Silly season 2006

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Unlike the rest of Britain, apparently, I am not enthralled by the latest Jenson Button saga. For what it’s worth I hope he does drive for Williams next year, because he shouldn’t be allowed to worm out of the contract simply because the winds of fortune have changed.

But the really perplexing aspect of the Button debate is that he is perceived as being central to next season’s driver market. Jenson is a solid podium finisher, but I’d put him alongside Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella as a reliable driver, but not a serious championship contender. I do not doubt that Button will win Grands Prix, but I find it hard to believe he will win that many of them as on the track he often seems unwilling to engage with cars and drivers that he believes are better packages than his.

That said, the driver market ‘silly season’ seems less frenetic this year. Perhaps this is because there are still six races to go, but also because many of the major teams apparently have their seats filled next few years.

McLaren and Toyota are extremely unlikely to change their line-ups. Renault may look for a replacement for Fisichella, but it seems unlikely as he has been driving well of late, if half a second slower than Alonso. It will be interesting to see what happens to Fisi’s pace once the title is secured, my bet is he will be challenging for wins again. However, if he were to receive a P45, Heikki Kovalainen would almost certainly get the nod – at the very least this exceptional talent deserves a third driver role in ’06.

At Ferrari it is more complicated. Barrichello is signed up until the end of 2006 but rumours persist that he is BAR-bound. His replacement at Ferrari would be the underwhelming Felipe Massa, who nonetheless is managed by Jean Todt’s son Nicolas, has tested for Ferrari in the past and would be a suitably subservient and uncontroversial partner for Lord Schumacher.

However it is the number one berth that everyone is interested in: will Schumacher stay or go? This is a tough one to call. Although his performances have been occasionally indifferent and he has been hampered by his machinery throughout 2005, when he stands a chance of a podium he’s still as devastating as ever. Last Sunday at Hockenheim he did amazingly well to hold off Fisichella for as long as he did, with a car most drivers would have thrown off the road.

Personally I don’t see Schumacher departing F1 on the basis of this season alone, but if the 2006 Ferrari is not a vast improvement on this one by Imola next year it is unlikely he will stick around. But who will replace him? A hypothetical replacement for 2006 is difficult to see as most top drivers are spoken for, and there is no way Ferrari would bring in a rookie, but Nick Heidfeld could be a possibility, or a disenchanted Fisichella, who would kill for the chance to pilot a Ferrari. A more realistic outcome would be Raikkonen leaving McLaren at the end of 2006, to take the Ferrari seat for 2007.

BAR have perhaps the greatest driver uncertainty of any team in the paddock. Sato may keep his seat, but with a long term Honda commitment, the team my feel able to move him aside if his results do not improve. Court cases pending Jenson Button may be in the car, but that one is hard to call at the moment. Anthony Davidson is the other name with a great chance of a race seat, and I have my fingers crossed for him as he is deserving of the chance. Whatever happens it is hard to see Davidson not racing next season as Williams (lawyers permitting) could well take up his services. It would also be fantastic to see Adam Carroll in the third BAR on Fridays, a distinct possibility after signing a long-term development deal with the team.

Williams are in a similar state of flux, but have a lower market value since BMW’s departure. Mark Webber will stay with the team, but Nick Heidfeld will almost certainly move to the new BMW operation. Without works engines and facing a transitional season, Williams would perhaps be well advised to trial a rookie driver.

Davidson is a strong possibility – Frank Williams has already gone on record saying that certain sponsors lined up for 2006 are doing so on the promised presence of Button. Could having Davidson persuade them to stay? Nico Rosberg has also got to be in consideration after turning in some fantastic performances in GP2 this season, and with the benefit of already having tested for the team.

Red Bull Racing have confirmed Coulthard for 2006 and it is high time the musical chairs around the other seat stopped. Up to and including Bahrain Christian Klien was in a rich vein of form, which he has not subsequently repeated having being moved aside for four races. Likewise it is hard to believe we saw the best of Vitantonio Liuzzi as his four drives this season only illustrated the pressure he found himself under.

Furthermore the team are infatuated with American Scott Speed and there is no doubt that he will race for the team by the end of next year. Speed is a talented driver (and a marketing dream) but I would not place him in my list of top five GP2 drivers from this year, and there are others more deserving of a crack at F1.

The new BMW team is perhaps the most potentially interesting as it will be fascinating to see what Mario Thiessen does regarding driver choice. Unfortunately for Mario clones of himself are not yet scientifically possible, meaning that any drivers at the team do stand the chance of weekly tongue-lashings in the press, especially as BMW can no longer blame the chassis when their engine is slow.

Nick Heidfeld is an obvious candidate and it is hard not to see him in the car. Jacques Villeneuve should have the sense to walk off into the sunset, but won’t, forcing the team either to put up with him for another year or pay him off in order to get a more development-orientated driver behind the wheel. Hopefully BMW cash will also open up a potential third driver role here, which Sauber haven’t been able to afford recently.

Minardi and Jordan (Midland) will doubtless have four new drivers on board. Who? No idea, but scan the lower ranks of GP2 for those who have the name of the family company on the car. However if tragic wannabe Channoch Nissany lines up in a Minardi for any race, ever, then F1 will have done itself a great disservice. It is one thing for a well financed (if under-talented) youngster to get a drive, but quite another for ageing businessmen to buy themselves a drive.

Doubtless all of the above will be wrong, but at least it’s fun to speculate??????

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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