May 29th, 2013 (F1plus/B. Dixon).- Although still early in the season, the topic of driver moves for 2014 is not off the table. An issue clearly on Sky F1’s David Croft’s mind during the Team Principal press conference as Christian Horner was quizzed about Mark Webber’s status at Red Bull, while Franz Tost was asked about whether Ricciardo or Vergne could usurp that seat, should it become available. The catalyst for this talk is Mark Webber; all speculation about seats for 2014 can be traced back to him as whispers have rippled around the paddock since the Multi 21 affair in Malaysia.
With events at The Malaysian Grand Prix adding to the already fractious nature of the relationship between Vettel and Webber, speculation about the Australian’s replacement has been rife ever since, with the possibility of it being Kimi Raikkonen at the forefront of the rumours. Lotus seems like a perfect team for Kimi, they complement each other. Eric Boullier gives him space to be himself while he delivers the goods.
The Helmut Marko factor at Red Bull makes it a far cry from the laid back Lotus atmosphere he has flourished in, and it is impossible to imagine Kimi settling for number two status; as impossible a thought as Vettel being happy about having a very fast team mate.
Over the winter Mark Webber’s race engineer Ciaron Pilbeam, and engineer to Kimi, Simon Rennie, switched teams; maybe 2014 will see driver and engineer reunited in a mirror image straight swap. The departure from Lotus of talented technical director James Allison could also turn out to be a determining factor in any decision made.
If Kimi Raikkonen does choose to remain at Lotus, the opportunity for a race seat at the team may not be closed for Webber.
Despite an atrocious years racing in 2012, Eric Boullier chose to stand by Romain Grosjean for 2013. Although showing flashes of intense speed, this season has not shown Romain in a more positive light. I
n Monaco the Frenchman completed no less than three walks of shame back to the pits over the weekend, after crashing in the second and third practice sessions; rehearsals for the real thing when he acquainted himself with the rear of Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso on lap 63 of the race. When given a reprieve for the 2013 season Eric Boullier made it clear that he needed to improve with haste,
“But this is an uncompromising world that does not allow many mistakes. He still has to learn, but he must do so quickly,”
If Grosjean’s ghastly form continues, a spare seat at Lotus alongside Kimi for 2014 could be a possibility, providing the Enstone team don’t decide to replace him mid season.
Other drivers in contention for that precious seat with triple World Champions Red Bull are Toro Rosso drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne who are showcasing their worth and building their portfolio as the season unfolds. Both drivers have put in strong performances; Ricciardo in China and Vergne in Monaco, with the Australian currently edging his teammate by two points in the championship.
Having left his team mate to play follow my leader in four out of six qualifying sessions, Ricciardo has also promoted his superior one lap pace. They may need to up their game though, because hot on their heels for the seat is highly rated Red Bull young driver Antonio Felix da Costa, who stood in for Sebastian Buemi as reserve driver in China.
Meanwhile, rumours about Mark going to Ferrari continue to rumble. Reviving his form towards the end of last season, Felipe Massa rescued his seat from the clutches of scarlet hungry drivers. His future with the Scuderia will be entirely form dependant.
Strongly starting the season with a descending scale of fourth, fifth and sixth places at Australia, Malaysia and China respectively, followed by a podium in Spain, it changed in Monaco where his form came crashing to its knees in spectacular style. Thumping into the barriers at Ste Devote with huge force during the third practice session meant that Massa’s car was unable to be rebuilt before qualifying later that day.
A driver error Massa will want to avoid on his quest to secure his future in the sport. An almost identical accident on race day, although this time caused by a gremlin in the car, concluded a bad weekend for the Brazilian. In addition to speculation about a Maranello drive for Mark Webber, whispers about a Ferrari seat for Nico Hulkenberg have not been silenced, and Jules Bianchi is also waiting in the wings.
It is early to be thinking about which driver will be switching teams, striding around the paddock in different overalls, but the Formula One rumour mill is always in motion. It will be interesting to see how this gathers momentum over the course of the season.