While Lotus may have confirmed that Kimi Räikkönen will be missing in action for the remainder of the season while he undergoes back surgery ahead of his switch to Ferrari, the Enstone team is still to confirm who will step in as his replacement for the remaining two races in the United States and Brazil.
In its media release, the team said: “[We] will make an announcement about the replacement driver for the United States and Brazilian Grands Prix in due course.”
What was interesting was the absence – or delay – in confirming that the team’s highly-rated reserve driver, Davide Valsecchi, would get the nod.
Now Valsecchi – a former GP2 Series champion, no less – is a pretty handy peddler, but his speed in other categories won’t necessarily translate into being able to deliver the same performance in a car he’s barely driven all year.
The same was evident last year, when Jérôme d’Ambrosio was called up to the Italian Grand Prix to substitute for Romain Grosjean – who’d been banned for a race. The Belgian could only manage a thirteenth-placed finish in a car that was clearly capable of top-six finishes all year long. That’s not a slight on d’Ambrosio; it’s just the state of play when testing is so heavily restricted and most teams don’t give their reserve drivers an opportunity to drive.
Lotus is obviously very keen to acquire the service of Nico Hülkenberg, having made this clear on a number of occasions since Räikkönen’s departure to Ferrari was confirmed.
Were he available before the end of the year, then he would be a better choice than Valsecchi: notwithstanding his recent performances, it would also give him the opportunity to familiarise himself with the team environment ahead of a full season for the Enstone team in 2014.
But he’d only do that if he had an iron-clad guarantee of a full-time gig with Lotus – and given their history of not paying drivers this year, that’s no certainty either…
Whoever Lotus picks, the team will have to very seriously consider in light of the fact that it is rapidly closing in on snatching third place from Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship standings.
The Asian flyaway races have seen the team consistently outscore Ferrari (106-75 since Singapore), which have moved it to within 26 points of the Italian squad with two races to go, and the millions of extra cash on offer would be very helpful to Lotus if it could overhaul the red cars.
Certainly for Ferrari, Räikkönen’s absence is a blessing. No doubt Ferrari may have applied some pressure – and perhaps some cash (we’re being really cheeky here!) – on the Finn to ensure he’s match fit in time for next year.
Räikkönen’s decision for early surgery, therefore, swings the balance back in favour of Ferrari in its defence of its third place in the Constructors’ Championship.
It’s all looking very interesting at the moment, but Lotus’ non-confirmation of Valsecchi would certainly suggest that something else is up…