By Steve Slater
The final pieces of the 2013 Formula One driver jigsaw puzzle seem to be falling into place. On Tuesday, Ferrari announced that Felipe Massa will be staying with them for another season, after the Brazilian's pace in recent races clearly demonstrated his return to the ranks of the front-runners.
Just as with McLaren and Jenson Button, when he suffered a mid-season dip in form, sometimes a team needs to keep faith with a driver. A race-winning performance comes not just from absolute speed, but from the driver being truly comfortable with the handling and balance of the car, gaining an instinctive ‘feel' that adds to the race-winning performance.
If that feeling isn't there, drivers have a tendency to ‘over-drive', pushing too hard in the wrong places. In the case of Jenson Button, his and the team's joint efforts to match the car to his driving style resulted in a dominant win in Belgium that clearly demonstrated that ‘Button is back'. With Massa, his ragged loss of pace and self-confidence took almost two seasons to put right.
It is interesting to note two other drivers this year, who struggled to find their comfort zone for vastly different reasons. When Kimi Raikkonen arrived at Lotus, he and the car were immediately quick, but the Finn hated the lack of feedback from the car's power steering.
Giving Kimi the ‘feel' he needed took up a lot of engineering resource for the relatively small Lotus team, but it paid off. Kimi currently lies third in the world championship just behind Vettel and Alonso. Lotus could well claim a lucrative top three spot in the constructor's championship as a result too.
Raikkonen's team-mate Romain Grosjean is of course under pressure for entirely different reasons. There is no doubting the young Frenchman's pace, but he has been markedly accident-prone.
Despite what many might think, Grosjean is not a nut-case. He is remarkably analytical and self-critical out of the car.
In fact, the pressures that he will be placing on himself as a result of his string of seven early race crashes will be far greater than anything the outside world can place on him. Lotus team boss Eric Boullier faces an interesting psychological challenge in trying to raise his driver's dented self-confidence.
With championship leader Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber long confirmed at Red Bull, Alonso and Massa at Ferrari, Button and Perez at McLaren, and Hamilton and Rosberg at Mercedes, the top four teams in the championship are now tied up. Paddock interest is now moving further down the line.
Kimi Raikkonen had a little fun with media and fans alike this week, pointing them to his website for a contract announcement. It merely turned out to be a sponsorship deal with a Finnish clothing brand. However, it seems almost certain that both Raikkonen and Grosjean will be with Lotus another year.
Things are less clear at Sauber, although smart money is on Mexican rookie Esteban Gutierrez stepping up from GP2 to replace departing compadré Perez. Certainly, Kamui Kobayashi's crash-fest in Korea has not helped his chances and many believe that former Toro Rosso racer Jaime Alguersuari might make a return to the 2013 grid with the team.
Another prospect for a 2013 Sauber seat is current Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg. Unlike team-mate Paul di Resta, whose career appears to be governed by Mercedes Benz, Hulkenberg is more of a free agent, linked by some to a longer-term future at Ferrari.
Having lost Perez from their driver development programme, it would make supreme sense for Ferrari to buy the talented Hulkenberg out of the remaining year of his contract with cash-strapped Vijay Mallya's team and place him in a Ferrari-engined Sauber for a season. If that were to happen, watch out for similar speculation this time next year as to whether Hulkenberg will don a scarlet suit for 2014!