At this time each year when the silly season is dying down after the wildest rumors have circulated – usually for most things to remain the same – we start seeing the winners and losers of this year’s carousel. Lewis Hamilton’s shock move to Mercedes was definitely the catalyst for the scrambling for seats which ensued down the grid. With one of the most coveted seats in F1 suddenly available it must have been a frenzy of driver managers at Woking, but the Telmex backing and Sergio Perez’s eye catching performances this year seem to have quickly swayed Martin Whitmarsh, taking the wind out of the sails of Lewis’ announcement with the surprising signing of the young Mexican.
Mclaren is taking another gamble, and the more I think of it I believe the team may have acted too rash in signing Perez. After all, with talents like Hulkenberg and Di Resta available (and probably looking for a way out of Force India) better options were available to them, and aside from PR purposes, there was no reason for MClaren to take such a rushed decision. It seems a bit rash to go for Perez, who – if you can look past the bling of the podiums – seems to be much rougher around the edges than the Force India pairing whose only limiting factor has been the car this year. Instead, it looks like the Hulk will go on to take Perez’s Sauber seat, in the hope the team can produce another great car for next year. This would then make Perez and Hulkenberg the big winners out of the reshuffle brought about by Hamilton’s move and Schumacher’s subsequent retirement..but who are the losers in this affair?
The biggest loser would seem Paul Di Resta. From the time he entered Formula One, he seemed destined to inherit Schumacher’s Mercedes seat once the latter finally chose to retire (again). Heavily backed by Mercedes throughout his career –winning a DTM title on the way – which reportedly came with a good engine deal for his current team Force India, the Scotsman has now been left out to dry. With Rosberg already firmly entrenched and signed on a multi-year deal, Hamilton’s three year contract with the team effectively barred him from following what seemed to be his ‘natural’ line of progression.
Ditching Anthony Hamilton as his manager for Jenson Button’s management company may have come back to haunt him, as with daddy Hamilton’s links at Mclaren who knows what he could have concocted behind the scenes. As it was know, Mclaren were probably reluctant to have both their drivers in the same management stable, especially if one of those drivers co-owned the bloody thing. The future therefore looks pretty unclear for Paul. Within the space of a few months he saw a high chance of a Mercedes seat transform into a scramble to keep a Force India seat.
Not that the Indian team has any reason to sack him, but it’s reasonable to think that if it exists – though the existence of this has always been denied by both parties – the engine deal on the back of Di Resta’s contract will no longer hold, as why would Merc continue to support a driver they do not seem to have a place for anyway in the next few years. With Hulk then taking the Sauber seat, there seems to be no other option higher up the grid for Di Resta but to stay put at FI and hope that the collapse of Vijay’s empire doesn’t bring down the F1 team as well. The team will need money next year, lots of it, and I doubt Mallya will be able to bring the funds needed when he’s not paying staff of his crashing airline. FI may be reduced to having to hire a pay driver in the end, but Paul is probably too good to be ditched by FI.
Perez moving to Mclaren initially seemed to relieve some pressure on Kobayashi to retain his Sauber seat, and his podium in his home country surely encouraged this optimism. However it’s looking likely Sauber will replace Perez with the other Mexican from the Telmex stable, Esteban Gutierrez, so in fact the Perez move did not change much at all for Kobayashi. Even if Sauber decides it’s better for Gutierrez to mature another year in GP2, there is no shortage of candidates for the Sauber drives with their tidy 2012 car. With all the top drives already handed out a Sauber seat is just about the hottest property in F1 right now. Granted, Lotus have not confirmed their line-up for next year but Kimi will stay and unless Grosjean does some more dumb stuff he will also keep his seat. Williams also have not officially confirmed their drivers yet, but with Pastors 28 million, Bruno’s weak performances and Bottas’ obvious talent their 2013 line-up is the worst kept secret of the paddock. That leaves Kamui on the hot spot, with everybody and their momma scrambling to Monisha Kaltenborn’s trailer with their resumes.
As said, if we believe the rumor mill, Hulkenberg is pretty much a shoe in for one of the seats, and the likes of Alguersuari and Buemi have also been linked to a drive with the Swiss team. In a way, it looks like the decision on Kamui has already been made, as even during the high of the Suzuka podium, you could sense the unease between Kamui and the team, the way they looked at him on the podium to me was with eyes full of guilt, not joy for your driver’s first podium. In a way Hamilton’s move gave him some breathing space by at least opening up the second Sauber seat as well, but I’m afraid it will be to no avail for him, unless his Suzuka heroics inspired some Japanese sponsors to start pouring some money into F1 again.
Two other drivers who may have seen some chances to move back up the grid as a result of Hamilton’s move were Kovalainen and Glock. Both veterans must be getting pretty miserable now that for the third year running they are still nowhere near the back of the midfield. Especially Heikki, who till recently always seemed upbeat and motivated seems to have fallen out a bit with Caterham. Glock on the other hand is buoyed by the Marussia upturn in performance, now regularly challenging the Caterhams despite the Marussia’s lack of KERS. While Kovalainen was tentatively linked to a 1 year move to Ferrari those hopes disappeared when Maranello made the silly move of retaining Massa for another year and it doesn’t look like he is seriously in the running for any other rides.
The only uncertainty then remains over the Force India seats and the rest of the backmarkers. If Hulk indeed gets to Sauber, either Bianchi, Alguersuari or Buemi will get the 2nd seat next to Di Resta. Bianchi has a chance by virtue of his test driver role, and the fact that the past 2 FI testers have gone on to have race seats the year after, however I do not think he has much of a shot. After all, he became FI test driver as part of a deal with Ferrari – not by the teams own choice as before with Hulk and Di Resta – and his failure to win the WSR despite all his experience over rookie Frijns surely also speaks against him (though granted, Frijns did punt him off at the title decider, I’d go for the rookie challenging the vet any day). If Bianchi wanted an F1 seat he needed to dominate WSR like Grosjean did last year in GP2. He failed to do so, so I’m afraid his star has faded too much now despite his illustrious early single seater career.
Alguersuari is an interesting prospect to rejoin the grid, as his role as Pirelli test driver this year will surely make him a valuable asset in a formula where tyre management is increasingly important. Equally Buemi has an outsider shot at a drive, as his in depth knowledge of Red Bull as their simulator monkey will surely carry some very valuable pieces of information on the genius of Neweys’ designs.
All these men are thus fighting for the last Force India and Sauber seat, with all that remains available the crumbs with the backmarkers. Despite an impressive rookie season for Charles Pic, Marussia seem to be ready to continue their sad practice of dumping rookies after 1 year as they find an even richer rookie for the next, with Max Chilton all but confirmed to be alongside Glock for 2013. Pic had undeniably had the best rookie season compared to his predecessors, pissing off Glock in the process so it would be wholly undeserved for him to lose his seat to some other rich kid. Then again, Pic himself doesn’t exactly come from a poor household either so who is he to complain. After all, Pic was the bstard who pushed out my compatriot D’Ambrosio.
Even HRT have some sense of clarity and direction this year, with De La Rosa near certain to stay on, but Khartikeyan’s seat will likely be sold to the highest bidder, which could be anybody. Dani Clos may have a shot, considering his role as test driver and the team’s obsession to be more Spanish than King Juan Carlos, but I don’t know if he brings the Tata kind of money Narain can put on the table and cold hard cash is still more important to the team than flagpants.
That leaves us with the Caterham. Petrov’s future in F1 is looking grim as the sponsor money has apparently dried up. While performing more decent than I’d have imagined pre-season, Heikki has still spanked him pretty bad and he hasn’t done anything to warrant another team getting excited about him as a future prospect. Petrov without the money is unlikely to get another year in F1. As said earlier, Kovalainen seems pissed at the team but has no other option but to stay with them and hope for the breakthrough next year. Van Der Garde has been getting some Friday seat time so if he brings enough cash he may wind up next to Heikki for 2013. If he doesn’t, his single seater career is likely to be over. Either way, the 2nd Caterham seat will come down to money again – especially now that Marussia have done a major coup by snatching 10th in the WCC from them, which will surely cost Caterham millions of dollars unless they get very luck with attrition in one of the final races.
The next few months will draw the lines and determine who will fight it out next year. Either at the top or fighting to get out of Q1.
The 2012 season may not even be decided yet, but I’m already excited for 2013!