In a period where the Hamilton/Mercedes/Schumacher affair has dominated the Formula 1 paddock’s attention, the wider repercussions in the driver market could open up a wealth of possibilities, led by Caterham and the possibility of two available race seats in 2013.
Heikki Kovalainen said during the Japanese weekend that he was in talks with Caterham owner Tony Fernandes, and that despite apparent recent friction between the Malaysian and the Finn’s management, he was still hopeful of a fresh deal. Nonetheless the presence of a surge of talented and well-backed young drivers who are eager to break into the sport means Caterham, along with numerous other teams, are not short on options. Last weekend at Suzuka Kovalainen demoted to the pit wall for the third time in 2012, as Giedo van der Garde took his place in Friday’s first practice.
The situation is similar for Vitaly Petrov. The Russian signed a late deal with the team for just the 2012 season and with recent revelations showing that his funding will not carry through to 2013, he could see himself cast aside for those that have the backing available. In a recent interview, Petrov’s manager Oksana Kosachenko was asked whether he will be in a race seat next year, to which she replied, “If there’s no money, then there’s no drive. I’m not prepared to hold talks all winter like last time.”
If there is to be a seat available at Caterham then they have a number of drivers to call on. They have taken on the services of many young drivers in recent years with Luis Razia and van der Garde, from GP2, and Alexander Rossi, World Series by Renault, having all driven for the team in the past twelve months during FP1 sessions.
Further up the grid and Force India duo Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg have both had their eye on Felipe Massa’s Ferrari seat but, with the Brazilian looking increasingly safe for another year, speculation has now turned to whether the latter might still be on the move, with a Sauber switch touted. So if one is to leave, a replacement must be found and Force India have certainly built their recent success on identifying young, hungry drivers to step up.
In the recent young driver tests at Magny-Cours, Caterham’s Razia spent two days in the Force India. If van der Garde was to take any available race seat at Caterham, then Razia is free to do the same at Force India. However, Razia’s main competition could come from Force India third driver, Jules Bianchi. The 23-year old Frenchman also took part in the young driver test, but in both Force India and Ferrari machinery and was very fast throughout.
Another option could be the team’s former driver Adrian Sutil, who has been out of the sport for a year after he could not find a race seat in 2012, his trial and subsequent conviction for GBH over the winter having likely counted against him.
An interesting situation is also occurring at Williams. Pastor Maldonado had a nervous wait to see the results of the Venezuelan Presidential election, but the return of the long-standing Hugo Chavez to office is likely to mean that the country’s maiden F1 winner retains his state oil backing.
Williams has had a very strong car all year and very little to show for it in terms of points. Maldonado’s win in Spain was not through luck and the fact that he had not scored a point since prior to Japan had not gone unnoticed.
The same can be said for Bruno Senna who has had a couple of strong races, but has more often than not found himself out of the points after poor qualifying performances. The Brazilian has also made a lot of mistakes this year, particularly in qualifying where he has only made it through to the top ten shootout once. Should at least one free seat become available then that would most likely be taken by reserve driver Valtteri Bottas.
At Sauber, Sergio Perez’s move to McLaren opens the door for a list of potential candidates, including Kovalainen. Michael Schumacher’s announcement of his retirement takes him out of the equation, making Esteban Gutierrez the most likely replacement. The young Mexican, like Perez, is backed by Telmex and after two very strong years in GP2 the 21-year old would be ready for a chance in a race seat.
The list of emerging talent could be continued with Britons James Calado and Max Chilton, who have both impressed in GP2 in 2012. Calado had a very impressive debut season in the category, driving for the Lotus ART team and backed by the Racing Steps Foundation. It is most likely that he will compete in GP2 again in 2013 and he will head in to the series as Championship favourite. Chilton, however, already has his foot in the door after recently being announced as the third driver for Marussia.