The biggest story of this year’s F1 ‘silly season’ has been who will be taking the Ferrari seat currently occupied by Felipe Massa. Despite a long period of speculation, most in the media agree that there are two realistic candidates for the role: Lotus’s Kimi Raikonnen and Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg. Massa also has a chance of keeping the seat though most would argue he’s not done enough to stay at F1’s most prestigious team.
For me, Hulkenbergs’ performance in the Italian Grand Prix – qualifying 3rd and finishing 5th in a car that most in the sport would agree is rubbish – is proof that he is ready to take the seat next to Alonso. This was no fluke either; Hulkenberg is fast. As a teenager he was signed by Michael Schumacher’s old manager Willi Weber, who described Hulkenberg as an “Unbelievable talent”. Hulkenberg then proceeded to demolish the competition in the lower formulas, beating Lewis Hamilton’s points record in GP2 to take the title in 2009. In his rookie season he even managed to take a pole for the Williams team in Brazil – another car that had no right even being in the top 10.
Another point in Hulkenberg’s favour is his maturity, something Martin Brundle commented on during his grid walk before Sunday’s race. Despite his nickname; the ‘Hulk’, he is mild mannered and articulate outside of the cockpit, and so far seems unaffected by the trappings of fame and success. Unlike other drivers who entered the sport at a similar time to Hulkenberg - Perez, Maldonado and Grosjean to name three – his speed is also not tempered by a tendency to crash into people.
Most people’s bet for the seat is Raikkonnen, but the Finn has already been to Ferrari, and was such a disappointment that the team paid him a huge sum of money to end his contract early to bring in Alonso. There’s no denying that Kimi is a great driver; in terms of raw pace he’s in a class of four with Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel. However, the Finn’s public image just doesn’t fit the requirements of a Ferrari driver, and nor would he necessarily be happy to play second fiddle to Alonso.
On top of this is a more fundamental issue, that of Ferrari’s innate conservatism. There is obviously some value in playing it safe, and in the ruthless world of F1 development risks can backfire spectacularly, as Mclaren have found out this year. Nonetheless, Ferrari have been one step behind Red Bull every year since 2010, and something needs to change in their attitude to racing. Indeed, typical of this conservatism the decision to keep Massa in the first place. On one level it was admirable to stick with the Brazilian after he sustained horrendous head injuries, but Massa is clearly not the driver who took the title to Lewis Hamilton in 2008, and probably should have been dropped after his poor 2011 season.
Signing Raikkonnen might work in the short term, but it would also show that Ferrari have not learned their lessons from Massa. Hulkenberg by comparison would be a bold choice, a fast young driver who has shown in his short time in F1 that he has what it takes to be a world champion. He’s a risk maybe, but Ferrari aren’t F1’s top dogs any more, they need to take some risks. Hulkenberg’s appointment would be a statement of intent from the Italian team that in 2014, when regulation changes come into effect, things will be different.