When the Formula 1 World Championship resumes at Spa next weekend for the Belgium Grand Prix, attention will once again focus on who is strong and who is weak – such is the nature of F1.
With Bernie Ecclestone now clear of his trial in Germany, he will have renewed vigour for the sport and is likely to be very active, but there are quite a few people in roles throughout the paddock who have work to do, to progress or even to retain their positions.
We decided to take a closer look at five key people who have something to prove in the second half of the season.
The honeymoon period is over, now decisions need to be made which will decide what kind of Ferrari we will have in future.
Ferrari last won the drivers’ world championship in 2007, their last constructors’ title came the following year. By the Italian team’s standards their failure to repeat the feat since then is simply not good enough.
In April, former Ferrari road car man Marco Mattiacci stepped in to replace out-going Stefano Domenicali as team principal, and while the team scored its biggest points haul of the season last time out in Hungary, moving them back into third in the constructors’ championship, the team is still well behind Mercedes and Red Bull.
But following Fernando Alonso’s second place in Hungary, having only lost the lead in the closing stage, Mattiacci says he’s not interested in finishing second. He adds that the team needs a “360-degree” improvement to get them back to the top – but how long will he have to get them back to winning ways?
It’s now 25 races since a Ferrari driver stood on the top step of the podium. Fernando Alonso appears restless, while Kimi Raikkonen has failed to replicate the form that he showed during the last two years at Lotus.
Mattiacci needs Ferrari to be contending at the front, as they were in Hungary, regularly but he also has to look to the long term, which is where he has been focussing.
Yesterday saw a broadside from another disgruntled former employee, Luca Marmorini, who was sacked recently as head of the engine department. He claims that Ferrari is taking a risk putting the team in the hands of “non-expert people who listen to advisers who have done nothing; James Allison and Pat Fry”
Marmorini goes on to say that he was let down by the chassis department which asked him for a super-small, compact engine and promised to compensate for the lack of power with aerodynamics. But when the car hit the track with the other teams, it was clear that the compensation was not there and he got blamed for building a weak engine.
This highlights the intensity of the politics around Ferrari at the moment and Mattiacci has to cope with that at the same time as taking decisions which could affect whether Ferrari wins again at all in the next five years.
Now in his third season with Toro Rosso, Jean-Eric Vergne needed to deliver after being overlooked for the Red Bull seat vacated by Mark Webber in favour of his then team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.
The Frenchman had been solid, but not spectacular in his first two seasons and faced a big challenge this season when the team signed Russian youngest Daniil Kvyat alongside him.
While Vergne leads Kvyat in the drivers’ standings with 11 points to six, it’s hardly the gap he would have hoped to have against a driver in his rookie season.
The team have been hampered by poor reliability and Vergne showed flashes of form when he ran as high as second in Hungary before dropping down the points after being caught out by the safety car.
But he lacks consistency and that doesn’t bode well as the team doesn’t have a track record of patience – just ask Sebastien Bourdais, Jaime Alguersuari, Scott Speed and Vitantonio Liuzzi.
Vergne failed to score in any of the races after the summer break last year, while then team-mate Ricciardo managed four points finishes. The Frenchman can’t afford that kind of form this year.
It hasn’t been a happy season for Sutil so far. Sauber’s C31 is a handful to drive, the tall German’s weight has been an issue and he has frequently bemoaned the tools at his disposal.
None of that would be an issue were it not for the fact that despite sitting ahead of team-mate Esteban Gutierrez in the standings, the momentum appears to be with the Mexican at the moment.
The pair have been well-matched in qualifying, though the 22-year-old Mexican currently leads 6-5 and indeed the figures might look worse had Gutierrez been able to take part in qualifying in Canada.
In racing the pair have had a similarly tough first part of the season, with Sutil’s best an 11th-place finish in Hungary, while Gutierrez finished 12th in Australia. The Mexican was in a points scoring position in Monaco, too, before a late race clash with the barriers at Rascasse ended his hopes.
With Gutierrez making all the right noises about taking on the role of ‘team leader’ and with the young driver recently insisting that he is soon to open negotiations with Sauber on a new contract, Sutil is a driver with some tough talking to do on track. Matters have, of course, been made worse for the German by the news that the Mexican Grand Prix is returning to the F1 calendar next year. That alone should shore up Gutierrez’s place.
His situation is not made easier by the queue of drivers lining up to grab a race seat at Sauber, in spite of the team’s difficulties.
Well-funded reserve Giedo van der Garde has been regularly rumoured as not just a 2015 Sauber race driver but also as an in-season replacement as the team looks to turn around its fortunes.
Youngster Sergey Sirotkin is also on the horizon. The Russian currently lies in fifth place in the Formula Renault 3.5 series standings and will fancy his chances of a step up.
Then there’s Simona de Silvestro. The Swiss racer did well in her opening test for Sauber at the wheel of a 2012 car at Fiorano in April and she is not short of admirers, with F1 legend Mario Andretti recently coming out in support of the former IndyCar driver and her former KV Racing Technology IndyCar team boss Jimmy Vasser admitting that inter-team dynamics had not brought out the best in a driver he said was “fantastic”.
And finally there’s Williams reserve Felipe Nasr who this week said he’s actively chasing a Sauber seat. “Conversations have begun already,” he told SporTV.“My management is already looking. Force India is hard but I think Sauber is possible. I want to join a midfield team that gives me a position to fight for points, that would be fantastic. I think it’s possible.
All in all, it’s looking like it’s going to be a tough run-in for Sutil.
When, having been unable to secure the funding necessary to hang on to his Sauber drive, Kamui Kobayashi exited F1 just a few months after claiming a podium finish at the Japanese Grand Prix, it was one of the sadder indictments of the straits into which F1 had fallen. It was therefore with great delight that most people welcomed the likeable Japanese driver back to the paddock this year. It would be a great shame then if his second stint turns out to be shortlived due to the uncertainties surrounding Caterham.
On the surface, Kobayashi has certainly done enough to deserve another season. In qualifying he has outpaced rookie Marcus Ericsson nine times in 11 races. In grands prix, thou
gh, it’s Ericsson’s 11th place in Monaco that puts him ahead of Kobayashi in the standings, with the former Sauber man having recorded a best placing of 13th in Malaysia and Monaco.
In such a fluid situation as that which exists at Caterham it’s hard to know what will qualify as a seat-securing performance but certainly if Kobayashi could take the team’s first point before the end of the season that would go a long way to making a big statement. However, given the venues upcoming that might be a tall order.
His bets hope then comes from demonstrating leadership, finding greater racing consistency and demonstrating an ability to keep his side of the garage at the top of its game.
Certainly Kobayashi believes that against any pay drivers queuing up at the door of Leafield that will be enough. “I don’t really worry about my race seat,” he told Autosport. “There are always rumours, but it’s simple: getting the team eighth, ninth (in the championship) or whatever would be difficult with a pay driver. During the season it is not easy for a pay driver to reach that required performance straightaway.”
Jenson Button/Kevin Magnussen
Are McLaren on the verge of significant change in their driver line-up? The rumours keep bubbling and no-one at Woking is making any moves to dampen them down.
At 34 years of age and with no contract yet signed, Button is the driver most frequently asked about his future, especially in light of Ron Dennis’ remarks about the 2009 world champion needing to “try harder”. Button, though, isn’t for turning, recently insisting that “right now my interest is to race in Formula One… I’m young, I’m fit and I’m enjoying what I do for a living so there’s definitely no reason to want to change.”
With Honda arriving next year and with Button always reportedly a favoured son of the Japanese company, it may ultimately be Magnussen who ends up in the firing line.
A stellar start to the season, with an eventual second place in Australia, has given way to a season of curious inertia as the Dane has struggled to get to grips with McLaren’s wayward MP4-29. Button, never the swiftest qualifier, is ahead 6-5 on Saturdays and in the points battle the Briton has 60 points compared with Magnussen’s 37, and just under half of the Dane’s tally came in the opening round.
There is a sneaking suspicion that unless McLaren can land a very big fish for 2015 (and it is shaping up as a pool of one) then it will not immediately tinker with the blend of youth and experience it currently has, but with no contacts on the horizon it is clear that the team is still angling for a major signing. Until it comes up empty-handed it would seem that Button may have to rely on a victory by experience and the patronage of Honda, while Magnussen needs to demonstrate an ability to drive around the problems presented by his car and up his game in qualifying.
Do you agree with this assessment? Who would be your five key F1 personnel with something to deliver in the second part of the 2014 season? Let us know.