This summer is unusual in that we already know the identity of most of the drivers in the top teams’ cars for next year.
Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull will field unchanged driver line ups and the same is likely to be true of Mercedes unless Michael Schumacher has a sudden change of heart and decides to quit at the end of the season. But he has been talking about next year’s car and looks very much as though his thoughts are of racing again in 2011.
This leaves only the seat alongside Robert Kubica at Renault.
There is no doubt that the team is suffering from not having an established runner in the second car to allow it to fight Mercedes and Ferrari in the constructors’ championship. Kubica has scored 83 points already, more than Massa and not far behind Rosberg. Even if the second driver had contributed half the number of points of Kubica, the team would be ahead of Mercedes in fourth place.
On top of that running a rookie driver is always a compromise on development and this was certainly a problem over the winter testing period. Williams has a similar problem with fellow GP2 graduate Nico Hulkenberg, who is not matching up to Rubens Barrichello.
There is quite a big gap in performance from Renault back to the next fastest team, which is Force India. So it is very much a case of there being a top five teams and then the rest.
Petrov started the season qualifying 1.7 secs slower than Kubica, but did a strong job in Turkey to qualify 0.4s away. In Canada with the walls lining the track and clearly fearful of making a mistake, he was 1.7s off again, but in the last two races he has been 0.4s away from the Pole, albeit in Silverstone that equated to ten places on the grid.
There is a strong business case for retaining Petrov, as Lopez and Genii are active in the Russian market and it is an untapped resource of new funding into the sport. Lopez’ business model is to offer sponsors joint venture business deals with his own companies and with Renault corporate, so they get far more than just a sticker on a car. The return on investment of such deals is attractive to certain companies, who wouldn’t perhaps normally think of sponsoring an F1 team. The team has such a deal going with Russian car company Lada at the moment.
It is also helpful to Bernie Ecclestone to have a Russian driver as he tries to get a Grand Prix in Russia, possibly as soon as 2012.
Renault is a team on the up. Since the takeover by Gerard Lopez’ Genii group and the arrival of Eric Boullier as team principal, the team has rediscovered its confidence and the technical department has been praised by rivals for the constant updates they are bringing to the car. Lopez plans further investment in the team and it seems a fairly stable platform.
As a result the Petrov seat is attracting quite a bit of attention. Auto Motor und Sport has suggested that Kimi Raikkonen is thinking about a comeback with the team and will decide by the Finnish rally, but I don’t see Raikkonen coming back and I don’t see Lopez wanting to pay him.
Meanwhile Adrian Sutil, Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen are also candidates.
Lotus have indicated that they would like to keep Kovalainen. Sutil is faster than Glock and, after a few years of being erratic, is having quite a good season in the Force India, having scored 35 points so far. He also brings some sponsorship money from Medion and is probably about ready to move into a top team if he is ever going to make that move. He’s the one I would go for if I was looking to make a change on sporting grounds.
Lopez told me earlier this year that he wanted to “build the team around Kubica” and anyone coming in would need to establish the terms on which he would be employed.
It is an exciting opportunity and there is likely to be a lot of chat about it, but I see Renault waiting until the end of the season to see how Petrov does. I think they would like it to work with him, but he has a lot of ground to make up.
It is the key seat in the driver silly season, but there is no hurry for Renault.