Nico Rosberg has joined the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship fight with a superb victory at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Rosberg beat team-mate Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight for the win, with Felipe Massa finishing third for Williams.
This is not Rosberg’s first win of the 2015 season – in fact it’s his third – but it’s a very significant victory. Why? Because it’s the first time in 2015 that Rosberg has beaten Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight. It’s a psychological victory more than a points victory and it signals the start of what could be an epic battle for the Drivers’ Championship.
Hamilton is the reigning world champion. He’s had the lion’s share of pole positions – 7 out of 8 races this season, with the other one going to Rosberg in Spain – and has been the man to beat in all of the races so far, winning 4 out of 8 in quite dominant fashion. And until today, it looked like Rosberg might not have an answer for Hamilton’s form.
It’s true that Rosberg had already won two races this season, but neither would have been as satisfying as today’s win. In the Spanish Grand Prix, Rosberg drove flawlessly to win from pole position, but was never in a straight fight with his team-mate, who had a poor start and was stuck behind Sebastian Vettel for much of the race.
In Monaco, Hamilton had the race firmly under control when his team called him into the pits at the wrong time in response to the safety car being deployed late in the race. Rosberg inherited the win, but it had clearly been Hamilton’s day.
While a win counts for 25 points no matter how it is earned, Rosberg will have been aware that he had yet to beat Hamilton in a straight for victory this season. But that’s all changed now. In Austria, Rosberg made a stunning start to beat Hamilton (who was on pole) into the first corner. He then fended off a determined attack from Hamilton into turn 2 and again into turn 3 on the opening lap.
Rosberg controlled the rest of the race to take a much-needed victory and close the gap to championship leader Hamilton to just 10 points. But perhaps more importantly for Rosberg, he had a wheel-to-wheel battle with Hamilton and won. In Austria, Rosberg was the better driver.
Until today, it was hard to imagine Rosberg beating Hamilton to the title. But now it’s a possibility. Hamilton and Rosberg could be locked in a battle for the title reminiscent of Senna and Prost in the 1980s. Formula 1 just got exciting again.
Felipe Massa will race for Williams in 2014, the team announced today. Massa will partner Valtteri Bottas, who has raced for the team from the start of 2013.
There are three important pieces of information in the announcement. Firstly, Felipe Massa will remain on the grid past the end of this season. Massa’s future was in doubt after it was announced some months ago that he would leave Ferrari at the end of this season. There were rumours linking him to Lotus, Sauber and, more recently, Williams. The Williams rumours have proven factual, as confirmed today.
Secondly, Pastor Maldonado will be leaving Williams. It’s been no secret that Maldonado has been unhappy with the lack of performance of the Williams cars during the time he has been with the team. Maldonado made his F1 debut with Williams in 2011, alongside the most experienced man in F1 history, Rubens Barrichello. In three seasons, Maldonado has one pole position, one podium and one victory, all of which came at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix. That one win accounts for more than half the points the Venezuelan has scored in his time in Formula One.
Maldonado brings a significant amount of sponsorship with him from Venezuelan oil and natural gas giant PDVSA. Williams have been the beneficiaries of that sponsorship for three years, but with Maldonado departing, it seems certain that Williams will have to look elsewhere for that part of their budget. It’s not clear how soon PDVSA signage will disappear from the Williams cars, as the deal between PDVSA and Williams was rumoured to run well past the end of this season. If PDVSA have managed to negotiate their way out of their contract with Williams, it will doubtless have come at a significant financial cost, which will bolster the Williams team’s finances in the short-term. In the long-term, however, Williams will have to find further funding.
There has not yet been any confirmation of Maldonado’s plans for 2014. It’s been rumoured that he’s in contention for Kimi Raikkonen’s seat at Lotus. Raikkonen has signed for Ferrari to replace Massa from 2014, and seems set to be replaced at Lotus by either Maldonado or Sauber driver Nico Hulkenberg.
The third important piece of information in today’s announcement concerns Valtteri Bottas. The 24-year old Finn is still in his debut season in F1 and has yet to score a point. Although he was expected to have a fair chance of remaining with Williams in 2014, it was by no means certain that he would stay on the grid. This announcement confirms that Bottas has done enough to satisfy his bosses at Williams that he is worthy of another season in Formula One.
For 2014, the technical regulations of Formula One are changing drastically. There will be new hybrid V6 turbocharged engines in the cars, which will look quite different as a result of a few aerodynamic changes. Williams will be looking to tackle the new regulations competitively in order to return to the front of the grid, where they spent so much time in the 1980s and 1990s. The mix of youth (Bottas) and experience (Massa) in their driver line-up puts them in a strong position to develop into the new technical era in Formula One.
This is what the team members had to say regarding next year’s driver line-up:
Sir Frank Williams, Founder and Team Principal: “We are delighted to be able to confirm our 2014 driver line-up and welcome Felipe into the Williams family. He is an exceptional talent and a real fighter on the race track; he also brings a wealth of experience as we begin a new chapter in our story. Valtteri is a valued member of the team and I’m pleased he was able to demonstrate his talent in tricky conditions in Montréal. There is much more to come from him.”
Claire Williams, Deputy Team Principal: “It is very exciting for us to be able to confirm our 2014 driver line-up as part of a number of announcements we will be making over the coming weeks. Felipe has demonstrated his talent and speed over the years, as well as his ability to help motivate and drive a team to championship success, and we are extremely pleased that he will be joining us as we embark on our 2014 campaign. Valtteri is an exciting, young talent who has done a solid job for us in his rookie season and we are looking forward to giving him the equipment he deserves to show just how good he is.
“This announcement is a key step towards our goal of returning Williams to the front of the grid, and part of our on-going plans to ensure we are stronger in 2014 and beyond. The stability of having both our drivers on multi-year contracts, Mercedes-Benz as our engine partner and a strong commercial base all contribute to the future success of the Williams F1 Team.”
Felipe Massa: “Williams is one of the most successful and important teams of all time in Formula One. When I was a kid, I always dreamed about racing for Williams, Ferrari or McLaren and I’m glad to be signing with another icon of the sport following my time at Ferrari. It is also nice to remember that some of the best Brazilian drivers raced for Williams and cemented a strong national link with the team. With such a major change of regulations in 2014, I hope my experience will be useful in helping the team in its effort to move on from a difficult period. Since my early days in motor racing, I don’t remember seeing so many new rules in a single season and I’m fully prepared to work with everyone at Grove to make sure we find the right direction. I’m highly motivated to start working hard from the very beginning in what is an exciting new challenge in my career.”
Valtteri Bottas: “I’m very happy to be staying with the team as I embark on my second season in Formula One. I have known everyone here for many years, firstly as a test driver and now as a race driver, so it feels like home. I have faith in Williams and I know we can do so much better in the future than our current performance shows. I am looking forward to having Felipe as my teammate. He is a quick and experienced driver and together we will be pushing to the maximum to improve the car and get as many points as we can next season. We will be working throughout the winter to ensure we are ready for the challenge of 2014. I would also like to thank everyone at Williams, especially Frank, Claire and the senior management for their on-going trust in me.”
It’s the one battle we’ve hardly seen at all in the past few seasons – the battle of the Ferrari drivers. Alonso has generally been dominant enough early in each of his Ferrari seasons that Massa has ended up helping him attempt to win the title each time. But this season is different. Massa is no longer fighting for his place at Ferrari and therefore has no interest in helping Alonso.
For the Singapore Grand Prix, Massa is ahead of Alonso on the grid. Massa will start sixth, with Alonso just behind in seventh. And that makes it a straight fight for Ferrari supremacy around the streets of Singapore. If Massa makes a better start than Alonso, then Alonso will have to fight to get past. And vice versa, of course.
Massa will be very determined to beat Alonso in Singapore. He’s fighting for his place in Formula One and has everything to prove. His performance in tomorrow’s race could directly influence the team bosses on the pit wall as they consider whether or not to employ him in 2014. So we can expect to see the quick and aggressive Massa who almost won the title back in 2008.
For Alonso’s part, he absolutely has to beat Sebastian Vettel in order to keep his title hopes alive. Based on the relative pace of the Red Bull and Ferrari so far this weekend, that’s not going to happen. But Alonso is not known for giving up. He will fight tooth and nail to move his way through the field. It’s just how he races.
So each has incentive to beat the other, which could mean we are in for an epic battle between two of the most experienced men currently in Formula One. All we can hope for is a clean start so that they end up close to each other during the race.
Felipe Massa is out of a drive in Formula One at the end of 2013. That is, unless he successfully negotiates his way into a race seat for next season. Unfortunately, he seems to be going about it the wrong way, by publicly stating that he’s only interested in teams that will be fighting for victory.
Massa is 32 years old. By F1 driver standards, he’s not young, but neither is he on the verge of retirement. Michael Schumacher proved in the last three seasons that it’s possible to race in Formula One when over the age of 40. So Massa’s got plenty of time left in the sport. What he doesn’t necessarily have is lots of options for future employers.
For 2014, the top teams that are still in the process of working out their 2014 driver line-ups are Lotus and McLaren. It looks increasingly like McLaren will keep their current driver pairing – Jenson Button and Sergio Perez – for at least another season, which leaves just Lotus if Massa insists on a top team. For some time, Lotus have been linked with Nico Hulkenberg, who is certainly talented and is delivering results that exceed the perceived pace of his Sauber. Hulkenberg could well win the race for Kimi Raikkonen’s seat at Lotus, and then where would Massa be?
F1Plus today quoted Massa as saying, “I’m not interested to be part of Formula One just to be there on the grid.” With that statement, he’s effectively cutting off the option of negotiating with Marussia and Caterham, who have just made up the numbers for the four years of their existence. He’s also possibly cutting himself out of negotiating with Force India, Sauber and Williams, who make up the bulk of the midfield. Toro Rosso will not be interested in an established driver, which means they are not an option for Massa.
Finding a place in Formula One is tough. Only a few drivers make it, from an enormous talent pool. There are plenty of quick drivers who have never made it into the top flight, but arguably could have done well had they cracked the nod. So F1 drivers need to appreciate that they are the lucky few and hold on to their F1 careers with both hands. Of those who have left Formula One, only a very small number have made it back on anything resembling a permanent basis. Drivers like Pedro de la Rosa and Nick Heidfeld have tried to break back into F1 race seats a few times and have generally failed to hang on to those seats.
If Massa restricts himself to negotiating with the top teams (i.e. Lotus), he may well find himself out of a drive for 2014. And a year on the sidelines could be a very bad idea if he intends to fight for wins and championships in the future. Let’s not forget that Massa hasn’t won a race since 2008, and has been made to look pathetically slow by Fernando Alonso over the last four seasons. He doesn’t appear to be in the form of his life. The most likely outcome of a year on the sidelines for Massa is retirement from Formula One.
So what Massa needs to do is, first and foremost, make sure he stays in Formula One. If he’s still as good as he was in 2008 (when he lost out on the title by a single point to Lewis Hamilton), then he will show that talent in any car and will ultimately be able to move forward from a less than ideal team. But only if he can stay in the field. Otherwise his place will simply be taken by someone younger, hungrier and better sponsored. And to stay in Formula One, Massa needs to open negotiations with everyone.