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The Sparks May Fly – But Will The Ferraris?

EVENT COUNTDOWN

ALBERT PARK

12-15 MARCH 2015

If Ferrari asked Kimi Raïkkönen for a quote before they announced that their former World Champion was returning to Maranello, they probably wanted him to tell them how much his services would cost second time around.

The notoriously non-committal Finn – ironically world-famous for his “Leave me alone” quote in Abu Dhabi last year – has maintained his usual silence over his return to the team he graced between 2007 and 2009 before announcing that he was doing a Schuey and quitting the sport.

So, for the first time in what we might call F1’s modern era, Maranello will boast two World Champions in its line-up. Not since the far-off days of Ascari and Farina in the early Fifties has that been the case. Company president Luca di Montezemolo is on record as saying how much he wanted to avoid having “two roosters in the henhouse”, but with three titles between them, not to mention 52 Grand Prix victories, that’s exactly what appears to have happened.

But well-respected Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali has been quick to play down any suggestions of two bulls locking horns within the Ferrari camp next season.

"At Ferrari, everyone knows the interests of the team come first and only then those of the individual,” he insists. "I would only say that the combination of Fernando and Kimi is the best one could have today in Formula 1, in terms of talent, experience, competitive spirit and the ability to move car development forward," he said.

Nor is it a shot in the dark: as well as having known Kimi for three seasons, Ferrari have also recruited James Allison as their technical chief in charge of chassis development, and he worked closely with the Finn at Lotus.

Since the team comes first, let’s look at Ferrari’s recent performance. By the end of this season it will be five years since the Italian marque last took the coveted Constructors’ Championship, and much of that is down to driver contribution.

The man Raïkkönen will replace, Felipe Massa, came famously close to winning the world title in 2008, beaten on the last corner of the last lap by Lewis Hamilton nicking fifth place in Brazil. That was Massa’s last F1 victory; since his unfortunate accident in Hungary the following season he has never returned to that outstanding form, and while there has been much sympathy for the Brazilian’s plight F1 is a famously unforgiving environment.

Ironically Massa measured up pretty well against Raïkkönen when they were partners at Maranello. While Kimi captured the title in his first Ferrari year, Massa had three wins that season; in 2008 he outscored Raïkkönen six wins to 2.

Against Alonso the stats don’t look so good. Since joining Ferrari Alonso has won 11 times, including two this year. In 2010 Fernando scored 252 points, Felipe 144, a difference of 108. Ferrari were 102 points behind title-winners Red Bull.

In 2011 it was Alonso again by 257 points to 118, a huge gap of 139, though it wouldn’t have mattered much if Massa had scored as Red Bull won by 275! Last year Alonso racked up 278 points to Massa’s 122. That’s a gap of 156, and Red Bull won by ‘only’ 60.

And this year? Alonso sits on 169 points going to Singapore with Massa on 79. The difference is 90 – and Red Bull are 104 ahead. If Vettel has been the dominant driver, our own Mark Webber has made major contributions with nine race wins and points tallies of 242-258-179 in the last three seasons.

This year Mark has scored 51 points more than Massa as he helps Red Bull sprint towards a fourth straight double title success. No wonder the Australian’s own name was in the Ferrari frame not so long ago.

Those are the numbers Ferrari expects to see changing dramatically as Alonso and Raïkkönen team up for the next two seasons, especially when everyone starts with a clean slate as the new turbo-charged engine formula comes into play from 2014 onwards.

Since returning to F1 in 2012 with Lotus Renault Raïkkönen has notched up another two wins, in Abu Dhabi last season and right here in Australia at the start of 2013. He has been scrupulously careful not to blame the team for any perceived shortcomings, and generous in his praise when they have gone well.

He knows, however, that another step up is needed. Lotus chief Eric Boullier admitted as much when he said his was still a medium-sized team, one perhaps not quite ready to challenge the current top two of Red Bull and Ferrari, to say nothing of the emergent force that is Mercedes.

But he called the Finn “an amazing racer”, a label borne out by Raïkkönen’s astonishing sequence of 27 points-scoring finishes for Lotus which ended just a couple of races ago in Belgium.

The step up might have come with his departure for Red Bull, which the rumour mill touted vigorously before the summer break at the same time as they were saying Alonso was another candidate for a drive alongside the all-conquering Sebastian Vettel – something Domenicali castigated as a deliberate attempt to destabilize his own team.

Now the step has come, in theory at least, with a return to the red colours which Raïkkönen flew so successfully a few seasons ago. As a cautionary note, they say you should never go back, and few drivers at the peak of F1 have done that in their time. A relatively recent example came, coincidentally, at Ferrari.

Gerhard Berger claimed 10 victories in his long Grand Prix career. Four of them came in the Austrian’s first stint at Maranello from 1987-89. After a spell at McLaren Berger returned to Ferrari in 1993 for another three-year stay. Of the 49 Grands Prix he contested in red second time around, he won just one, an incident-strewn race in Germany in 1994.

But that’s history, and it’s the immediate future that holds out so much intrigue with this announcement. Will the sparks fly between two of F1’s greatest? Or will individual genius combine in pursuit of the greater good?

Think Mansell and Piquet at Williams, think Prost and Senna at McLaren: it hasn’t often been the case…

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