Today has been a very interesting day in the Suzuka paddock. It was one of those days when there is a real buzz in the air and some paddock theatre going on.
With the announcement last night of Kimi Raikkonen’s removal from Ferrari and Fernando Alonso’s arrival, it was clear that their respective press briefings and the one of Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali were going to be interesting.
Kimi looked rather crestfallen today, as you would expect, but he was very dignified in the way he carried himself publicly. He did not criticise the team and they did not criticise him. It was not an easy job to sit in front of the assembled media when you have been dumped by Ferrari. He has said many times in the past that he would end his career at the team, but now he is having to rethink that. In doing so he has left himself the option of quitting F1 at the end of the year. He had always rather implied that he would stop when his Ferrari contract expired at the end of 2011.
Meanwhile Alonso looked happy but not triumphant. He spoke with enthusiasm, but judged the tone just right. I’ll deal with him in a separate post.
Judging from the comments section on this site, many fans are struggling to understand Ferrari’s decision to drop Raikkonen for Alonso. So are a lot of journalists in the F1 paddock and the question kept coming in, phrased differently each time, but always with the same thrust, Why do the team feel that Alonso is a better bet than Kimi?
Both Raikkonen and Domenicali were asked this and Raikkonen took the tack of implying that the decision was based on commercial considerations, in other words on the arrival of Santander as a sponsor of Ferrari,
“There are many reasons. In F1 there is always a lot of money and there can always be different options. That’s what happened in the end. It’s nothing to do with racing or what I do in the team.”
I have heard suggestions that Philip Morris is paying the severance money to Raikkonen and that his salary at McLaren is being paid by Santander, although the numbers doing the rounds for next year’s driver salaries are vastly inflated according to Domenicali.
He was then asked how much his departure had to do with the arrival of Santander. He smiled in that involuntary way, and gave a look which spoke volumes, but all he said was, “You’ll have to ask the team….” there was a pause in which he almost said something further, then decided against it.
An hour or so later I said to Domenicali that Raikkonen had implied that the decision was commercially motivated. He firmly denied it,
“No it is not correct that it was a commercial decision.”
Asked repeatedly why Ferrari thought that Alonso was a better bet than Raikkonen, Domenicali said,
“When you have to take the decision you think that the couple of drivers for the future should be the best that it is possible to have.”
He made it clear that as boss of the team, it had been his decision and certainly my Italian colleagues say that Domenicali is the one who pushed very hard for this transfer to happen. He has to think of his own future. After two seasons as team boss he has won one constructors’ championship and had a poor year this year. He needs the team to return to the top level and he wants all the elements in place to achieve that.
He also revealed that the team had signed a deal with Alonso for 2011 during the summer, but then because of Renault’s problems over the Singapore race fixing scandal, there was a possibility to bring him to Ferrari one year early.
As for the risk of holding on to Felipe Massa when it is not yet clear that he will be able to drive, the team is confident that Massa will be back to the same level, but it seems to me that they have options. For one thing, Giancarlo Fisichella will be there, should Massa struggle very badly. Beyond that Robert Kubica looks set to sign a deal for only one year at Renault and would be potentially available for 2011. But Ferrari is determined that Massa will be back and will be every bit as good as before.
Raikkonen was clear that, although things didn’t work out in the end and he would like to have won more races, on the whole he was happy with his three years at Ferrari and had no regrets,
“I’m happy with what I have done. I think I will still have a good future.” He said he had no regrets and wouldn’t have changed anything about the decisions made and contracts he signed.
On a possible return to McLaren he said, “I still have a good relationship and of course there is a chance, but I have time to make my decision.”
But crucially he then went on to say that he may not even carry on racing,
“I haven’t decided yet whether I want to race or what I want to do,” he said. “I had a contract for next year, now I don’t any more. That changes things, so maybe I will race, maybe I will not. There is a chance (he’ll do rallies) but there is a chance I’ll do Formula 1 too.”
From what I’m hearing I think he will carry on and do a season at McLaren, maybe two. He has a point to prove and he will push Lewis Hamilton very hard indeed in proving it, which is precisely what McLaren want.