Machinations and moves in the market: Magnussen, Massa, Maldonado and more…

Ahead of Sunday’s US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, which will be won by Sebastian Vettel, the F1 driver market has gone into overdrive. There have been moves galore – some positive, some questionable, and no doubt some heartache to boot. Here’s’s analysis of the state of play.

Magnussen in, Perez out at McLaren
On Thursday McLaren announced what had strongly been rumoured for the last couple of weeks – that they would replace Sergio Perez with their protege Kevin Magnussen, son of former McLaren driver Jan. While on the face of it this was a bold move from a team unsatisfied with the input of a driver in a very competitive market, there remain some serious questions for the Woking team. Is Magnussen’s Formula Renault 3.5 experience sufficient? How does long-time McLaren reserve Gary Paffett feel about this? Why not keep one young driver for at least another year and then kick him out if Alonso became available for 2015? Meanwhile, Perez can feel a little hard done by. The car was a dog and he gave Button a good run, usually in qualifying if not always in races. McLaren must have felt that his feedback and setup (and perhaps ‘elbows’) were not at the level of sharpness they required, but from a neutral point of view it’s hard to believe that Magnussen will top his predecessor. Especially if he’s inherited his father’s genes!

Massa to Williams
Felipe Massa has decamped to Williams, in a move which many see as a valedictory farewell before the oblivion of sportscars, NASCAR or retirement. However, it could be quite astute. Massa still has something in him, as he has shown in the previous few races, unshackled as he has been from Ferrari serfdom. Even if the car is not competitive (which is by no means a given – the Grove concern have form at micro-engineering and could well pull one out the bag in 2014) Massa can still put in dogged drives and retire with his head held high, perceived as the unfortunate but talented rather than the erratic and damned. Where it doesn’t make sense is from the team’s perspective. Maldonado has gone, taking his £30m or so of Venezuelan oil money. Either Williams have found a generous sponsor for next year, or Massa has, or the Brazilian is driving for virtually nothing. It will be interesting to see what emerges from this story.

Maldonado to…?
Lotus, would be the obvious answer. They seem to be plucky and ambitious enough to match the Venezuelan’s lofty goals, and evidently need his cash to boot. They also have a spare seat alongside Romain Grosjean after the departure of Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari. The other candidate for the seat would be Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, who many think is the most talented driver currently outside a top berth. The state of play seems to be that if Lotus’ funding comes through from Quantum motorsports, they will prefer Hulkenberg, but if it doesn’t (which is seeming the more likely), they will be forced to take on Maldonado. The latter would be a shame, not because Maldonado is untalented, but because he will have effectively bought a drive that might have gone to a better driver. (As an aside, I was talking to a fan this week and he was lamenting that F1 is entering an era where great driving talent is being frittered away firstly by teams’ need for money and secondly by regulations – an extreme viewpoint, but entirely arguable). If Maldonado goes to Lotus, then, Hulkenberg will be hotfooting it to Force India, which will mean either di Resta or Sutil turfed out there (probably, it seems, the Scot). Perez will take refuge at his alma mater Sauber to replace Hulkenberg and partner Gutierrez.

A word on Raikkonen, and the weekend’s action
Kimi Raikkonen has had successful back surgery according to Autosport this morning, which lays to rest the rumours that he was just on the beach. The situation at Lotus with the Finn, according to my sources, was that he was paid his salary, but not his emoluments or bonuses. My sources could not confirm or deny the rumour that his bonuses amounted to something in the region of £40k per point, which would by my calculation have them owing him £7.3m. Which is a lot. If someone owed me £7.3m, I would probably not do a jot more work for them until they paid me. But it seems Raikkonen’s back trouble was legit, and we wish him a speedy recovery.
This weekend’s US Grand Prix is a welcome prospect after the neutered Abu Dhabi race (which, David Coulthard, is a bland, flashy, corporate, soulless orgy). We go to real motorsport country, and the passion of the Mexican fans for Sergio Perez is a joy to behold. He’ll need all the support he can get after the week he’s had. At the sharp end it will as I’ve said be won by Vettel because that’s the way things are. Elsewhere it will be interesting to see what Heikki Kovalainen can do in a half decent machine as he replaces his compatriot for the final races of the season. Bring it on, Austin.

Vettel’s fourth title puts him in pantheon of greats

Sebastian Vettel’s fourth world title came last weekend in a race which required him to drive from the back of the grid. This is usually unnecessary for the German, and although there are many arguing now about Vettel’s true worth in a historical context, his Indian performance adds more lustre to his already glowing reputation. The allegation dogs him, however; it’s Newey the genius.

The case for the defence. To paraphrase a famous evaluator of Shakespeare: in what area of our sport has Vettel not shown himself worthy? In what situation has he faltered? How has he not proven himself? The detractors must answer convincingly.

It is to be conceded that usually (mark it, not always) he has enjoyed the benefit of the most dynamic and effective machinery. In F1 as perhaps in few other top level sports, this confers a significant advantage and with it comes suspicion. Regardless of the effort or talent of the driver, his competitors and their fans carp in the first instance and then mutter. Glib as their conclusion may be, pitch sticks. And Vettel is tainted.

But it is in looking more closely at these rivals that we find redemption for the young German. Then: while Schumacher had Hill, Villeneuve and Hakkinen, Senna had Prost, Mansell, Piquet and Schumacher. While Ferrari had Williams and McLaren, now: Red Bull have McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and effectively Renault. And Vettel has Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Webber, to say nothing of Rosberg or Massa or pre-2011, Kubica.

Arguments to this end are often rendered null and void by the assertion that it is impossible to compare and contrast sportsmen from vastly different eras. That holds true, and it is not this column’s intention to contend that Vettel is better in any obvious sense than were the aforementioned greats. But as sport evolves, so too do sportsmen: one only has to look at the swiftness of movement, deftness of touch and preternatural understanding of today’s Bayern Munich or Barcelona to see that it constitutes a significant step up from yesteryear.

It is in this category that Vettel belongs. He has taken the game and absorbed it, processed it, spat it out with such nonchalance that is almost disdain. He has evolved the nasty, too, as Mark Webber knows. From his initial promise when he entered the sport in 2007, his regular showing is now simply a masterful performance that embarrasses the opposition. For that reason alone he must be among the greats, but it is very easy to argue he must be very high among the greats. We shall see this weekend in Abu Dhabi what type of Vettel fits into this new dawn where he really is the best.

And because that whiff of Newey still lingers, Vettel will have something to prove in 2014 and onwards. He won’t be giving up just because he has ground the opposition into the dirt. That’s yet another characteristic of the very great. Watch and see just how good he will get.