Wednesday, September 26, 2012
End in sight for F1's game of musical chairs?
By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - After months of feverish speculation about the Formula One futures of Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa, matters could finally be coming to a head with less change than expected.
It may be that when the music stops, at least two - and maybe all three drivers - end up sitting in the same seats as before at McLaren, Mercedes and Ferrari.
Hamilton's future has been a topic of discussion since the start of the season but became a paddock obsession when former F1 team boss-turned-television pundit Eddie Jordan 'revealed' this month that Hamilton was close to a deal with Mercedes.
The thinking was that seven times champion Schumacher, now 43 and in the third year of an unspectacular comeback, would vacate his seat for the 27-year-old McLaren driver.
In the immediate aftermath of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, which Hamilton won without smiling too much afterwards, that still looked a good bet but those reading the runes after Sunday's race in Singapore pointed at a more relaxed atmosphere at McLaren.
"I don't think Hamilton knows what he will do," Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone told the ESPN website.
"These last couple or three races he has been doing very well. Before that, why he was upset I don't know but he was definitely going to move no matter what. He had made up his mind that he was going.
"Whether he has changed now a little bit I don't know," added the 81-year-old.
British newspapers reported that McLaren had made an improved offer to the 2008 world champion to try and retain a driver they have backed since his early teens when he was competing in go-karts.
Former McLaren driver Martin Brundle, who commentates for Britain's Sky Sports television, and Jordan both said at the weekend they believed announcements were imminent.
"Been told HAM contract should be sorted in few days. If so, music stops + there will be a huge rush to sit down. It's all unusually good fun," Brundle told his Twitter followers at the weekend.
If Hamilton opts to stay with the team he knows best, rather than linking up again with former karting team mate Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, the focus will turn to Schumacher if the German has not pre-empted matters already.
The sport's most successful driver, with a record 91 wins but none for Mercedes, is out of contract at the end of the season and has said there will be no comment from him until October - which could mean next week.
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn, an old ally from Ferrari days, has staunchly defended the German's form and continuing ability but Sunday's race triggered fresh concern about the quickness of his reactions when he slammed into the back of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso.
The incident earned Schumacher a 10-place penalty on the starting grid for next week's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. It also led to online jokes about pit boards replaced by opticians' eyesight tests.
Germany's best-selling Bild newspaper, always a staunch supporter in his glory years, suggested the national hero was over the hill with a headline 'Sorry, Schumi. Are you too old for Formula One?"
Whether Schumacher and Mercedes have come to the same conclusion remains to be seen. But the signs are that if Hamilton turns down the offer then Schumacher, assuming he wants to stay, could still be the default option.
"With Michael it works well so I'll be glad if he stays on next year. We also push the team together very well," Rosberg told Reuters last week.
Massa is also out of contract but the odds on him staying on at Ferrari for another year have moved in his favour after seeming remote.
The Brazilian has not appeared on the podium since 2010 and no Ferrari driver has ever suffered such a drought, 35 races without a top three finish.
Massa is a team player and does have his influential supporters, however - not least his championship-leading team mate Fernando Alonso who would be quite happy to continue with the Brazilian.
"He's had a difficult season and we need points for the constructors' championship," the Spaniard told reporters in Singapore. "But if I look around, I can't see possible replacements who are better than Felipe."