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Michael Schumacher at the Hockenheimring. (RALPH ORLOWSKI/REUTERS)
Michael Schumacher at the Hockenheimring. (RALPH ORLOWSKI/REUTERS)

Motorsports

F1’s silly season shifts into overdrive with fresh driver speculation Add to ...

Formula One moves into the second half of the 2012 schedule with this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, and the so-called silly season is approaching top speed.

The silly season is the F1 paddock’s annual speculation fest about which driver is going where. This year, much of the talk surrounds two drivers: Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher, of Mercedes, whose fates may have a ripple effect in the paddock as the driver line-up shapes up for 2013.

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Schumacher will apparently decide his future during the one-month summer break that begins following Sunday’s 11th of 20 races, while Massa’s seat with the Scuderia appears to be up for grabs after another subpar performance this year.

It would be unfortunate to see Schumacher stick around for another season, as his return from retirement has been lacklustre at best.

While his performances have improved over the past few races, with a podium for third and two seventh-place finishes in his last three starts, the truth is plain for all to see: the sport’s winningest driver should have stayed on the sidelines. Schumacher retired following the 2006 season with just about every record worth having in F1.

He unretired in 2010 after Mercedes bought the Brawn outfit and asked the veteran to lead its return to F1 competition. It really hasn’t worked out well for him.

At the halfway point of his third season back, Schumacher has just 29 points and has finished only half of his 10 starts. His young German teammate, Nico Rosberg, has scored 76. The son of 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg also beat Schumacher to the punch in China earlier this year when he took Mercedes’ first F1 win since it returned as factory team. In all, Rosberg has outscored his famous teammate 307-177 in two-and-a-half seasons.

If Schumacher decides to call it quits for good, the door at Mercedes should open for young Scot Paul di Resta, who is now racing for Force India. The 2010 DTM champion is a favourite of Mercedes boss Norbert Haug, and tipped by many to be in line for Schumacher’s seat when it becomes available. Then again, he’s also been mentioned several times as a replacement for Massa.

Should Ferrari come calling and Schumacher retires again, di Resta’s teammate, Nico Hülkenberg, may move up to Mercedes, leaving both seats open at Force India. It is thought that Ferrari development driver Jules Bianchi is in the mix for a Force India race seat, although he’s not exactly tearing up the track in World Series by Renault this year.

One empty seat at Force India may just go to another young Mercedes driver, perhaps even Canada’s own Robert Wickens, who is now racing in the German touring car series that vaulted di Resta into F1. So far, Wickens has just one points-scoring finish to show for his efforts after he took ninth in the last race at the Norisring on Canada Day.

While it’s safer to bet that Wickens will get a shot in a top Mercedes DTM team next year as a reward for a job well done, there is an outside chance he’ll end up in F1, although it would more likely be as a test and reserve driver than in a race seat.

Along with di Resta, the latest rumour surrounding the Ferrari seat is that Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen may have the inside line should Massa be ousted. Another distinct possibility is Sauber’s Sergio Pérez, who has shown some exceptional raw talent as a sophomore. Should Ferrari see Pérez as a future star, it would make sense to give him the opportunity to watch and learn under double world champion Fernando Alonso.

Pérez being tipped would let Sauber make room for 2010 GP3 champion Esteban Gutiérrez, who is the team’s reserve driver. He is third overall in the F1 feeder GP2 Series. Kovalainen’s departure could offer Caterham an opportunity to put U.S. driver Alexander Rossi in their car just as two races appear on the calendar in his home country.

Unfortunately for Massa, racing against Alonso has not been positive for the veteran Brazilian, who seems to be completely demoralized by the experience. And Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has made no secret of his displeasure with Massa’s performance in 2012.

The trouble for Massa appeared to begin two years ago in the German Grand Prix. Just when it seemed he had finally gained his footing, the team chopped his legs out from under him. After leading his teammate for most of the race, Ferrari’s reward for his pace was ordering him to allow Alonso to pass for the win to help his title bid. Massa was told by his engineer: “Fernando is faster than you, did you understand that message?” Judging by his slide following the race, it was received loud and clear.

To add insult to injury, the order came on the one-year anniversary of Massa’s brush with death in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, when a spring fell off another car and hit him on the left side of his helmet. Massa suffered a fractured skull and did not return for the rest of the season. Had the spring hit a few centimetres to the right, he would have been killed.

The damage to Massa’s confidence after being told to defer to Alonso was unmistakeable. Since the team order in Germany, Alonso has outscored Massa almost 3-1 in points, 565-218. Remember that Massa missed winning the 2008 driver’s title by a single point to McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton. And before the incident in Hungary, he was ahead of his Ferrari teammate, 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen, in points.

Massa did get a small reprieve when Mark Webber decided to keep racing at Red Bull with teammate Sebastian Vettel, which eliminated one driver thought to be on Ferrari’s shortlist. When he announced his one-year deal earlier this month, Webber admitted talking to Ferrari about replacing Massa.

While McLaren’s Hamilton has a contract that expires at the end of the season, he will probably stay put. The only real spot for him at a top team is with Ferrari, where he’d be reunited with Alonso. The pair didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye when they were together at McLaren in 2007, and it’s highly doubtful Hamilton would sign a Ferrari contract that would no doubt oblige him to play second fiddle. He could take Schumacher’s vacated spot at Mercedes, but it would also be a good assumption to think Hamilton would rather not make a move backward on the grid.

Look for him to stay with McLaren, even if it’s only a short-term deal that allows him to see how things play out next year, when the silly season will certainly focus on both drivers at Red Bull and their expiring contracts.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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