Keeping Kimi: Did Ferrari make the right choice?

The time for the annual Formula 1 silly season is fast approaching. Drivers up and down the grid are being linked with moves up the grid, down the grid, or out of the sport completely.

One driver whose movement was always likely to have a big effect on the driver market for 2016 is Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen, with 2016 the end of the Finn’s initial contract with the Italian team. With the Räikkönen approaching the age of 37, it was entirely possible that he might have chosen to bow out of the sport at the end of the season, thus making room at the Scuderia for a new talent. However, Ferrari put an early end to any such speculation by confirming Räikkönen’s place at the team for an additional year.

While it may appear that this decision simply involves a team choosing to continue its relationship with a driver, the Finn’s contract renewal has a significant effect on the whole driver market, and it says a thing or two about Ferrari’s philosophy in what is commonly considered a period of transition for the Italian stable.

Why did Ferrari keep Räikkönen?

At present, Formula 1 is certainly blessed with a wealth of young talent that would jump at the opportunity to move up the grid, including to Ferrari, which remains the dream team for many a young driver. For the Scuderia to hang on to a driver whose performances in the hybrid era (i.e. 2014 to the present) have been patchy at best may come as a surprise to some, given the variety of talent to choose from. Ferrari’s decision in this matter comes down to a variety of reasons, some of which are performance-based, some of which are political, and some of which involve a bit of long-term thinking.

Firstly, Räikkönen is known to be apolitical by nature, with his one and only objective being to drive his car as fast as possible. For a team like Ferrari, which has a reputation for political volatility, the Finn (who is known to be popular at Maranello) serves as a calming influence. Räikkönen is also on good terms with lead driver Sebastian Vettel, a relationship which the top brass at the Scuderia have frequently hailed as contributing positively to team harmony.

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Furthermore, with Vettel generally enjoying the upper hand in the intra-team battle, keeping Räikkönen (who is unlikely to cause too much boat-rocking) maintains the stability of an established hierarchy. Questions remain about how Vettel would respond to a team-mate that pushes him to his limit the same way Daniel Ricciardo did when the two were team-mates at Red Bull in 2014. In short, keeping Räikkönen is a popular decision within the team and is sure to keep the number one driver happy.

The decision to keep Räikkönen may play out well for both him and Ferrari in 2017, when major rule changes that focus primarily on aerodynamics come into play. The 2017 cars are set to enjoy higher downforce and grip, which could play to the strengths of the Finn. Räikkönen is known to be very sensitive to the amount of front-end grip available to him. He needs to “feel” the car responding to his steering inputs. When he initially re-entered the sport with Lotus in 2012, the Enstone team spent half a season developing the front end of their car towards the Finn’s preferences, which showed in his results as the season progressed. The 2017 rules could lead to Ferrari producing a car that is, by default, more in-line with what he needs to be consistently fast.

Furthermore, Räikkönen is known for his precise feedback when it comes to the behaviour of the car, which is a result of his specific preferences when it comes to the car’s handling traits. With the 2017 rules changes leading to substantial changes in the cars’ downforce levels and grip, Ferrari could benefit from Räikkönen’s experience in this regard.

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Ferrari’s decision to keep Räikkönen may also allow the team to pick from a wider pool of drivers at the end of next year. Rumours of Lewis Hamilton joining the Scuderia may not be as impossible as they sound, especially if Ferrari’s 2017 efforts lead to race wins. At the very least, this decision allows Räikkönen’s likely replacements to gain an extra year of experience before making the step up to a team that traditionally prefers to sign drivers who already have a fair amount of experience.

What were Ferrari’s other options?

Had Ferrari chosen to part ways with Räikkönen, it would have had a variety of other drivers to choose from, with names such as Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez, Valtteri Bottas, Carlos Sainz and Romain Grosjean frequently mentioned. However, variety by itself does not imply an optimal choice being made.

Ricciardo made it clear even before the Räikkönen announcement that he would be staying put at Red Bull, while Sainz always seemed likely to stay at Toro Rosso for another year. Sergio Perez has certainly been impressive all year. However, it may be that Ferrari were wary of the Mexican’s less-than-inspiring stint at McLaren in 2013. While Perez has certainly made progress since then, this may not have been enough to convince Ferrari to part ways with their last world champion.

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This leaves Bottas and Grosjean. For his part, Bottas is kept far too honest far too often by Felipe Massa, who is himself a known quantity to Ferrari. The younger Finn may have a slight edge over the Brazilian, but is yet to consistently show top-tier quality. Grosjean made it quite clear in public that he would be waiting for a Ferrari call. The Frenchman himself has taken a step forward in the last two years, and his efforts at his new Haas team have been admirable. However, he was also firmly put in the shade by Räikkönen during their time together at Lotus, and to be frank, outclassed in all aspects. He certainly became more competitive towards the end of 2013, although Räikkönen had already announced his departure to Ferrari by that time and had lost his loyalty to a team that hadn’t paid his wages on time.

Of course, all of the above drivers may develop over the course of the next 18 months, and other names may enter the discussion. For now, however, Räikkönen’s new contract means that all the top seats have been filled, which will diffuse a large part of the speculation in this year’s silly season. Perhaps the most desirable seat still available is the one presently occupied by Massa at Williams. Of course, how successful a move to Williams will prove over the longer term remains to be seen.

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Did Ferrari do the right thing?

Ferrari’s decision to stick with Räikkönen certainly wasn’t clear-cut in either direction. There were several reasons to keep him, and several reasons to part ways with him. However, given all the factors that influenced the decision, and given the big changes the sport will face in 2017, the balance probably shifted slightly in favour of the Finn being retained. At best, Ferrari will see a resurgent Räikkönen next year. At worst, he is likely to continue his patchy form.

In the end, offering him a new contract was a safe, predictable and conservative option. However, just because a decision is predictable does not mean that it is wrong. Could Ferrari have taken a risk with a new driver?Certainly. Are they likely to be any worse off by not doing so? Probably not. In the end, keeping Räikkönen is likely to amount to a zero-sum or slightly-positive-sum game.

Adriaan Slabbert

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