Sergio Perez expects to stay at Force India for 2016 as the team has opted not to sign Mercedes’ protégé, Pascal Wehrlein, leaving the German looking for a drive elsewhere.
Force India announced before the Italian Grand Prix that it had retained Nico Hulkenberg for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, but is yet to confirm who will partner the 28-year-old.
When Perez announced his deal with Force India for 2015 he claimed to have a “multi-year” contract with the squad, but speculation had been mounting in the early summer that the Silverstone-based team could select another driver for its second seat.
This site has learned that Pascal Werhlein, Mercedes’ 20-year-old test and reserve driver that the team are keen to promote, had been in contention for a Force India drive, but Mercedes were unable to lower the price of its power units sufficiently as part of the deal to make it worth Force India taking him over Perez.
Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ head of motorsport, recently confirmed to Autosport that negotiations with Force India about Wehrlein’s future had broken down.
Wolff said: “Force India was an opportunity and that door closed. Now it’s about looking at the market overall and the other teams, but we are not under pressure. We need to find the right seat for him.”
Perez is understood to bring approximately €10-12m in sponsorship to Force India and the team is not willing to lose that money if Mercedes will not lower the price of its engines to accommodate Wehrlein as compensation.
Speaking at the Italian Grand Prix last weekend, Perez said that he expected to remain with Force India and that the deal would be announced before the Singapore Grand Prix.
He said: “Obviously I have a contract with the team and, as you know, I have a group of sponsors and we’re trying to make the announcement all together. So from that respect it’s all clear.
“We’re getting into the point where very soon things should be announced. I expect my plans to be announced hopefully before the next race.
“My priority is to stay here. The team is going upwards and is really pushing, and I know the plans of the team so I am really happy to stay here.”
But this site has also learned that Force India could yet help the career of another one of Mercedes’ young drivers, 18-year-old Esteban Ocon. The 2014 European Formula 3 champion – who tested for Force India earlier this year – is highly rated by the team and could form part of the its Friday practice line-up next year, with a deal for eight to ten sessions being discussed.
Werhlein’s hopes for a 2016 F1 drive are not over despite the deal with Force India breaking down, as Wolff also said that he is currently speaking to Manor about an engine deal if the Lotus team is taken over by Renault. That situation would leave Mercedes looking for another team to run its power units if the FIA again grants it dispensation to supply four teams in 2016.
Wehrlein has therefore become a factor in those negotiations as Manor previously ran Ferrari young driver Jules Bianchi before his tragic accident at Suzuka in 2014.
But Wolff explained that a deal for Wehrlein to drive for Manor had not been discussed at this stage.
He said: “We haven’t talked to Manor about drivers yet because I think it’s too early. [But] I’m a keen supporter of Pascal because he’s doing a great job in the DTM and he was an outstanding kid in F3 as well. So I definitely see him having the potential to go into F1.”