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Exclusive - Niki Lauda weighs up the title contenders 18 Aug 2008

Niki Lauda (AUT).
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, French Grand Prix, Race Day, Magny-Cours, France, Sunday, 22 June 2008 Post qualifying parc ferme (L to R): Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren, third (13th after penalty); Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari, pole position; Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari, second.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, French Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Magny-Cours, France, Saturday, 21 June 2008 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari walks back through the pits after retiring from the lead of the race in the closing laps.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, Hungarian Grand Prix, Race, Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, 3 August 2008 Timo Glock (GER) Toyota TF108 finishes 2nd.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, Hungarian Grand Prix, Race, Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, 3 August 2008 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault arrives in the paddock.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, German Grand Prix, Race Day, Hockenheim, Germany, Sunday, 20 July 2008

Three-time world champion Niki Lauda has always been an outspoken observer when it comes to analyzing Formula One title fights. But at the moment, so close is the competition that even Lauda is baffled as to which driver really has the edge.

But from the tenor of the Austrian’s answers one thing becomes quite obvious: Kimi Raikkonen’s inconsistency means Lauda sees Felipe Massa as Ferrari’s best title hope - assuming he can beat McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton…

Q: All indications point to a repeat of last year’s duel for the Formula One crown between Ferrari and McLaren. Who has the advantage - and why?
Niki Lauda:
At the moment both teams are even, especially as their drivers do sometimes make mistakes, although Massa was doing a perfect job in Budapest, but this did not help him because of his car’s engine failure.

Q: Three men - Hamilton, Raikkonen and Massa - are the leading contenders for the drivers’ title. Who has the edge?
NL:
Up until now it has been Massa and Hamilton, because Raikkonen’s performance has been going up and down all the time. Kovalainen did a good job in winning the Hungarian Grand Prix, his first race win, but he was very lucky.

Q: How will Ferrari manage their drivers, given that both have a shot at the title? When will they start leaning towards one driver and who will it be?
NL:
This will be automatically resolved at some point, but for the moment Massa has the edge over Raikkonen from the driver’s point of view.

Q: Surely as reigning champion Raikkonen must be considered at least a wild card for the title?
NL:
At the moment, clearly not.

Q: Turning to team principals, it’s McLaren’s Ron Dennis versus Ferrari’s Stefano Domenicali - the old timer against the new kid on the block. Who is doing the better job?
NL:
This is very hard to say, as both seem to be even. Ultimately the result at the end of the season will show who has done a better job.

Q: Earlier in the year BMW Sauber were looking like serious championship contenders, but things seem to have gone backwards in the last couple of races. Was it a case of too much too soon?
NL:
No. They did a fantastic job coming out of nowhere to where they are now. But when you look at Hungary, you have to clearly say that for the moment Toyota have passed them.

Q: So are Toyota finally on the road to success?
NL:
In Budapest they did a fantastic job, although you have to say that the circuit helped them a lot. Now we have to wait and see what they are able to do with this experience.

Q: Red Bull Racing are currently the leading independent team. Is the ‘Adrian Newey effect’ finally working?
NL:
In my eyes, yes. They have improved the car so much, to be amongst the top ten in qualifying.

Q: What about Williams? They had a good start to the season, but seemed to run out of puff halfway through…
NL:
As far as I can see, the team seems to have been going in the wrong direction in terms of development, so they have to solve some problems and then take it from there.

Q: Are you surprised that their rookie Kazuki Nakajima has proved a match for the much-lauded Nico Rosberg?
NL:
It is too hard to give a judgment on the drivers because the car’s performance is not good enough to make a clear decision.

Q: Ross Brawn and Honda: will that develop into a success story? Is he the right medicine for the ailing patient?
NL:
Ross is definitely the right medicine, but we have to wait until his changes take effect. And how long this will take, I cannot answer.

Q: Fernando Alonso: a double world champion, yet his rookie team mate has scored Renault’s only podium. And there’s no sign of a competitive drive for 2009. Did he make the wrong decision?
NL:
It was obvious that Renault would not be as competitive as McLaren and Ferrari this year. Alonso himself took the decision to go there, so it is up to him - together with the team - to work as hard as possible to make the car competitive. For Piquet it was very important to have such a result, because he was very weak at the beginning of the season. With his first podium finish he should have gained the confidence to hopefully earn some more points throughout the rest of this season.

Q: Who for you is currently the best driver on the grid?
NL:
Well, this is very difficult to say, as the driver is always connected to his car’s performance. You have to look at the two combined. For me, in Budapest it was certainly Massa, but two races before that it was Hamilton.

Q: And finally, who has been the best rookie?
NL:
Timo Glock.