Nico Hulkenberg is the driver in demand at the moment after a series of outstanding performances at the wheel of the Sauber.
The 26 year old German is firmly believed to have signed a contract to move away from Sauber next year, but interestingly, there are conflicting reports about where he is headed. Several pundits, including BBC’s Eddie Jordan, believe he is going back for Force India, for whom he raced in 2012, while Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy has announced that he has signed for Lotus, the official announcement due imminently.
Hulkenberg, now managed by Werner Heinz, who managed ex-Jordan driver Nick Heidfeld, had hoped to land a Ferrari drive, but was passed over for Kimi Raikkonen last month, in a move that puts pressure on Fernando Alonso, but also provides Ferrari with an insurance policy against Alonso deciding to leave or take a year off.
Many in the paddock believe Ferrari should have taken Hulkenberg and looked to the future, as Red Bull have done with Daniel Ricciardo. Part of the reason Hulkenberg was at Sauber was to put himself in Ferrari’s orbit – the Italian team is the long time engine supplier to, and ally of, Sauber. The Swiss team walked out of FOTA in 2011, in solidarity with Ferrari.
But it has not worked out for Hulkenberg and now, if the Force India stories are to be believed, he may be thinking of shadowing Mercedes, putting pressure on Nico Rosberg’s (above right with Hulkenberg in Japan) seat with the team. As a Mercedes – supplied team, Force India is in Mercedes’ orbit and Hulkenberg may feel his best bet is to be patient, keep racking up results and hope something bigger comes along soon. At the same time, if the rumours on the engineering jungle drums are to be believed and the Mercedes is the best turbo engine next year, Force India is in line to benefit from a boost to competitiveness, along with McLaren and Williams.
According to Gazzetta dello Sport, however, Hulkenberg has signed for Lotus.
Lotus are delighted with the performance of Romain Grosjean, who was driver of the day in Suzuka, underlining his remarkable progress from 12 months earlier where he crashed into Mark Webber at the start. And the partnership of Grosjean and Hulkenberg would be very exciting, both young drivers yet to reach their full potential and a good mixture of raw speed and consistency.
The Achilles Heel with Lotus is the financial side, the team has significant debts and are well known for being late with payments. And Hulkenberg, unlike other candidates, does not bring any budget with him.
Cashflow issues were one of the reasons why Raikkonen decided to move, despite being happy at the team. From Hulkenberg’s point of view there is an element of risk over whether the team will be able to stay afloat, but a Lotus seat, based on their competitiveness of the last two seasons, is a definite move up and gives him the chance to race more regularly at the front, to show what he can do. Despite the financial concerns, the technical team now under Nick Chester, has done a good job to develop the car in the second half of the season and Lotus has had four podiums in the last three races. They have been the only team to take the fight to Red Bull in this Asian leg of the championship.
McLaren no longer appears to be a possibility: Sergio Perez brings budget from Carlos Slim’s Claro business, which will be important next year as McLaren have to pay Mercedes over US $20m for their engines. “Clarovideo” has been on the rear wing of the McLaren since Monaco, a deal worth around £4 million (US$6.3m) at standard rate card. Sergio Perez has not impressed McLaren so far, but the Mexican is likely to be retained pending Alonso’s arrival in 2015.
In 2015 when they move to Honda’s they are pushing hard to get the signature of Fernando Alonso, so Hulkenberg wouldn’t fit into that equation.
Hulkenberg’s destination will be made official soon, no doubt and that will leave Felipe Massa still looking for a seat. THe Brazilian out qualified his team mate Alonso again on Saturday and defied a team order to let him past during the race, coming in 10th. Many believe that Massa’s pace in qualifying shows that he is still a top driver and that in a new team he would flourish next season. He is highly experienced and also very light, both of which are first order priorities for teams in the new turbo era.