The nastiness of Felipe Massa’s accident in qualifying last Saturday is only just becoming clear. The head injury is serious enough – twenty years ago it would most probably have been fatal, and further complications could yet occur – but it is now reported that his eye is damage, which could finish his career. It would be a deeply sad way for Massa to leave the sport, as he is probably one of the most liked and respected drivers on the grid, not just for his apparently effortless cheeriness, but for both the way in which he developed his driving from speedy but erratic to championship-challenging, and the sportsmanship he displayed when he ultimately lost out to Hamilton last year.
Still, life goes on: hopefully, for Felipe Massa, that means a long and happy future whether in or out of the cockpit; for Ferrari, it means they are a driver short. Who will get that seat has become something of a vexed question. The driver market has been near-static in the last year or so, with only David Coulthard and Sebastian Bourdais having left the sport, so there are no obvious drive-less drivers knocking around. Nor are there any obvious up-and-comers to pop in the car… not that Ferrari would be likely to do that.
Test drivers are normally the first port of call in situations like this. Marc Gene and Luca Badoer both had the odd season for Minardi, but both a decade or so ago. Gene filled in at Williams for a few races in the mid-2000s, but he’s not exactly race sharp. Badoer was passed over for the race drive when Michael Schumacher broke his leg in 1999; it’s hard to see him getting the nod now.
So, what are the other options? Well, this is classic F1 off-track intrigue. One theory speculates Michael Schumacher could be invited back. As far as I can see this is pure invention, but it’s a lovely idea: he’s not yet 40, and could surely have a creditable go at it. With Spa and Monza in the offing, slick tyres to play with and a Ferrari team apparently bouncing back, it might just be attractive to him… Then again, we’ve just been reminded that he would be putting his life at risk – is there really that much attraction to it that he would do such a thing? It’s a lovely idea, but it would be pretty astonishing if it were to happen.
The other hot theory is more complicated still. Fernando Alonso’s contract with Ferrari is spoken of as solid gold fact by many people better informed than I; add to that Renault’s suspension from the next race, and perhaps they could get him in the car half a season early, and either retain him alongside Raikkonen next year, or ditch Raikkonen if Massa is sufficiently well to race again…?
Now, Renault might have a thing or two to say about that, of course… But Renault is itself rumoured to be selling up to a Russian oligarch and getting out of F1. Would losing Alonso jeopardise that deal? It would certainly jeopardise some Alonso-dependent sponsorship… Then again, if Ferrari get their chequebook out, all those problems could be made to go away.
In this scenario, what would Renault do for drivers? Other things being equal, they’re about to sack Nelson Piquet and put Romain Grosjean in the car. Finding two new drivers would not be fun; having two drivers to the end of the season who have no experience of the car must seem even worse. Then again, would it be any worse than having the hapless Piquet? As Martin Brundle observed on Sunday, his job isn’t to go quicker than Alonso, but it is to be there when Alonso’s not in a position to score, and he simply hasn’t been able to do that. If Jaime Alguesuari (close enough!) can get on terms with his team-mate in an unfamiliar car, Renault can surely chance it on two newbies and expect at least one to be better than Nelsinho. The only justification for keeping Piquet is probably to avoid a legal dispute with him and his dad.
As an aside, neither Piquet nor Bourdais have necessarily ended their F1 careers, even if neither turns a wheel again all season: there are three new teams due to enter F1 next year, who will need drivers. They might be willing to consider slow but experienced-ish guys like Bourdais and Piquet; even Jacques Villeneuve is apparently hopeful of landing a seat!
So if we look around for drivers who are less recently departed from F1, the obvious names are Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson. Sato was in the frame for the Toro Rosso drive this year, while Davidson must surely be in with a shout of returning to F1 if his traditional lack of effective management has been solved. If I was running Ferrari, I’d have Ant on my list for if Fernando turns out not to be available.
And what of the current drivers? The great problem at the moment is that it’s not clear who is likely to be quick next year: will McLaren and Ferrari re-emerge? Will Brawn and Red Bull be able to stay at the front? Will Renault get sold, and if so will they be any bloody good? What will happen with the two under-hitting manufacturers BMW and Toyota, who could seemingly line up at the back or front of the grid, or anywhere in between? Can Williams hold it together? With all these questions, it’s hard to know whether Robert Kubica or Nico Rosberg would be wise to seek pastures new or not (if Kubica even can, contractually); Heidfeld’s stock seems to have dropped a bit so it’s not clear he could get a good seat elsewhere; Kovaleinen would surely be looking to hang on at McLaren as his first choice; Vettel and Webber are both tied up for next year… All told, it’s a big driver market with not that many drivers rattling round in it.
So, Alonso to Ferrari, Piquet and Grosjean at Renault looks the most likely of a set of not-very-likely looking scenarios at the moment. But anything could happen. Coulthard in a Ferrari? Well, I’d like to see it.