Formula One arrives in Singapore this week for the annual night race with Sebastian Vettel careering toward a fourth-straight championship and with attention turning toward the combustible situation at Ferrari.
Vettel’s win in the previous two races in Belgium and Italy has put the Red Bull driver 53 points clear atop the standings and it only appears a matter of when, rather than if, the German will secure the title for this year.
The biggest news since the race in Monza has been Ferrari’s signing of Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen to a two-year contract starting next season. The return of the Finn to Maranello, where he was ousted after 2009 to make way for the arrival of Fernando Alonso, has set up a potentially fractious rivalry with the Spaniard and has pushed Felipe Massa to the exit.
Raikkonen will not accept the secondary role that Massa had played to Alonso for the past four years, and many are already predicting trouble because Alonso is not accustomed to having a genuinely challenging teammate, aside from his one year at McLaren, which ended abruptly and unhappily.
The man in the best position to make a judgement is Massa, who has been a teammate to both at Ferrari, and he is expecting friction.
“I know Fernando and Kimi well, both on and off the track. They are excellent drivers, but I fear, as a team, there will be conflict,” Massa said in an interview in Brazil this week. “I have told [Ferrari’s management] to breathe deeply now, because breathing will be much more difficult next season.”
However, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has dismissed such forecasts of doom, saying Alonso was kept in the loop about the team’s desire to sign Raikkonen and was happy with the choice.
“We are not masochistic enough to take on a driver without informing Alonso,” Di Montezemolo said in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “Fernando was always in the picture regarding the choice of Raikkonen, taken partly because the alternative, that of employing a youngster in what will be a complex 2014 season, did not inspire confidence. Today, Raikkonen is one of the best, along with Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton, and Alonso is the first to be happy that he is coming here.”
The Ferrari president likened Raikkonen to former great Niki Lauda, who left F1 for two years and then returned to win his third drivers’ championship. Raikkonen also had two years away from the sport, before returning last year.
“The break has been good for him, he has returned to greatness, he’s won races, he’s finished lots of races,” Di Montezemolo said. “I wanted a driver who wouldn’t make me look back on Massa with regret and I’ve got one. I want more victories, consistency, podiums from Raikkonen. Alonso will be the first to benefit.”
The Ferrari chief has also dismissed concerns that Massa will be demotivated or selfish in the remaining races of his Ferrari career, despite the Brazilian being quoted as saying: “Starting on Friday in Singapore, I work only for myself.”
Di Montezemolo described Massa as a “wonderful person” who will finish the season well.
“Supposedly he doesn’t want to help Fernando? Nonsense — he definitely will do it,” he said.
On the track, Ferrari’s chances look slim in Singapore. If the team could not beat the Red Bull of Vettel on the high-speed tracks of Spa-Francorchamps and Monza, it stands little chance on the twisty street circuit of Marina Bay, where Vettel has won the past two races and where Red Bull thrives in high-downforce settings.
Vettel is a strong favorite for Sunday’s race, with the only potential wild card being Pirelli’s selection of super-soft and medium compounds as its two choices this weekend, skipping soft and thereby creating intriguing strategy options.
“It’s one of the toughest races of the year, to be honest,” Vettel said. “It’s a very long race, the full two hours, so the race just seems to go on forever. The circuit itself is a killer because there are so many bumps, there’s no room for mistakes.”