Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who goes where?

It has reached that point in the year where the focus of many a driver and team is as much on the season coming as on the dog end of the one currently in train. Not so much, perhaps, if you are Red Bull, Ferrari or Mclaren, and are still in the running for this year's championships, but for everyone else, there is the hope that 2011 will be better.

And inevitably that means drivers thinking about whether they can land themselves with a more competitive seat, and teams pondering whether a change of drivers might bring a change of fortunes. It is perhaps no coincidence that the top three teams are retaining exactly the same driver line up for 2011, while it is far from clear that this is the case anywhere further down the grid.

For drivers, the most promising vacancy at the moment is probably the one alongside Robert Kubica at Renault. After a dismal 2009, where even the talents of Fernando Alonso were insufficient to keep them from slipping into midfield mediocrity, the team would appear to be once more on an upward trajectory. Current number 2 driver Vitaly Petrov has not yet been ruled out - and Eric Bouillier has been remarkably frank about what is required of the young Russian, saying that he doesn't need to match Kubica, but he does need to show that he has the potential to get rather closer to him that he is managing at the moment, but one senses that La Regie are sniffing around to see if there are better prospects out there.

I'm not convinced by the wisdom of taking on Kimi Raikkonen, though to be fair, much depends on whether the Finn is feeling a renewed enthusiasm for F1 following his sabbatical in the World Rally Championship, or whether he (or his management) is simply casting around for a way to make money as it looks like Red Bull are becoming disillusioned with the marketing potential of their tie-up at Citroen. However, if the Finn meets with Boullier and convinces him that he's genuinely serious about giving F1 another shot then, providing his pecuniary demands are not excessive, he's probably the fastest man Renault are going to be able to hire. Certainly it will be interesting to see how he compares with Robert Kubica.

More likely though, if Petrov goes, it will be in order to be replaced by one of a number of drivers who would meet Renault's job spec of being a good solid number 2 who can be relied upon to rack up constructors championship points, and who are currently finding their talents wasted in uncompetitive machinery. Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen have both shown they are good, serious racing drivers and their talents have been largely wasted with Virgin and Lotus this year. While it's possible those teams might be rather better prepared next year (I've rather more faith in Fernandes' Lotus operation than in the awkward menage-a-trois between Wirth Research, Richard Branson and Manor Motorsport) a Renault seat would still look a more tempting prospect.

Then there's Nick Heidfeld, back for the moment at his spiritual home of Sauber after spending much of the year on the sidelines at Mercedes, hoping that Michael Schumacher might throw in the towel. Again, Renault would be accepting they're not hiring a future mega-star if they took him on, but he's certainly not slow - he's been teamed up with Raikkonen, Webber and Kubica in the past, and held his own against all three of them. Probably a better bet than Sauber, even if Heidfeld disregarded the awkward truth that Peter Sauber's choice of driver to sit alongside Kobayashi next year is likely to be governed by financial constraints rather than driving talent.

The other name that strikes me as a possible for Renault is Force India's Adrian Sutil. The Anglo-Indian team started the year well but have been gradually slipping back towards the rear of the midfield, and it seems to me that if the German rainmaster is to progress then he's going to have to find another ride. Assessing how quick he is has never been easy - he's easily had the beating of Tonio Liuzzi this year, but he didn't always look any quicker than Giancarlo Fisichella, and going back to his debut in the sport at Spyker, it is striking that HRT's Sakon Yamamoto wasn't that far off his pace. He'd be a gamble, but there have been odd hints - particularly when the heavens open - that he's got something special about him.

Although Renault might not be his only option. Of the top teams, Renault is the only one which officially has a vacancy but Martin Brundle mischievously noted that an awful lot of drivers were seen coming and going from the Mercedes motorhome over the Monza weekend earlier in the month. Nico Rosberg is almost certain to be driving for the team again next year, but I can hardly be alone in wondering whether Michael Schumacher will call time on his so far rather uninspired come-back, or should he not jump, whether the team might opt to push him. It would be an ignominious end to a long and tremendously successful career, but time and tide wait for no man...

... And if Mercedes is to remain a German 'super team' then Adrian Sutil might be a good fit. It has been said that a part of the motivation for Mercedes' involvement in the sport has been to increase its appeal to younger car buyers, and if that is their aim then Sutil perhaps makes more sense than Nick Heidfeld (who may be relatively young by any normal definition, but, at 33, is in F1 terms beginning to run out of time). As mentioned above, Timo Glock might also be available and if the team were prepared to pay Williams enough money to get them to release him, Willi Weber's new protege, Nico Hulkenberg would tick all the right marketability boxes, and more importantly, after a rather shaky start, has begun to regularly match and sometimes beat team mate Barrichello. Perhaps not the new Schumacher, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's now faster than the old one is these days.

So far, in considering Renault and Mercedes' options, I've not mentioned any young drivers still seeking to break into F1. The bad news for would-be F1 drivers is that those top teams which might have a vacancy have enough choices from among the established F1 drivers that I'd be surprised if either of them hired a rookie. The truth is that the options for drivers looking to get their first F1 ride in 2011 are looking rather limited.

Toro Rosso and Williams have yet to announce their line-ups for next year, but I wouldn't be especially surprised if both teams retained their current line-ups. Sauber have already announced that Kamui Kobayashi will be driving for them next year, so the vacancies are likely to be made up of the following: The second Sauber, one or possibly both seats at Force India and, perhaps, a seat or two at Lotus or Virgin if someone manages to pinch Kovalainen or Glock.

Scottish DTM driver Paul Di Resta is seemingly considered a shoe-in at Force India, and if hiring a driver who hasn't raced in single seaters since 2006 seems a rather eccentric choice, then it is worth remembering that he is the man who beat Sebastian Vettel to the F3 Euroseries title that year, and that his DTM career has taken off after he regularly started doing incredible things with a second string two-year old Mercedes in his debut season. Whether he's as good, or even better than Vettel, or ultimately turns out to be another driver with a strong junior record who doesn't quite cut it at the very highest level, only time will tell, but as a fellow Edinburgher, I'm glad he's getting a chance.

So who might the other hopefuls be? There's GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado, but after some stories over the summer that he was in talks with Sauber, things seem to have gone very quiet on that front of late. His problem, I suspect, is that he took a very long time to come good in GP2, and has had a wildly inconsistent career that would make him a bit of a gamble. He comes with plenty of cash, but almost certainly not as much as Telmex-backed Sergio Perez, the man whom he beat to the GP2 title. Perez was in only his second season in GP2 (as against Maldonado's 5th!) and the signing of fellow Telmex-backed driver Esteban Gutierrez as a test driver at Sauber suggests that he may have a chance with the Swiss team.

Beyond those two, it's not quite clear who else would be in the running for an F1 seat - Daniel Ricciardo has impressed me with his performances in the Renault World Series but as a Red Bull backed driver, he's unlikely to get a shot next year unless the team lose faith in Alguersuari or Buemi, both of whom have been doing a fairly decent job of late. And in any case, it might make more sense to give Ricciardo the benefit of another year gaining experience in GP2 if, as I reckon is likely, he takes the Renault World Series at his first attempt this year.

Certainly it makes more sense than taking a seat at HRT next year. Whether their struggles with the recalcitrant Dallaras have done anything to further the careers of Bruno Senna, Sakon Yamamoto or Karun Chandhok this year I rather doubt, and the simple truth is that, stuck in such a hopelessly uncompetitive car, there is a limit to what any driver can do. Even beating your team mate might depend as much on the vagaries of the machinery as on any difference between the drivers. Where Lotus look like they will make progress next year and Virgin at least look like they might do so, I see no reason to expect HRT to be any less hopeless than they have been this season. On the other hand, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if they weren't on the grid at all. Which might be a blessing in disguise for some young F1 hopefuls.

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