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The drivers market remains stalled…

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It’s now mid-September and no 2010 driver announcements have been made since Mark Webber was confirmed to be remaining at Red Bull Racing  back in July. Clearly, driver negotiations have been going on but deals have not yet been confirmed due to something holding the process up, namely the question of where Fernando Alonso will be driving next year. It remains likely he will move to Ferrari, as it seems that the FIA will not implicate him in “Crashgate”. When it will be announced remains a mystery – the Ferrari World Finals at Valencia in November is a possibility. That is extraordinarily late, given that most driver decisions are taken during the summer months.

Although he may get a reprieve if Alonso is implicated in “Crashgate”, it seems Kimi Raikkonen’s future will not be at Maranello, with rumours linking him to Renault, Brawn and McLaren. The rumoured Renault deal that was to have been coupled to Nokia sponsorship seems unlikely, leaving it between the Mercedes-powered teams. The situation has changed recently due to Mercedes’ rumoured purchase of Brawn. Merc want to bring Nico Rosberg into one of their teams as they are keen to finally bring onboard a German driver – before this year, the last German to race a Mercedes-powered F1 car was Sauber’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen back in 1994. Initially, they wanted to place him with McLaren alongside Lewis Hamilton, but Nico’s father Keke had his reservations about his son entering “Team Hamilton” as driver number 1.5 in the team. The Brawn-Merc deal has thus opened the way for him to join the team, probably in place of Rubens Barrichello, although there continues to be murmuring that Brawn aren’t offering Jenson Button the money he feels he deserves and that Mercedes aren’t keen on the championship leader.

As a result, this leaves the second McLaren open to be contested by F1’s two Finns. Heikki Kovalainen’s performances this year have been very disappointing, continuing his poor run of form from the second half of last year. Thus it would make sense to get rid of him and replace him with Raikkonen, who is still much-admired at Woking. Such a move would probably guarantee Raikkonen’s presence in the sport for at least 2 or 3 more years, ending speculation about a move to the WRC. This could only be good news for the sport. A Raikkonen-Hamilton match-up, the first union of world champions as team mates since the Prost-Senna days, would be very good news for the sport. But this is by no means confirmed – Raikkonen could still walk away, as many people believe he will do, or could yet remain at Ferrari for another season to see out his contract if Alonso doesn’t join after all.

This could be potentially bad news for a number of drivers’ ambitions to switch teams. Robert Kubica is one such driver, who at the moment appears to be heading to Renault, the team that used to back him up until 2006. If Alonso was to remain there, Kubica probably wouldn’t be able to join, as the team are likely to retain Romain Grosjean. This is complicated by the fact that Kubica himself is after a Ferrari drive in 2011 when both Raikkonen and Felipe Massa are out of contract, and wants just a one year deal. It was initially thought that Flavio Briatore would not be able to offer him this. It has also been rumoured that Briatore blocked a potential engine supply deal for Williams to stop them signing up Kubica. But now, in the aftermath of the latest scandal, Briatore is gone, so it is possible that Kubica could end up at Williams, but he will have competition from Rubens Barrichello, who is still willing to prolong his career. And given that he’s leading the fight to Button, why not?

There is another aspect to the Renault situation, and that is the future of the team. No word has been given on Briatore’s replacement, but both Pitpass and Speed are reporting that David Richards is set to return to lead his former team. This would be an unusual move, given that Richards has his own ambitions of getting Prodrive and Aston Martin into F1 in the next few years, preferably with a Mercedes engine supply. So it is natural to conclude that if that was the case, Richards may soon end up buying the team from Renault.

This would make sense for DR – when he initially entered the 2008 F1 season, he announced plans to build a brand new state-of-the-art factory in Warwickshire called The Fulcrum, but the plans have since fallen through. Thus Prodrive’s facilities are still lacking, and Enstone would be a nice acquisition if he is serious about stepping up. He could then use the 2010 Renault designs for himself whilst perhaps snatching the 4th Mercedes supply, given that a Williams deal is definitely off and McLaren have seemingly vetoed Red Bull’s bid for them. Alternatively, he could keep hold of the Renault supply and wait a bit longer – with the McLaren-Mercedes relationship growing evermore strained, he could sit back and wait until McLaren’s Merc contract is finished at the end of 2011. This is quite convenient, given that the initial rumours of the Prodrive team being rebranded Aston Martin (if granted an entry into the championship next year, which of course didn’t happen) said that the rebranding would happen in 2012. Richards is keen to hook up with Mercedes as part of a plan to do a Merc engine supply deal for AM road cars. But this is all speculation based on bits of rumour – we don’t even know for certain if Richards will be taking the helm at Renault yet…

As for Williams, they have been left in the lurch by a number of different groups. On the driving front, Rosberg is seemingly about to depart but hasn’t yet confirmed it. Sir Frank has always stated his desire to see a “top driver” replace him, and Barrichello and Kubica would fit the bill. Kovalainen is another name that has been linked to the team. But, in my opinion, the driver they should be looking at as the man to lead them back to the front is Nico Hulkenberg, their current tester and newly-crowned GP2 Series champion. Hulkenberg is thought to be a prime candidate for a drive, and with good reason, given that he’s won championships in everything he’s driven – Formula BMW, Formula 3, A1 GP and now GP2. The guy’s a future star.

Meanwhile, there remains the question of an engine supply. Patrick Head has said that a Mercedes deal is off, rumoured to again be because of McLaren’s veto, and there seems little chance of a reconciliation with Toyota, thereby removing Kazuki Nakajima from the picture as well. This leaves the team with two options – a reunion with Renault or a reunion with Cosworth. The Renault situation seems to depend on 1) what engines Red Bull are using next year and 2) what will happen to the Renault works team. Red Bull are rumoured to still talking to Mercedes and have been for most of the year, and there has also been a recent suggestion that they could take a Ferrari supply. There are complications with both, due to McLaren’s veto and the fact that Ferrari want to supply Sauber and already supply Toro Rosso. They may well be forced to stick with Renault, leaving Williams to get Cossies. But this itself is complicated because the Cossies are thought to be underpar, perhaps slowing the cars by up to 3-4 seconds a lap. This would not be something Williams would want when they are trying to attract a Kubica or Barrichello and trying to keep hold of one of the hottest young talents about.

What would make sense is if Renault were to sell their works team to, I don’t know, David Richards perhaps? He could then get the last Mercedes deal, allowing Renault to continue with Red Bull and restart their relationship with the team they are most associated with as an engine supplier. Again, it fits into place but it’s just pure speculation…

Toyota have been very quiet recently on the driver front. They had said that Jarno Trulli was likely to not be retained, so you would think they’d have a solution to that already. Knowing how ambitious Toyota are, this could be a big name – they were known to be chasing Raikkonen and thought to be chasing Button. But Toyota are still a midfield team, wasting away millions on trying to get to the front but to no avail – no top driver is going to be willing to commit to such an erratic team. So it could well be that due to their big budget cuts, they will have to go with a cheap and cheerful option – possibly Kazuki Nakajima. This would make sense as he is backed by the Japanese manufacturer already and is likely to be out of work next year. But he is also not that good. Things would have to be pretty desperate at Cologne for them to take him on – it would surely be a purely nationality-driven signing, which isn’t good for a team owned by the world’s biggest car manufacturer. A more talented (but probably more expensive) alternative would be Heikki Kovalainen.

At the moment, it doesn’t look like Toyota will be supplying engines to another team, but I wouldn’t rule it out just yet. Lotus are now officially on the entry list for 2010, and they have Cosworth engines. But Lotus’ road cars use Toyota engines, and given that Cosworth may not want to be supplying 4 or 5 teams in their first year back in F1, surely a Lotus-Toyota partnership on track would be a logical conclusion. This could open a door for Nakajima, whose father drove for Lotus for 3 years, partly at the behest of Honda. For the romantics among us, it would then be pretty special if Kazuki was to be joined at Lotus by Bruno Senna, but it seems the Malaysians want one of their own in a race seat. That would probably mean that Fairuz Fauzy, a race winner in A1 GP, GP2 Asia and the World Series by Renault, is likely to make a return to F1, having previously been Spyker test driver.

Another Cosworth team that has been linked to a Toyota supply is US F1. The ambitious American outfit has been rumoured for a while to be looking to switch now their entry has been secured (perhaps some of the other teams that are now complaining about the entry system should’ve thought of that as well), and Toyota are thought to be prime candidates. The Japanese marque has been successful in motor racing Stateside in CART, the IRL and NASCAR, and are now a big player in the American market, so it makes sense. This could lead to a reunion with Toyota power for former Toyota tester Franck Montagny, rumoured to be in contention for a drive with the team. Also in contention is Alexander Wurz, the Austrian thought to be on the verge of coming out of retirement for a 2nd full-time F1 comeback – he also has experience of the Toyota motor from his time at Williams. The token young American is still expected to be Jonathan Summerton, who is currently battling for the Atlantic Championship with Simona de Silvestro and John Edwards. However, stories from Argentina have suggested that Jose Maria Lopez is a contender – the former Renault youngster, now racing touring cars in his home country, would surely be bringing money, so if the stories aren’t just optimistic ramblings from the Argentinean press and US F1 are genuinely chasing him, that would suggest they are struggling for money…

The Sauber team has also been in the news recently with its purchase by the mysterious Swiss-Middle Eastern company Qadbak. A new team name is yet to be decided but it looks likely that the team will once again have Ferrari engines at its disposal. The latest rumour is that Giancarlo Fisichella, confirmed as Ferrari’s reserve driver for next year, is to come with the engines as an extra. Ferrari are keen for him to stay race-fresh, so a reunion for Fisi with his former team makes sense. He is likely to be joined by Nick Heidfeld, who recently ruled out joining one of the new teams due to the uncertainty surrounding them. The irony is the team he is with now isn’t guaranteed a place on the grid, but at this stage I doubt a solution won’t be found to keep them in F1.

Sauber tester Christian Klien had stated his desire to step up to racing for the team next season, but Fisichella’s arrival would mean he wouldn’t be able to. As a result, he may be forced to go elsewhere in order to return to racing after a 3 year absence, despite joining Heidfeld in scepticism about the prospects of the new teams. He has recently been linked to Manor, who are set to be confirmed as the Virgin F1 Team at Abu Dhabi. They are also said to be after Anthony Davidson, Adam Carroll and Lucas di Grassi, all of whom have F1 testing experience at the very least. John Booth has also been spotted talking to World Series by Renault champion-elect Bertrand Baguette, who recently confirmed that he has been talking to a number of F1 teams, both current and new. The Portuguese press have also suggested Alvaro Parente is in with a chance of a drive, but as with Lopez and US F1, this could just be over-optimistic rumour.

The other new team, Campos, was expected to confirm its drivers at Valencia, but didn’t. Pedro de la Rosa has been strongly linked there, but was said to be waiting to see whether Epsilon Euskadi took the 13th spot on the grid. They didn’t, so it would probably now be safe to assume that he’s on his way to Campos. Along with Pedro, the team is expected to sign Vitaly Petrov, who is expected to finish as runner-up in GP2. The Russian drove for Campos in the series until the GP2 arm was taken over by Alejandro Agag and renamed Addax. Petrov remained with the team this year and has shown great improvement, proving a match for highly-rated team mate Grosjean. But what’s probably more important is the Russian money he brings. The team is also thought to have done sponsorship deals with Telefonica and Santander rival BBVA.

The only other teams on the entry list next year are the teams currently lying 9th and 10th in the World Constructors Championship – Force India and Toro Rosso. The former’s future seemed clouded recently with rumours that Vijay Mallya had built up debts to Ferrari and Mercedes and was looking to sell out to Prodrive. But these rumours have now disappeared with impressive performances in Belgium and Italy and Fisichella’s move to Ferrari. Mallya has indicated that he is likely to keep the services of Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi, with simulator trials for Neel Jani and Karun Chandhok to help decide who to take on as test driver for 2010.

As for Toro Rosso, they also seem likely to keep Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari, but British F3 champion Daniel Ricciardo looms on the horizon – the Australian is highly likely to get a test in a Red Bull or Toro Rosso in the winter. The situation at Red Bull as a whole is quite interesting, with Ricciardo and Brendon Hartley top of the pile in the Red Bull Junior programme. This will keep the pressure on Alguersuari and Buemi to perform

But it isn’t just the youngsters that are under threat – Mark Webber must be wary of all 4. As I said at the very beginning of this, his contract extension was confirmed as long ago as July, but he was only given a contract until the end of 2010, with the team unwilling to give him the long term deal he wanted. With Vettel now on the team’s books for at least another 2 years (with an option for 2012 as well), the pressure is on Webber to maintain his form. But even then, the common sense approach would be for Red Bull to build the team around Vettel in much the same way as Benetton built their team around another promising young German back in the 1990s, something they decided to do very early on. In Buemi, they have a young driver that hasn’t done much out of the ordinary, suggesting  he may not be a world beater. So surely it would thus make sense for Red Bull to promote Buemi and make him number 1.5/number 2 to Vettel, dropping Webber in the process and effectively replacing him in the Red Bull F1 ranks with the other Australian Ricciardo. But that’s for 2011 – there’s a long way to go before then…

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Written by James Bennett

September 17, 2009 at 20:27

One Response

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  1. Hmmm, quite an effort and an interesting read but Eddie knows different :)

    Stuart

    September 17, 2009 at 22:49


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