While many eyes are focused on the driver market rumours swimming around Lotus’ decision to hire either Pastor Maldonado or Nico Hülkenberg as Romain Grosjean’s teammate, F1’s ‘silly season’ is equally as fluid on the last two rows of the grid.
Having dithered in selecting its driver line-up for 2013, Caterham doesn’t want to put the same pressure on itself heading into the 2014 season.
Both incumbent drivers, Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic, are under consideration to be retained for next season, but the pair are also in talks with other teams further up the grid, conscious of the fact that the team’s highly-regarded reserve driver, Heikki Kovalainen, is waiting in the wings.
In what senior figures in the team privately admit was “a mistake”, Kovalainen was dropped at the last minute from the team’s line-up, with the outfit opting for the youth – and ample funding – brought by former GP2 Series racewinner van der Garde, and Charles Pic, who had spent his maiden F1 season with Marussia.
While both have proven to be quite competitive in the one-year-old car, neither comes blessed with the technical knowledge that someone like Kovalainen possessed, and when he was called back into the reserve driver fold before the end of the first run of flyaway races, both of the main drivers started to look over their shoulders.
If the team is serious about working its way off the back of the grid in 2014, it needs to finalise its line-up as soon as possible – a fact that team principal Cyril Abiteboul admitted to reporters during last weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
“Consistency is a good thing, so one of the options is that we continue with the two drivers that we have, building on the relationship that we have started,” he said.
“But everything is changing anyway, so I think one thing we want is someone who is reliable in his feedback because we will have to develop the car during the season.
“We didn’t develop much the car this season, [but] next season will be a totally different ball game – in particular the start of the season, when everything will be new – so experience might be something that is interesting.
“More than anything I think someone who’s capable of being almost transparent and providing the most accurate feedback as possible to the engineers who’re trying to understand how the car is working, is something that will be important for us.”
The Finn brings nothing in terms of financial backing, which the team will even more desperately need if it fails to snatch tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship standings from Marussia over the final two races.
So that swings the momentum back to Pic and van der Garde – however, both are also sniffing around for better seats, just in case one or either of them suddenly finds themselves unemployed…
Pic is on a multi-year deal with Caterham, bringing with him some commercial support from Caterham’s engine partner, Renault, as well as several million Euros in backing from his father’s massive freight and haulage business in his homeland.
Pic’s manager, former Grand Prix driver Olivier Panis, confirmed to Canal Plus that he was canvassing Pic’s services with other teams, although he declined to name which teams (Force India and Sauber are the most logical).
“Stability is important for Charles, but we have been approached by other teams, we must listen to what’s going on,” he said. “I think that all decisions will [take] longer than last year, maybe to the end of the year. However, Charles will be in F1 next year.”
“The logic would be to stay here,” Pic told us during our exclusive interview with him during the Indian Grand Prix a fortnight ago.
“I’m feeling happy in the team, but you cannot be sure of anything because the market is very open.”
Van der Garde’s management are making similar noises. The lanky racer is on a one-year deal with the team and comes equipped with a few million in sponsorship from Dutch clothing retailer, McGregor, which is owned by his father-in-law.
The Dutchman’s management is also making approaches to Force India and Sauber, while Williams would also be in the mix should the team fail to conclude a much-expected deal with Felipe Massa.
“We have four teams who have serious interest in Giedo,” his manager, Jan-Paul ten Hoopen, told De Telegraaf.
“All want to keep the lines open with us, and there will certainly be follow-up appointments. However, the musical chairs in F1 is just like playing in a casino – nothing is certain.”
“We’re looking at several options and the focus is on trying to get a good seat,” van der Garde told us during the Indian Grand Prix weekend.
“I just have to keep on performing well. The market is quite open, but there are a lot of drivers hunting for drives.”