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More drivers confirmed for 2013

The week between the Indian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix has seen a number of announcements about driver line-ups for 2013. There are no surprises, but nonetheless these drivers will all be relieved to have at least another season in Formula One.

Lotus have retained the services of Kimi Raikkonen for next season. The Finn has had a strong return to Formula One after spending two years rallying. Although he has not yet won a race for Lotus, Raikkonen has stood on the podium six times and is currently third in the Drivers’ Championship. He is no longer in a position to win this year’s title, but expects to challenge for the top spot in 2013.

Nico Hulkenberg is moving to Sauber for 2013. He was previously linked with a possible move to Ferrari, but the Scuderia opted to re-sign Felipe Massa for another season. Hulkenberg’s switch to Sauber has been greeted with scepticism from some quarters, with suggestions that it is a sideways move, rather than one that will move his career forward. Sauber are currently ahead of Hulkenberg’s current team, Force India, in the Constructors’ Championship, and have scored four podiums this season. That competitiveness will almost certainly have been a large factor in Hulkenberg’s decision to move.

Toro Rosso have announced an unchanged driver line-up for next season. Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne joined the team at the beginning of 2012, and have done a reasonable job, looking particularly strong in the second half of the season.

The grid for 2013 now looks as follows:

Red Bull – Sebastian Vettel / Mark Webber
Ferrari – Fernando Alonso / Felipe Massa
McLaren – Jenson Button / Sergio Perez
Mercedes – Nico Rosberg / Lewis Hamilton
Lotus – Kimi Raikkonen / TBC
Sauber – Nico Hulkenberg / TBC
Force India – TBC / TBC
Williams – TBC / TBC
Toro Rosso – Daniel Ricciardo / Jean-Eric Vergne
Caterham – TBC / TBC
Marussia – Timo Glock / TBC
HRT – Pedro de la Rosa / TBC

Where to now for Schumacher?

So many of the big silly season questions have now been answered. Hamilton is going to Mercedes. Perez is going to McLaren. Webber is staying with Red Bull. But the biggest question of all still hangs in the air. What are Michael Schumacher’s plans for 2013?

There are three possibilities for Schumacher: he could drive for another team, retire from the sport entirely, or move into a management/advisory role at Mercedes. Schumacher’s statement in the Mercedes press release regarding Hamilton’s move was not particularly illuminating:

“I have had three nice years with the team which unfortunately did not go as well as we all would have wanted on the sporting side. I wish Lewis well and for the team to achieve the success we worked so hard for in the build-up. I would like to thank the team for their trust and all the guys for their unconditional commitment. I will now concentrate on the next races.”

While it is certain that Schumacher will not be driving for Mercedes, there are other teams with available seats. Ferrari have not yet confirmed Felipe Massa for 2013, which suggests that his future with the Prancing Horse is still in doubt. Could Schumacher return to the team with which he had such an incredible run of success in the last decade? The prospect of Schumacher and Alonso as team-mates at Ferrari is mouth-watering.

Peter Sauber stated recently that he would be happy to offer Schumacher a drive in his team for 2013. With Sergio Perez moving to McLaren, there is a seat available. Sauber could also look to replace Kamui Kobayashi, who has been somewhat underwhelming this season. Schumacher raced Sauber-Mercedes cars in the 1990 and 1991 World Sportscar Championships, which gives him some history with the Sauber team, even if the association was not in F1.

If Schumacher intended to retire, it would have made sense for him to announce his departure from the sport before any announcements were made about his seat at Mercedes. If he intended to take up an advisory or ambassadorial role at Mercedes, that would involve his retirement from driving, which again would have merited an announcement before Hamilton’s future became clear. The lack of retirement announcement suggests that he is looking for a drive for 2013, which will please his legions of fans.

Schumacher’s first retirement came too early. He was still arguably the best driver in the sport in 2006, but he chose to hang up his helmet when he obviously still had more to offer. If he retires now, it will again be too early. He is generally driving well, certainly in the best form of his comeback, and would be winning races in a more competitive car. He returned to the sport to win another title, but has not yet had the equipment to achieve that aim. Unless he has lost the will to win, finding the most competitive drive available is his only sensible option.

Perez – What a great performance

Lewis Hamilton may have won Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix from pole position, but the drive of the day undoubtedly came from Sauber’s Sergio Perez.

Perez started down in 12th position, after failing to make Q3 in qualifying. While his grid position was not ideal, the young Mexican made the most of circumstances by choosing to start on the hard tyres, while those ahead of him were on the softer (and therefore less durable) medium-compound tyres. The choice of tyres proved to be inspired, as it enabled Perez to run long in his first stint. Running the medium tyre in the latter part of the race gave him a distinct pace advantage, and having fresher tyres than everyone else (due to pitting later) allowed him to push all the way to the flag.

Perez’s careful tyre management saw him move from the middle of the pack at the start of the race to second by the end. He passed both Ferraris like they were standing still and would have needed only a handful more laps to catch and pass Lewis Hamilton for the lead. As it happened, Perez ran out of laps and Hamilton took a well-deserved victory, but Sauber and Perez showed once again that they are capable of challenging right at the front.

A crucial part of Perez’s performance was his own driving style. The car is clearly quick and kind to its tyres, but it required sublimely smooth and controlled driving to preserve tyre performance throughout the race. Perez is only in his second season of Formula One, but is already showing remarkable maturity behind the wheel.

This is the third such impressive performance from Perez this season, the previous two being in Malaysia and Canada, where he also featured on the podium after smooth, measured performances. As a result of his consistent season, Perez is ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in the championship, which is significant given that Sauber is a Ferrari engine custome. From very early in the season, there was speculation that Perez could replace Massa at Ferrari for next season, and after this performance (if not before), Ferrari must surely be looking at the possibility with interest.

Massa vs Perez

Ferrari’s Felipe Massa started his Formula One career in the cockpit of a Sauber, and juggled that position with the role of Ferrari test driver before securing a race drive alongside Michael Schumacher in 2006. The Brazilian has been with Ferrari ever since, the high-point of his tenure being 2008, when he lost out on the championship in the final corner of the final lap of the season.

Following his near-fatal accident in 2009, Massa has struggled for form. Although he recovered from his injuries sufficiently to return to full-time racing, the Brazilian has not won a race since the crash. He has been thoroughly outpaced by team-mate Fernando Alonso, which in itself is perhaps not all that surprising, but what has been concerning is just how far behind he has been. In 2011, Alonso won a race and stood on the podium ten times, whereas Massa never finished a race higher than fifth. Currently in 2012, Alonso leads the championship with Massa 14th, 139 points behind his team-mate.

Sergio Perez is young, relatively inexperienced, but obviously talented and hungry for success. Driving for Sauber in only his second season of Formula One, Perez has already stood on the podium twice this year, including a strong challenge for victory in Malaysia that ended in an impressive second place. The young Mexican is currently ninth in the Drivers’ Championship, 14 points ahead of team-mate Kamui Kobayashi. As part of Ferrari’s Driver Academy, it is no accident that Perez is driving for Ferrari-engined Sauber, and he is constantly under scrutiny from the Ferrari team.

If Massa fails to deliver results in the second half of 2012 he is likely to be replaced for 2013. In fact, it is likely that his replacement for 2013 has already been signed. The Ferrari driver line-up is typically announced at the Italian Grand Prix, which this year takes place on 9 September. Could Sergio Perez be revealed as Fernando Alonso’s team-mate for next season? It certainly seems possible. Perez has easily outperformed Massa thus far this season, despite being in an arguably inferior car.

If Perez is going to Ferrari, it is likely that Massa is aware that his replacement has been chosen. If so, then the next race in Belgium could make for some interesting watching. Any over-aggressive driving by Massa when Perez is close on the track could be a give-away, as could any obvious public chats between Alonso and Perez.

Whether or not Perez goes to Ferrari, it seems reasonably certain that someone will replace Massa. It is simply a matter of time before the replacement is revealed.

British Grand Prix Preview Quotes – Sauber

Kamui Kobayashi: “I’m really looking forward to this race, and my expectations are quite high. Silverstone is one of my favourite circuits. Our cars were always good in medium and high speed corners, but with the Sauber C31 we have also improved the performance in slow corners, which means we should have no problems with the new part of the track, which was introduced in 2010. Despite the fact I have to cope with a penalty, which will send me five places down the grid, I’m optimistic for this race. I believe we have the potential to achieve something special in England and I hope for a little more luck as well.”

Sergio Pérez: “I really like the Silverstone circuit. I have won there in Formula 3 and in GP2 and also last year my first Formula One race was good. I came seventh and this was actually my best race result in 2011. Back then it was a crazy race in difficult weather conditions with the track drying. I think our car will be good in Silverstone and I want to fight for another podium there. In my view in Silverstone it is even more difficult to overtake than it was in Valencia, therefore qualifying is high priority on the job list. I need a better grid position than recently. I like the fast and fluid corners a lot, so this is a very enjoyable part of the track. The race in Silverstone is a special Grand Prix – because of the fans and the atmosphere and also for me personally. I lived in Oxford for three years and I have quite a few friends in England.”

Giampaolo Dall’Ara, Head of Track Engineering: “The Silverstone circuit is very different from the last two tracks we’ve been racing on. It has some challenging high speed corners and requires a set-up which is optimised with regard to aerodynamics as well as changes of direction. Silverstone has the charm of some of the older tracks with a surface that is not perfect and quite bumpy in some places. It also offers some real challenges for the drivers. The straights are not very long, therefore we can afford to run quite a lot of downforce. The DRS zone is in the same place as last year, in the section that was built a couple of years ago. Its length is quite limited which means overtaking is not so easy. We will be running the soft and the hard tyre compounds, which I expect to suit this track nicely, and also warming-up should not be an issue. An important factor in Silverstone is always the weather, an aspect we need to take into consideration when preparing for the race weekend, and something which we might to need to adapt to during the race. Our Sauber C31 will get an aerodynamic development package, which includes some modifications of the engine cover and the rear of the car. Looking at the layout of this track and the characteristics of our car, I think we can approach this race weekend with a lot of optimism.”

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