This week's Grapevine brings you
information fresh from the paddock on:
- Division over Raikkonen
- Ferrari Gearing Up
- Picked from the Bunch
Division over Raikkonen
Since the FIA granted Kimi Raikkonen a Super-license, enabling Sauber to use him as a race driver in 2001, a fairly solid debate has been restarted in the pitlane concerning how appropriate the decision was, and potential issues in the future.
Many of the current drivers have sat on the fence, saying they believe Raikkonen personally is probably going to be a good investment for Sauber, but that the precedent is dangerous, and they do not like it. Ralf Schumacher put a case in defence of his own progression, stating that regular side-stepping the F3 and F3000 formulae would put them in real danger of becoming redundant, whilst introducing under-skilled – if talented – drivers to the world's premier category.
Jenson Button, despite stepping over F3000 himself, had to agree. Raikkonen's experience in open seater racing amounts to a dozen races in something with two thirds the power of the F3 cars. He has never had to run in a series where the car's performance is significantly changed by the way it is set up, and he has never handled the sort of power or speed that a Formula One car produces in racing conditions. Without that experience, many are concerned the youngster will be a significant danger to himself and others, come the first corner at Melbourne.
However, ex-driver Gerhard Berger – who was arguably the biggest influence over Frank Williams signing Jenson Button for 2000 – has a different view. He doesn't know whether Raikkonen has what it takes and is not really concerned: his own experience tells him that everyone will find out soon enough, as they always did before the sport became so safety-conscious in the 90s. Berger himself entered Formula One after two dozen races in F3, back when qualifying tyres and over 1000bhp was the norm.
The FIA's decision to include Raikkonen went counter to the wishes of Max Mosley. His views are very much concerned with the safety aspects of the sport, and handling its image when things go wrong: as he said, he is the one who has to face the world press if Raikkonen sparks a Spa '98 style accident – something he considers a real possibility.
At the end of the day, however, the decision came down to something far simpler. The FIA are concerned over the lack of "spectacle" the modern sport offers. Jenson Button proved hugely popular in 2000, picking up hordes of fans and helping to raise the profile of the sport. On balance, it was considered Raikkonen's relative inexperience is not a significant handicap, whilst the spectacle of a new, young underdog should bring fresh interest to the sport for at least the upcoming year.
Ferrari Gearing Up
Facing up to the new season, Ferrari are pulling out all the stops to ensure they are right on form when the lights go out in Melbourne.
Unlike their usual, closed shop approach to testing, Ferrari are putting cars out with the other Bridgestone runners as well as running components at their own circuit. On one front, new aerodynamic and suspension components are being run in privately, whilst a sharp eye is kept on rivals at the public tests. These elements are due to be run on the new car, so testing for both performance and endurance is vital. Furthermore, with the new engine ready to be dropped into a car, the team are flat out ensuring the electronics are up to scratch. When time permitted, a rudimentary traction control system was also put through its paces...
In public, the team is working a tough program with Bridgestone, preparing for the Michelin challenge ahead. The development tyres are a marked improvement over those from 2000, but there are a lot of issues to be addressed with them. The new construction is designed with the FIA's changed aerodynamic requirements in mind – making grip from the front tyres a vital factor. Even then, it is not so simple. The way the car is set up affects the performance of the tyres – in terms of both grip and endurance – so working hand in hand with the tyre technicians, ensuring the tyres are chassis work well together, is a vital part of the development process.
Away from the test track, the politics are getting awkward, as Luca di Montezemolo considers taking a year off, or even retiring, from running Ferrari. It hasn't stopped him stating that this year will see the team's Number One driver decided by lap times – and that Ferrari are angling to sign Schumacher beyond 2002, when his contract is up.
However, overshadowing all the testing work put in by Rubens Barrichello and Luca Badoer, and the politics at the top, the whole team is looking forward to Schumacher's return in January. The World Champion is going to step in to the new car after recovering from the operation to remove the steel pins in his legs; and within a handful of laps, they all hope the new car will be declared a significant step forward, validating the efforts leading up to it...the alternative just doesn't bear thinking about.
Picked from the Bunch
A circuit at Nagatino in Russia could put the country in with a chance of hosting a Grand Prix in the next five years. The chances are sufficiently high for Arrows owner Tom Walkinshaw to plough over £16 million of TWR capital into the project. Building is due to start in two years.
Jenson Button is pleased with his start at Benetton: settling down well with the crew and working hard at tests, he is optimistic for the season ahead. The return of Fisichella holds no spectres either, as the young Briton hopes to learn from the Italian.
News of TWR's involvement in a Russian track building project came as news to Bernie Ecclestone, who is on record as concerned over the amount of organised crime in the country. Unless the climate – or at least, its reputation – is cleaned up, he has no intention to put the event on the calendar.
Jenson Button is widely reported to be looking forward to running with Giancarlo Fisichella over the new season. He holds the Italian in high respect, and believes there is much he can learn. However, he also thinks there's a lot more to come from his own performance, and anticipates continuing to show excellent form.
Juan Montoya has commented on the difference between CART and F1, from a driver's perspective. The biggest issue, from his point of view, is the braking, rather than the tyres. Despite running on grooved rubber, deceleration in Formula One is noticeably greater: so much so, that he is developing a sore neck from the effect.
Gaston Mazzacane's test with Arrows was cancelled when Bridgestone learned he has an opportunity to drive for Prost, who run Michelin rubber. The tyre supplier was concerned that sensitive data would make it in to the wrong hands... no-one has let on as to why he could not test on 2000 rubber, as other teams have been doing with their undecided test drivers.