If I was in charge of Ferrari…
Ferrari currently have a major problem – they have 2 top drivers contracted for next year, one of which is currently has a serious head injury that could take a while to recover from, and the best in the business knocking on the door with his friends from a massive Spanish bank that are willing to pay millions to get their man onboard. Then there’s a 7 times world champion that was so distraught he could not help out the team, he’s probably more revved up to return to F1 than ever. Luca di Montezemolo and Stefano Domenicali must be sweating away trying to figure out a solution to what is a very complicated situation.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Switzerland, the future of the Sauber team is up in the air. BMW are pulling out of F1 and want to turn the factory into a research and development plant for their road cars unless they get a good offer. Peter Sauber wants to make a good offer for his team, and has backing from Petronas, his long time sponsor, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to convince the bigwigs.
Ferrari have had strong ties with Sauber in the past, having supplied them with Petronas-badged engines from 1997 to 2005. Sauber also got a number of Ferrari-blessed drivers, including Nicola Larini, Gianni Morbidelli and Felipe Massa himself. At one point, there was even controversy over one of the Sauber designs as it seemed remarkable similar to the previous year’s Ferrari design. They drifted apart towards the end as Sauber sided more with the other manufacturers, but already there are rumours that the Sauber-Petronas bid for the team includes a deal to use Ferrari engines.
However, if I was Luca di Montezemolo, I would sense an opportunity to solve the big dilemma. 3 of the 4 drivers in contention for drives with the main team – Schumacher, Raikkonen and Massa – are all past Sauber employees, the latter pair in F1 and Michael in sportscar racing until his F1 debut. Indeed, he had a deal that stated if Mercedes entered F1, he would drive for them. Therefore, he could’ve ended up at Sauber in 1993, but instead this was settled with Benetton before that season. Ferrari would love to have a B team to give them all drives (Luca has already said he wants to run a 3rd car for Michael next year), so surely the ideal scenario would be to farm 2 of those drivers out to a team that they’ve already driven for.
Also, consider this – Massa’s head injury is currently unpredictable. The team will not know for sure how good he still is until he gets back behind the wheel, which may not be until winter testing. Thus the question of who drives for them next year remains up in the air. So perhaps it would be better to farm him out to another team for a year to make sure he recovers. Thus, former employers Sauber would again be an ideal choice. That leaves us with 3 drivers – Alonso, Raikkonen and Schumacher. Alonso is a dead cert for Ferrari due to the Santander sponsorship, the fact that he specifically wants to drive for Ferrari, and that he’s never driven for Sauber before. The decision is between the other pair.
Raikkonen’s position is awkward. It seemed that Ferrari wanted to get rid of him for 2010 until Massa’s injury, but there is also the sticking point of his contract – it’s only a year’s deal but Kimi is the highest-paid driver on the grid. Ferrari had reportedly agreed a deal to pay up half of it, but that was before Massa’s accident, and there are more and more rumours suggesting it may not be a clear-cut retirement and move to rallying for the Finn. But the rallying aim could be the key – even if Kimi wants to see out his contract, he will still be likely retire after 2011, especially if he doesn’t get another deal from Ferrari. As a result, it would probably be wise to keep Kimi on for a final year before either bringing Massa back for 2011 or, if Felipe has lost his edge, replace him with someone else (Kubica and Buemi have both been touted) or even retain Raikkonen if he wants to stay on.
Slotting Michael in at Sauber with Massa makes sense because both drivers get along very well. Although it may not be the race-winning drive he might have hoped for, the German will be helping out his old boss in his time of need, and he’ll be back in F1 again. The car is likely to be uncompetitive, which would distract everyone in the event of either driver underperforming. But it would be a great move for Sauber, with merchandise sales going through the roof and a new fanbase courtesy of their 2 high profile star names. This, coupled with an inevitable surge in sponsorship interest, will boost the team’s finances. Both drivers have bags of experience and contacts and could bring staff from Ferrari with them, which will help build the team up. For the future, Ferrari could then help Sauber out and vice versa with the team employing a young driver – Ferrari are looking to start up a young driver programme, and what better way of doing it by having a B team. After a year of Michael and Massa, if Massa was to return to the main team, he could then be replaced with a rookie like Mirko Bortolotti, who impressed Ferrari by lapping sensationally quickly in a test at Fiorano last year. What a start that would be for his career – to be employed alongside the legendary Michael Schumacher. There’s even still the possibility of Valentino Rossi making the switch, with the Italian, who tested a Ferrari again last year, now suggesting it could happen in 2011 if Ferrari get a 3rd car. Sticking him in the B team would be a great solution, as in the likely eventuality that he ends up being rubbish, he wouldn’t be taking up a full Ferrari seat.
So, all parties would end up benefiting from such a deal, but I see it as unlikely at this stage. Sauber’s future is still hanging in the balance right now, and I haven’t heard anything on Ferrari helping the team out with more than just an engine supply. Indeed, that itself is not guaranteed – it’s just as feasible that the team ends up with Mercedes engines once again. But even then, surely it would be good for the team if they became the Mercedes B team – McLaren tester and DTM star Gary Paffett was eyed up by Sauber back in 2004 for the seat eventually taken by Jacques Villeneuve, whilst Paul di Resta is still regarded as an F1 prospect.
Either way, it would probably be for the team’s benefit to become a B team, as it is going to struggle to survive as just a plain old independent again, unless Petronas pump a heck of a lot of cash into the team. Peter sold the team in 2005 because he couldn’t afford to keep it going, so why should he afford it now? He needs outside assistance from somewhere, and I think Ferrari would be the perfect assistant.