Kimi Raikkonen is heading back to Ferrari for at least two seasons from the beginning of 2014. He’s leaving Lotus, a strong team who are probably headed for third or fourth in this year’s Constructors’ Championship. While it may look like Raikkonen’s move back to Ferrari is a step forward, as Ferrari are presently (and historically) more competitive than Lotus, the reality is in fact much less certain. Raikkonen has taken a substantial risk by signing for Ferrari.
In fairness, remaining with Lotus would also have been risky, as would signing for any other team. That’s because the 2014 technical regulations are significantly different to those in place at present, which means no-one really knows who will be competitive come the start of next season. Consider the example of 2009 (the last time there was a major technical regulation change), when the Brawn team rose from the ashes of Honda (who had a fairly ordinary F1 record) and won both championships to the great surprise of everyone, including themselves.
Big budgets are important in Formula One in the long-term. That’s one of the reasons why Mercedes (who took over Brawn) were unable to repeat the astonishing successes of 2009, despite reuniting Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher – Mercedes did not have the budget or the structure to compete with Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.
But in the short term, when technical regulations change drastically, innovation is more important than budget, as a single brilliant idea (such as the double diffuser that Brawn used so successfully in 2009) can make the difference between winning by a huge margin and struggling at the back of the field. Of course, ultimately a team with more resources can react to their competitors’ innovation and catch up through rapid development. That’s one of the factors that has led Red Bull to such dominance from the second half of 2009 until now.
Ferrari have a massive budget, possibly the largest in Formula One. They have produced race-winning (but not championship-winning) cars for the past five seasons (the last Ferrari title was the 2008 Constructor’s Championship). In the long term, Ferrari are sure to make a return to the very top of Formula One. But Raikkonen is only guaranteed two years with the team. That might not be enough time.
At Lotus, Raikkonen will have been involved in development of the 2014 car. He has been working with the engineers and management since the beginning of 2012 and is comfortable in the team. Lotus have produced strong cars for the past few seasons and are still in the hunt for further race victories this year. Raikkonen is giving up that strong and competitive environment to head to Ferrari, but he cannot have any concrete idea of how competitive Ferrari will be in 2014.
Furthermore, Ferrari are in the hunt (just) for both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships in 2013. As a result, they are still developing their 2013 car aggressively in the hope that they can close the gap to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull before the end of the season. The resources that are currently going into 2013 car development are not being used to develop the 2014 car. Lotus, by contrast, are no longer realistically in contention for either title this season. They are free to pour all of their resources into developing a strong 2014 car, without having to worry about losing out in 2013 as a result.
It would be a massive stretch to call Raikkonen’s switch to Ferrari a bad move. It is probably a good move, from the perspective of Raikkonen’s championship chances in the next two seasons. But considering that the move coincides with major regulation changes, Raikkonen has taken a substantial leap of faith, by going from a team in which he is currently competitive to a team that might or might not be competitive next season.
Toto Wolff has long been known in Formula One circles as a shareholder and director of Williams. He has become so much a part of the team that he has deputised for Sir Frank Williams when the team boss has been unable to attend races. But now he is leaving Williams to join a new Mercedes management structure consisting of Wolff, Niki Lauda and Ross Brawn, Mercedes parent company Daimler AG announced today. In his new role, Wolff will “take over the complete coordination of all Mercedes-Benz motorsport activities” and to that end, he is effectively replacing Norbert Haug who recently left the organisation.
Wolff’s new position includes an equity stake in Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd., the company that runs the Formula One team. Daimler confirmed that Niki Lauda, the former triple world champion who joined Mercedes late in 2012, will also become a shareholder. Wolff and Lauda will between them own the 40% stake in the company that was previously held by Aabar, but bought back by Daimler in 2012.
Wolff will leave his management role at Williams, but will retain his shareholding in the team, which does create the somewhat strange situation of his investments competing with each other on the racetrack. But it is clear that his focus will be on Mercedes. Wolff’s wife, Susie, has a year remaining on her contract as Williams development driver, and she will continue in that role.
Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of Daimler AG, welcomed Toto Wolff: “As an entrepreneur, investor and motorsport manager, Toto Wolff has proven that this sport runs in his blood; at the same time, he is also well aware of the economic necessities of the business. With Toto Wolff, we have gained for our Formula 1 team not only an experienced motorsport specialist, but also a longstanding enthusiast of the Mercedes-Benz brand. Together with him and Niki Lauda, we will further develop our motorsport activities and guide our Silver Arrows into the next era.”
Williams team principal Sir Frank Williams commented; ‘’I would like to thank Toto for his hard work, dedication and commitment to the team during his time as a Director of the Company. He was a key support to me as Executive Director last season, deputising at a number of races when I was unable to attend. However, positions such as the one offered to him by Mercedes do not come around often. Toto has a long history with them and I certainly was not going to stand in the way of him accepting this once in a lifetime opportunity. Toto will retain his shareholding in Williams and will always have a place at Grove but make no mistake; we will fight him hard on the racetrack! I am sure he will be a strong asset for Mercedes and on behalf of the whole team I would like to wish him the best of luck in his new role. I’m lucky to have a very professional group of people around me and the Company’s Executive Committee will continue the work they have been doing to ensure a successful future for the business.”
For his part, Wolff seems eager to take up his new challenge at Mercedes: “Mercedes is one of the most important participants in motorsport worldwide. I am not only a big fan, but also a longstanding friend and enthusiast of the brand. I am looking forward to the challenge and, along with preparing for a successful racing season, also want to focus on the targeted promotion of new talent.
“I am leaving Williams on good terms and I will miss the team and friends I have made there. I’d also like to wish Frank and the whole of Williams the best of luck for the future.”
The Daimler press release made no mention of Nick Fry, who is currently CEO of the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team, but Euronews quoted a team source as saying Fry’s role “had not changed but was under discussion.”
Mercedes has undergone significant changes in advance of the new season, beginning with the signing of Lewis Hamilton to lead the team’s driver line-up, and now with a significant management restructure. It is clear that Daimler are not satisfied with the performance of the Silver Arrows over the past three seasons and are intent on turning the situation around quickly and emphatically.
Michael Schumacher has had a miserable 2012. Just two finishes – two tenth places – from seven races is not the start to the season the most successful man in Formula One history was looking for. But there are those in Formula One who think his luck is about to change.
Pirelli motorsport boss Paul Hembery stated last week that Schumacher would be a good bet for victory: “I think you have to look at someone like, maybe Michael getting the pole position,” Hembery said in an interview with Autosport. “He probably would have won Monaco if he hadn’t been penalised, so why not there? Michael for Valencia, that’s where the money needs to go.”
Tyres have played a significant role in determining race results in 2012, which adds weight to Hembery’s opinion. If Mercedes can set the car up well for the Valencia circuit, then the prediction of a Schumacher win could come true.
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn is optimistic about the seven-time champion’s chances in Valencia: “There’s every opportunity that at the next race in Valencia we’re going to have an eighth winner…There are some very quick drivers in very quick cars who have not won a race yet – think of Michael in our car.”
Schumacher has been winless since returning to Formula One in 2010. He was arguably robbed of a podium in China when his team made an error in the pits, and – as Paul Hembery has stated – could have won the Monaco Grand Prix if not for his five-place grid penalty. Will Valencia be the turning point for Schumacher? A win would be the perfect way to show he still has what it takes.