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The silly season

There comes a time of year around mid-season when what has become widely known as "the silly season" goes into overdrive in the F1 driver speculation stakes.

It's getting on for half way through the F1 season; performances are being judged -- whether they be praising or sniggering -- contracts are being contemplated and futures are being pondered. In some cases egos are being massaged and in some cases they are being bought down to size. Gossip is running rife about who's doing what and speculation ranges from the fantastically inaccurate to not very surprising.

Ferrari, of course, is a done deal with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello for next year. Or is it a done deal? The contracts may be signed but some suggest Michael will retire if he wins his fifth world championship this season. Michael does not seem to be the retiring type, he'll probably be superglued to that Ferrari until he's 100.

Barrichello was presumed to be on dodgy ground earlier this year, with the rumour mill suggesting that he was only keeping the seat warm for Juan Pablo Montoya or Felipe Massa. Montoya has claimed he'd never race for Ferrari while Michael is there and while Massa says the champ is his hero, the baby faced Brazilian bunged his car in a wall too frequently for Ferrari's liking. But maybe one day: Ferrari likes Brazilian drivers, helps them sell lots and lots of cars in Brazil.

Williams have very recently been rumoured to have renewed Montoya's contract for next year, which wouldn't be surprising. He and Ralf Schumacher have driven well and driven each other up the wall but Sir Frank likes competition between his drivers. There would seem no real reason for Williams to change their drivers, they're competitive, scoring points and even admit to actually getting on a bit better -- although Ralf and Monty always professed to having no problems working together. Being polite about each other was a different matter.

McLaren have the problem of three drivers and two cars not being a match made in heaven if prodigal son Mika Häkkinen decides to return to the fold. Kimi Räikkönen has an option for next year and Coulthard is the one being targeted as odd man out by the speculation. He says he has a contract for next year; boss Ron Dennis and Mercedes motorsport director Norbert Haug say it's is yet to be decided. Coulthard, bizarrely, has been linked with Toyota.

McLaren paid a lot for mini-Mika icy-eyed Räikkönen and it would seem daft to let him go as quick as they netted him. Although Häkkinen's return is unlikely, Coulthard is not necessarily guaranteed to stay put. Quiet Nick Heidfeld is under contract to the team and Jacques Villeneuve has also been mentioned in the same sentence as McLaren. He's also been mentioned in the same sentence as over-paid and get a shave you hippy.

Unhappy over BAR boss Dave Richards' comments about his large salary, Villeneuve has sunk into a even lower sulk. Team mate Olivier Panis keeps himself to himself in his mysteriously quiet French way and is presumed to be staying with the team.

Heidfeld seems content at Sauber but it's the quiet ones you have to watch. Understandably peeved when McLaren opted for Räikkönen for 2001, he's determined to show they picked the wrong man. Relatively rumour free as regards to the future but Heidfeld is capable of doing something surprising. Like being surprisingly small.

Peter Sauber is known for spotting young talent and snapped up the next wonderkid, the over-enthusiastic Massa. Ferrari rumours persistently surround Massa but his penchant for bouncing off car crunching objects seems to have made potential bosses wary. A great talent that bodes well for the future if anyone cares to take the risk.

Renault look to have a bright future as well as nauseatingly bright colours. The car is good, if erratic, and a vast improvement on the wheelbarrow that was the Benetton. The driver's futures are somewhat more murky. Jenson Button has said he'd like to stay and with Williams allegedly keeping hold of Montoya, it would appear Button's contract with Williams will not stretch so far as to take him back.

Flavio Briatore spent much of late last season swinging his handbag in Button's direction but he's been singing his praises so far this year. Button has been linked with Jaguar and BAR -- Jense, for God's sake stay put, a move to Jaguar can only be another backwards step in a career that's supposed to be going forward.

Jarno Trulli is a driver that many deem has yet to live up to his potential. Problem is, how long will any boss be willing to wait for that potential to mature? Briatore may have done a u-turn with his opinion of Button but Trulli rarely gets a mention from the famously verbal one.

Both Trulli and Button, however, have loads of potential -- to be ousted by the highly rated Fernando Alonso. Being a test driver won't suit Alonso for long and although he's learning the ropes at Renault, an offer of a race seat is unlikely to be turned down. Hell, the boy even made a Minardi look like a race car, he can drive anything.

Takuma Sato has an alarming tendency for crashing into things, or in some cases things crashing into him. And he does it in fine style, he's had some of the scariest looking shunts this season. This has led to much gossip about Jordan looking to get rid of him, despite Eddie Jordan's vehement denials. Sato is not a bad driver but he's inexperienced; Jordan doesn't have the time to nurse a bouncing baby, they're rapidly slipping down the ranks.

What they need is experience, which they have in Giancarlo Fisichella. Fisichella is one of the most underrated drivers there is but he's wrestled some good races out of the recalcitrant Jordan, much as he did with the Benetton last year. But he has a performance related contract with Jordan and it's the team performance that's in question, not his own. EJ would be daft to let him go but he may not have any choice.

Eddie Irvine has been linked with Jordan recently, complete with the usual denials from all concerned. Jaguar and Jordan seem destined to be joined in some way or another: if not by driver swapping, perhaps by engine swapping. Jordan are believed to be losing the Honda engine deal; Cosworth, who supply Jaguar engines, are rumoured to be stepping into the breach. Irvine, meanwhile, is suspected to be stepping out. Tired of a bad car and mostly considered too old, too gobby and too much like hard work to be taken on anywhere else, the Irishman's F1 future is one of the rockiest.

With first Alonso and now Mark Webber testing for Jaguar fodder for the rumour mill is too tempting to resist. Pedro de la Rosa is apparently contracted for another year, while Irvine is not. Irvine is waiting on the revised car that debuts at Silverstone before he makes a decision -- but is the decision his to make?

Arrows have been quiet on the rumour front, presumably after they caused such a stir by binning Jos Verstappen in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen they've decided to keep a low profile.

Mark Webber is another who has been linked with Toyota, although the team, as standard, deny it. Webber is unlikely to stay at Minardi long but team mate Alex Yoong is not very high on bosses shopping lists. Labeled, in politer circles, as a 'pay-driver' Yoong has not done a great deal to disprove his unfortunate status.

Allan McNish appears to be the one in the firing line, as it were, to be ousted from Toyota if a younger talent is interested. Why is uncertain, he hasn't done any worse than Mika Salo particularly and Toyota have a long way to go before they can be contenders. An experienced driver pairing would seem appropriate to help them develop but F1 moves in mysterious ways.

If the rumours were to be believed, most of the grid will be driving for Jaguar next year, who will be fielding at least a dozen cars and the rest will be Toyotas. Irvine will take over from Bernie Ecclestone and run F1 as his own private game: Michael Schumacher will be excommunicated, Barrichello sent to his room and mechanics will be replaced with pit babes in very small bikinis.

With the rumours, the speculation, the claims and denials, no-one really knows what will happen until it happens. The gossip may be good, bad, wildly inaccurate and frequently laughable but there's never any shortage of grist for the mill. But that's half the fun of it.

by Nikki Reynolds

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© This article originally appeared on MNI and is reproduced with their permission.

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