Both Renault and Sauber are set to launch their cars and announce their drivers on 31 January in Valencia ahead of the first test the next day. There is still a seat available at both teams.
This is unusual and it has to do with the changes of ownership at both teams and the change of circumstances, with manufacturers backing out – completely in BMW’s case and partially in Renault’s. It also reflects the fact that the in the era of the Resource Restriction Agreement, the driver market has changed with teams looking to spend half what they were spending on driver salaries. Some of the top names appear to have accepted this.
There are rumours swirling around today as to who the Sauber seat might go to, with Giancarlo Fisichella and Pedro de la Rosa the two names most commonly heard. However the second Renault seat is shrouded in question marks. The team was recently taken over by Gerard Lopez’ Genii Capital firm and a new team principal Eric Boullier installed.
The Renault seat is still a good one; last year Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet struggled to make a poor car work. Romain Grosjean, whom Renault had nurtured for years, got in the car and had a torrid time, illustrating that it is a huge gamble to hire a rookie in modern F1. This thinking is likely to have been going through the minds of the new Renault management. Renault apparently has a budget, so is not necessarily obliged to hire a pay driver – that would be quite a comedown for the team who won the world title four years ago.
Sauber meanwhile has gambled on the only rookie to shine last year; Kamui Kobayashi and that means that he ideally needs to go for experience in the other seat. But it’s about getting that experience at the right price. A driver with money would be ideal; Sauber didn’t get the Petronas money and is looking for sponsors in a difficult climate.
Peter Sauber took the team back reluctantly when BMW decided to pull out last year and although he is likely to have done very well out of the deal personally having sold at a strong price to BMW and bought back cheaply, he will want the team to pay its own way. Historically he doesn’t like taking pay drivers if he can avoid it, although he has been forced to use them in the past. And he has been trying to find the best driver available who might have some sponsorship backing. There are some out there; Vitaly Petrov seems to have a fair combination of skills and budget.
Sauber is definitely torn; he has approached the experienced drivers, including Jarno Trulli, asking if there is a sponsorship angle, but there was no sponsorship avenue to be pursued with Trulli. De la Rosa has traditionally had some Repsol money and there is no longer a clash with Petronas. Fisichella is well known to the team, if his name is in the frame, one would imagine that perhaps Ferrari has offered Sauber a discount on his £6 million engine bill. Ferrari may well be thinking that it would be advantageous to have Fisichella racing this year as a back up, just in case there turns out to be anything wrong with Felipe Massa, who is returning from injury. This would be worth something to Ferrari, not the full €6 million, but maybe 25% of it.
The one name who ought to be top of both teams’ lists is Nick Heidfeld. He is fast and experienced, but he wants paying. Heidfeld has earned a lot of money at times in his career, especially the recent BMW years. For him to find a seat in the new resource restricted F1, he will have to accept something more modest, perhaps something around €1m with a good results bonus.
Whoever gets the two seats is likely to have accepted reality in this new financial climate.