Saturday 31 August 2013

Further thoughts on the Belgian Grand Prix

Ric in?
As I've said before, F1's 'silly season' isn't called that out of any sort of irony, in the same way as someone big-boned might be nicknamed 'tiny'. It's called it because it's usually silly. During it rumours about who is to go where for the following season ferment all around you: some have basis in fact, others are deliberate curveballs put about with an ulterior motive. Others still are simple speculation, someone putting two and two together and sometimes getting four, more often getting five. Occasionally getting 17.

Mark Webber - making mischief?
Photo: Octane Photography
By this time of the year, late summer, silly season is somewhere near its peak. And this year's seems to be of a fine vintage: what with a Red Bull vacancy created by Mark Webber's departure to LMP1, Felipe Massa's Ferrari overalls hanging on an immensely shaky peg, Kimi Raikkonnen appearing minded - for whatever reason or reasons - to move from Lotus and fill one of those gaps (or go to McLaren, or go back to rallying...), as well as of course the inevitably domino effect right down the grid of these moves. My personal favourite heard at Spa was that Michael Schumacher is to make his second return from retirement to fill the Red Bull vacancy. I'll, erm, believe that when I see it.

Webber last weekend attempted however to deprive us of some of our fun, and have some fun of his own possibly, by apparently confirming that it'll be Daniel Ricciardo, not Raikkonen or anyone else, that'll get the coveted available Red Bull seat for 2014. Whether it was an inadvertent slip or (more likely) Webber amusing himself by annoying certain members of the Red Bull hierarchy before he departs, there seems little reason to doubt what Webber is saying. And the word on the street in Spa said the same, that while a contract has not been signed - and given Ricciardo is already within the Red Bull enclave at Toro Rosso there's no harm in keeping him hanging on - a decision has indeed been made, and we'll see Ricciardo race for the big team in 2014.

It's come as a surprise at the broadest level, given that for a long time it was assumed that Raikkonen was the front-runner. And you can see why: Red Bull wants to win constructors' titles and in the immediate term Kimi is the safer bet by far for claiming points and wins to this end. But it seems that, according to Kimi, his Red Bull negotiations have faltered and without explanation. Presumably the reasons for this will come out in the wash eventually.

Daniel Ricciardo - getting his big promotion?
Photo: Octane Photography
Of course, the move for Ricciardo has some benefits. It justifies the Red Bull young driver programme, as well as the raison d'etre of Toro Rosso. It's been suggested that on these grounds Helmut Marko supported the Ricciardo promotion while Christian Horner preferred Kimi - if so then, just as in Malaysia, it is Marko that has prevailed. But equally I find it hard to believe that these considerations were sufficient in themselves. It also strikes me as naive at least to hear people talking like they think being a Toro Rosso driver should give you a free pass to Red Bull, as if Red Bull is obliged to promote from within. Red Bull has every right to have high standards in which drivers it picks, and by extension to reject Toro Rosso drivers if they don't cut it (and it's pretty much an open secret that Red Bull is willing to sell Toro Rosso if the right offer comes in). Tough? Of course, but if F1 wasn't tough then anyone would do it.

As for Ricciardo, he has shown good form in recent times, apparently impressed the big team in the young drivers' test and let's not forget that Red Bull has much more data on his driving (as well as on the other Toro Rosso pilots) than we do looking on. His good form has particularly manifested itself in qualifying, and while he hasn't always followed them up with good race results the man himself attributes this to him outperforming the car in qualifying. And good grid slots is a pretty good place to start from (both metaphorically and literally) when seeking to prevail in a top team. You'd have thought that this is what separated his claim from that of current stable mate Jean-Eric Vergne, who's never quite got the knack of qualifying in the dry, and the Bulls would be within their rights to suspect that given a Red Bull he'd qualify seventh or eighth most times, and thus be on the back foot from the get-go.

But as is always the case, the sword of opportunity is double-edged. The scrutiny increases exponentially, the places to hide diminish. And if Ricciardo doesn't from early on do at least as well as Webber has been then vultures will very quickly start to gather. F1 is tough, as I said.

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