Sauber confirmed today that it has struck a deal with Nick Heidfeld to replace Pedro de la Rosa for the remaining races of the 2010 season.
One would expect that if this works out well, he may be retained next season alongside Kamui Kobayashi, who has already been signed. One problem is that de la Rosa’s car has already used 9 engines this season, so Heidfeld could be rather on the back foot when it comes to engine penalties with five events still to go.
Heidfeld started the year as a Mercedes reserve driver, but quit to lead the Pirelli testing programme. He has done two tests to date and has now grabbed the opportunity to race again with Sauber. Although he will have some idea of the characteristics of the Pirelli tyres from those two tests, it is early days and his information to the Sauber designers will be of use, but its relevance will decrease as the programme evolves.
It will be interesting to see whether Pirelli now decide to take Pedro de la Rosa on to continue the development programme. He is a very experienced test driver, having covered hundreds of thousands of kilometres in the role. He may take the tyres in a different direction.
De la Rosa has had a tough season. Sauber is prone to the odd left field driver choice and has historically tended to like either older experienced drivers or raw rookies. He gave Kimi Raikkonen his first run in F1, ironically in 2001 alongside Heidfeld, and today’s other news is that the 2007 champion has been in contact with Renault about a possible return next season.
Raikkonen has been in rallying this year, driving for the Citroen junior team with backing from Red Bull. “It is true that the summer has passed and we have had more and more requests – and the guy you mentioned [Raikkonen] is on the radar now,” Boullier told Autosport. “He is on the radar because he contacted us.”
The second question is, do they need him? Renault lie 5th in the constructors’ championship table, 31 points behind Mercedes. But most of these points have come from Kubica, just as most of Mercedes’ points are from Rosberg. Renault would like Vitaly Petrov to succeed, but he has had two poor weekends in a row at a bad time and seems to find it hard to string a whole Grand Prix weekend together consistently.
McLaren has shown the benefits of having two top drivers and if they can afford it, hiring Raikkonen would seem a smart move. He’s not political so wouldn’t trouble Kubica much, other than keeping him on his toes. Raikkonen will be 31 at the start of next season, a few months older than Jenson Button and two years older than Fernando Alonso, so he still has plenty of good years in him and if he’s serious about a return it must be because he’s had a good think about where he went wrong last time.
If you look at performance charts of achievement by drivers, Raikkonen’s ratio of 18 wins and 62 podiums in 156 starts is very strong.
There is still some confusion about the finances of the Renault F1 team, after it leaked out that they had asked for an advance on their share of the F1 commercial rights from Bernie Ecclestone, a request which was denied.
At the time the team explained it away by saying that they had a cash flow issue, as payments from some of the new sponsors they had signed, such as Chinese solar company Trina Solar, were not due until later this year.
It has been suggested that internet entrepreneur Gerard Lopez, who holds 75% of the team and is a long time friend of Ecclestone, may be keeping the franchise warm while Renault, which owns 25%, considers whether a full scale return to the sport is viable. Renault themselves say that there is no substance to this story and that Renault are very happy as things are.
My sources suggest that Renault is waiting to see how the share of revenues under the new 2013 Concorde Agreement is resolved.
If the teams are successful in what is likely to be a hard fought and bitter negotiation, and manage to raise their share of the total revenues from 50% to more like 75%, which would make F1 more cost neutral – or even profitable – to participants, then it would be much more attractive.
Either way this will not have happened by next season and so if Raikkonen is offering his services – and one would have to question why team principal Eric Boullier would want to admit that to Autosport at this early stage – it will likely be a Renault team set up essentially as it is today.