Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Driver Problems

Ferrari has a driver problem. In that, they need one both immediately, as well as to build the future of the team.

In the short term, Luca Badoer has shown that whatever his credentials in testing, he is just not up to driving this year's car on no practice and testing. Ferrari desperately wants to hang on to third in the Constructors championship, and needs someone who can potentially drive the car for points-paying finishes.

This is a problem, because in my opinion this person does not exist outside of Formula 1 today. The field is too tightly packed in terms of performance week-to-week, reliability is unbelievably high, and most attrition seems to come from cars running into each other or other driver-related failures. In this environment, there is not anyone you can parachute into the Ferrari and have them produce what the car is capable of -- especially when you consider that for the first part of the season, it was difficult to see both Ferraris in the points, never mind high up in the points.

The press seems enamoured with the idea that Fisichella will be raised up from Force India into the second Ferrari seat, and he would be further rewarded with a "testing" position next year.

In the short term, this isn't a bad idea. Fisichella has the experience in a 2009 car, and can surely come to grips with a Ferrari somewhat faster than Badoer has/can. Whether or not he'd come to grips with it enough to bring a Ferrari from the back row into the points soon enough to do any good for the Constructor's table is anyone's guess, but he's better qualified than most other candidates.

In the long term, my first reaction would be that this was a bad plan for Ferrari. Everyone is expecting that the Ferrari driver lineup next year is going to be Alonso and Massa, with Raikkonen bought-out or sold to the Fiat World Rally Championship team or something. Further, if Massa is unable to get the job done at Ferrari next year, if this injury really is a career-ending one, Raikkonen could be kept on enough of a string to be brought back -- although a team with Alonso and Raikkonen would be definitely unpleasant to work at for everyone, drivers included. Especially if there was a championship in the offing.

But if Ferrari is serious about divesting themselves of Raikkonen, then having Fisichella in reserve is a smart move.

Note that personally I don't put any stock in these stories regarding Micheal Schumacher making a return next year. It wouldn't do his reputation any good. I think that he wouldn't be able to come to grips with the cars after so long away, and a Ferrari in his hands would be wasted. Even if it was a "third car", something else I don't rate highly as a possibility for next year.

Ferrari has assembled themselves a lot of question marks for next year.
  • Alonso -- will he be any good out of the box?
  • Massa -- can he really return and be effective?
  • Raikkonnen -- is he motivated any more?
And to add Fisichella to that mix.

There are two problems with Fisichella, neither of which are really Ferrari issues. First, there's the issue of Force India. I'm sure Adrian Sutil is a sincere guy, but lets face it -- he drove the same car as the one which chased a Ferrari around Spa last weekend without it being anywhere near as interesting to watch. And new guys Alguersuari and Grossjean showed that while they were better than Luca Badoer, that's about all they were better than.

To suggest that Force India is about to accept losing the driver who seems the difference between being competitive and being present is ridiculous. While selling Fisichella to Ferrari might help settle some outstanding accounts with respect to an old engine contract, the results that Fisichella could potentially bring to the team will be worth far more in terms of both short-term sponsorship dollars and long-term prestige. Packing that in to run Sutil and another inexperienced driver for the rest of the year -- well I wouldn't do that. I'd hold on to Fisichella with both hands, and make sure that Ferrari understood that the selling price would exceed their grasp, no matter how long a grasp they might grow.

Fisichella is the second problem. While practically any Italian driver might drop everything for the chance to drive a Ferrari, especially at Monza, it is a career risk. As pointed out above, there is a potential logjam for Ferrari seats in 2010. The "reward" of a test/reserve driver position is virtually meaningless in the no-testing environment of Formula 1, which means Fisichella would be basically relegated to the sidelines, watching his skills atrophy. Basically Fisichella would be in the unenviable position of hoping both that Massa can't come back, and Raikkonen gets moved along before Massa withdraws; nothing less would give him a competitive seat at Ferrari.

There is also the chance that Fisichella might not get the Ferrari to score points, which won't do his chances for 2010 elsewhere much good, as he's already shown that he can run competitively. If he stays at Force India and does nothing else this season, the results will be blamed on the car. If he goes to Ferrari and does nothing but "be better than Badoer", the failing will be blamed on him. If I was in his management, I'd be encouraging him to stand pat at Force India.

Given all that, the best use of the 2009 Ferrari seat is to build for the future. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any room through 2010 to build, which means that building effort now would be wasted.

There is also the problem that Ferrari is on the verge of concentrating on 2010 instead of developing in 2009. Once that happens we can pretty much close the book on the season.

So that's a lot of words to say -- Ferrari has a problem. It is tempting to make a bunch of predictions, but I have not got many of those right recently and really I don't know what should happen, let alone what will happen.