Friday, July 11, 2008

On Contracts and Fernando Alonso

It's getting to be that time of year again. The time of year when teams start to announce their driver line-ups. This process will inevitably be impeded by Fernando Alonso dithering, which will grid-lock the paddock well into winter testing. The question is, who's feeling fat (and sassy!) with a contract and who will desperately be scrambling to procure a drive?

About contracts...

F1 contracts are curious. A normal contract is like a barbed-wire fence: rigid, inflexible, and damn difficult to get over or out of if you're trapped in it. An F1 contract is like a chain-link fence... made out of spaghetti. It's made up of loopholes and it's so flexible that it could unravel at any time. No one's contract is set in stone. Virtually anyone can be bought, for the right price, that is. But without further ado, let's proceed.

Oh, Ferrari, how I love thee. You make a beautiful car and install beautiful drivers. And as of right now, they're the same beautiful drivers we have this year! Kimi Raikkonen is contracted with Ferrari through 2009. Despite the fact that he seems fated to retire in the near future, he's assured us that he would never consider breaking his contract and quitting at the end of 2008. Hooray, Kimi, for being a man of your word! As for my favorite zesty Brazilian, Felipe Massa, his contract was extended in February through 2010. Which means that provided nothing changes I can walk around dressed like the Brazilian flag every other Sunday until I'm twenty-three!

BMW looks set with their drivers. Nick Heidfeld's contract runs through 2009, which (in theory) means that we should see him zipping around in the F1.09 next year. However, his less than spectacular showing so far this season puts him in the line of fire for future deals. Robert Kubica's contract, on the other hand, expires at the end of this year. Whatever BMW has asked for, Kubica has delivered. He's snagged the team's first pole and first win, and actually has the team in the running for the driver's championship. So why aren't BMW scrambling to resign him in a hurry to prevent him getting snapped up by such interested parties as Ferrari and Renault? Autosport's Jonathon Noble explains all:

"Sources close to Kubica have told that there is an option in his contract that gives BMW Sauber the automatic right to sign him up for another season."

This option is valid until September and BMW would be supremely foolish not to use it. While there's no rush right now, be assured that Mario Theissen will most likely have to work harder if Ferrari comes calling at the end 2009.

When it comes to McLaren, it's obvious who will be behind the wheel of one of the MP4-24s next year. Yes, you guessed it, it's Lewis Hamilton, who'll be sticking with the team until 2012, bar a cataclysmic fall-out with Ron Dennis. Details on Heikki Kovalainen's contract are unavailable. However, Martin Whitmarsh has commented that the partnership will be "long-term" and since Heikki (albeit having an unremarkable season thus far) has done nothing to disgrace himself, he will most likely be continuing with the team in 2009.

No one fully expected that Toyota would emerge as "the best of the rest" this season, yet that's what they seem to have done. This is good news for Jarno Trulli, whose contract goes "through to 2009." A slightly ambiguous phrase, I can only assume this means he is not contracted past 2008. Trulli has scored 20 of the team's 25 points, managing a podium finish at Magny-Cours. This leaves him well-poised to have to his contract extended. Timo Glock, on the other hand, has reason to fear for his ride. Although his contract ties him to Toyota through 2010, Glock has failed to shine in the first half of the season, with only five points to his name and all but two of his finishes outside the top ten.

Red Bull made a wise decision in early July and extended Mark Webber's contract through the 2009 season. While we'll be able to enjoy that forlorn face for another year, a certain boxy jaw will be notably absent: David Coulthard is set to retire at the end of 2008, leaving his race seat vacant.

In December of 2007, Nico Rosberg announced that he'd extended his contract with Williams to take him through 2009. Frank Williams has recently commented that no amount of money (not even "50 million dollars") will procure an early release for Rosberg, who will undoubtedly have to be pried from Frank's cold dead hands. He let Robert Kubica get away when he failed to sign him years ago, and he will be loath to lose Nico. There is no information readily available on the length of Kazuki Nakajima's commitment to Williams. Continuing improvements in pace and consistency would work wonders in keeping him around for another year.

Renault has been suffering through another less than ideal season. Although it has shown a mild increase in pace in recent testing sessions, the R28's pitiful performance in 2008 could greatly affect who will be piloting the R29. Fernando Alonso returned to the team after an unhappy one-year stint at McLaren and is contracted to the French team through 2009. However, Eyebrow Man may be up for grabs at the end of 2008. Rumor has it that his contract includes something to the effect of a "Get Out of Renault Free" clause, which would release him from his contract early should the team fail to offer him a competitive car. Alonso's departure from Renault will have the same effect as his departure from McLaren: everyone will be thrown into a tizzy and he'll have offers left and right (at the end of 2007, he was offered a drive by every team save Ferrari). The two-time world champion has reputedly been linked with drives at Honda, at BMW as a replacement for Quick Nick, and one which would see him the successor to Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2010.* Nelsinho Piquet will most likely be out of a drive come November. There are no details on whether he is contracted past 2008, but words cannot convey how poorly he's driving. The best attempt would be "Nelsinho's drives are appalling and I need to look away because eventually the epic fail makes my eyes unfocus!" If you have a lucky charm, send it to Nelsinho, because the boy needs a miracle.

In March of 2008, Honda were trying to rope dear Jenson Button into signing a three-year contract extension. Button had threatened to leave the team at the end of his contract in 2008, but Ross Brawn arrived and may or may not have persuaded him to stay. There is no news on the outcome of the negotiations. Rubens Barrichello's contract will expire at the end of this season, but he's eager to stay with the team. His chances of being resigned are decent. Rubens has pulled off a few nice drives and a splendid podium finish last weekend at Silverstone that was the envy of many of driver.

STR's star Sebastian Vettel has been plagued by bad luck in the first half of the season, with five retirements (mostly the result of rogue backmarkers or DC) in the first nine races. However, in the races where he has seen the chequered flag, he's performed well, and this success could very well earn him a promotion into Coulthard's open seat at Red Bull. His contract with Red Bull is a "long-term" agreement, so either way he seems safe. Sebastien Bourdais's future with Toro Rosso, sur l'autre main, is not so secure. Despite having badass glasses, poor Seb is languishing near the bottom of the standings, tied with Nelsinho for 17th place. This proves to be a dangerous position when you have a one-year provisional contract. With only two points (resulting from his 7th place finish in Australia), four retirements (at least two at the first corner), and eight out of nine finishes outside the top ten, Bourdais will undoubtedly be biting his nails post-Brazil.

Force India is continuing to honor the "long-term" contract that Adrian Sutil had with the team when they were still called Spyker. There's no information readily at hand on how long Sutil is tied to the team, but they should retain him: he was doing a fine job in Monaco until Kimi came along. Giancarlo "Peter Pan" Fisichella is on a one year contract (as far as I'm aware of). Even though he's last in the standings, that's more down to the pace of the VJM01 than Fisi himself. Perhaps he'll continue to grow (older) with the team in 2009. Unless Karun Chandhok comes along; then all bets are off.

* More to follow on this.

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