Ferrari’s has left the Formula 1 world in suspense by allowing Felipe Massa’s contract option to expire. This option would have allowed Felipe Massa to extend his contract with Scuderia Ferrari. If Felipe Massa is to continue racing with the team, he must negotiate a brand new contract.The expiration of this option has shown that Ferrari are at least considering other drivers for 2012.
Several drivers have already been linked to a seat alongside Fernando Alonso. There have been rumors of Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez, Jenson Button, and even Lewis Hamilton piloting the second scarlet car. Around this time of year, it is common to hear rumors concerning vacant seats and expiring contracts. However, I am convinced that Ferrari are seriously looking for a replacement for Massa, and may be considering Heikki Kovalainen as their replacement.
Kovalainen reportedly ‘smiled’ when asked about Ferrari rumors, leading some to believe that there has been contact between the two parties. He also stated that he “has what it takes” to compete in a top team (motorsport.com). These actions could mean nothing, and predictions should not be based on a statement given in front of the media.
Under further examination however, Kovalainen seems a completely viable option for Ferrari to pursue. Ferrari would undoubtedly be looking for a driver who could rise to fill the gaps left by an underperforming Felipe Massa. One of Massa’s weakest areas has been in qualifying, an area in which Kovalainen has been most impressive recently. So far in 2012, he has outqualified his team mate 9 times from 11, with an average advantage of over 3.5 tenths of a second throughout the course of the season. In 2011, Kovalainen qualified higher than his team mates in 17 of 19 races. Furthermore, Kovalainen has made Q2 twice already this year, making him the only driver in the “new teams” to have made Q2. Where Massa has fallen short in qualifying, Kovalainen surely has the potential to bring the second Ferrari higher up the grid.
Another area where Kovalainen has proved successful is in his consistency and his overall pace. Ferrari have found in Fernando Alonso a driver that can recover from a poor qualifying performance. A great example of this skill was in Valencia, where Alonso was able to fight back through the field to win the race despite qualifying 11th on the grid. Felipe Massa seems to hover around his grid position through out the race, or do more damage to the team’s championship hopes by losing ground and failing to recover. Kovalainen has proven to be a very efficient, consistent driver. Rarely has Kovalainen retired from a race due to driver error. In fact, Kovalainen could have finished in the points this year in the European Grand Prix, had it not been for a collision caused by Jean Eric Vergne that required Kovalainen to pit, and eventually finish 13th. Results like these show Kovalainen’s potential to punch above his car’s weight, as well as fight through the field efficiently and consistently.
There are some cases to be made against Kovalainen, the first being that there are alternative drivers. Drivers such as Button, Hamilton, and Raikkonen are superb drivers and are considered among the best in F1. If Ferrari have the option to hire such a high-calibre driver, they may choose a Hamilton or a Raikkonen over Kovalainen. A second problem is that any driver going to Ferrari know that they will most likely play number 2 to Fernando Alonso, as Felipe Massa is doing currently. Whether Kovalainen would be willing to do this or not is unclear. Finally, it has been three seasons since Kovalainen has driven for a competitive team (McLaren). Some people say his experience in quicker cars has been beneficial, but driving for three years at the back of the grid may have offset some of the experience he may have gained earlier in his career.
In my opinion, Kovalainen would be a very valuable asset for Ferrari. His three years at the back of the grid would unlikely have a large impact. Kimi Raikkonen did not race in F1 at all for two years, and upon his return he was up to speed very quickly. Kovalainen’s strong qualifying performance, coupled with consistently strong race performances could provide Ferrari with a much more stable driver in their second car. Although there are other possibilities for Ferrari drivers next year, Kovalainen must be taken into consideration. His performance at Lotus/Caterham has been most impressive, and he has matured as a driver since his McLaren days. Ferrari would be making a right decision by hiring Kovalainen as a second driver.