This weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix potentially marks a last-gasp opportunity for a number of this year’s drivers to deliver a performance that could decide whether or not they remain on the Formula 1 grid next year.
Only thirteen of the twenty-two seats on next year’s grid have been locked in, and the occupants of the remainder of the grid will be determined by either talent or sponsorship backing, or a combination of the two…
Currently, Red Bull Racing, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren, Williams and Toro Rosso already have their line-ups sorted, while Marussia has confirmed one its seats, re-signing Jules Bianchi for another year as part of its new deal to use Ferrari customer engines next year.
Of the five teams to have cemented their full driver line-ups next year, all bar Mercedes (which has Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton on multi-year contracts) have made at least one change.
Red Bull Racing promoted Daniel Ricciardo from Toro Rosso to replace the retiring Mark Webber, leaving Toro Rosso to hire Russian teenager Daniil Kvyat from Red Bull’s junior driving academy.
Kimi Räikkönen will return to the Ferrari fold as Fernando Alonso’s teammate after two years with Lotus, meaning Felipe Massa was out of a drive, successfully negotiating a deal to join Williams as Valtteri Bottas’ teammate.
McLaren also changed its driver line-up for the second time in as many seasons, sacking Sergio Pérez after a disappointing run of performances and hiring its very promising development driver, Kevin Magnussen.
All of this means that Lotus, Sauber, Force India and Caterham have – potentially – two seats apiece up for grabs, while Marussia is still to confirm a teammate for Jules Bianchi.
Lotus’ driver line-up decision will prove to be the domino that will no doubt trigger a number of other movements. After a string of excellent drives, Romain Grosjean is a dead certainty to remain with the team, while the identity of his teammate will be contingent upon whether its long-awaited cash injection from the Quantum investment consortium ever arrives.
Should it not materialise – and most are believing that this is becoming ever more likely – then Pastor Maldonado will be certain to get the seat. The Venezuelan comes armed with many millions in backing from his country’s national petroleum group, PDVSA, and the funding he brings will be critical to Lotus’ long-term future.
After being given the boot by McLaren, Sergio Pérez could also be a player for the seat. The sport will need Mexican representation on the grid – given that the country will return to the F1 calendar in 2015 – and Pérez remains a popular and well-financed driver, enjoying long-term backing from Carlos Slim Jr’s telco groups back home, which helped bankroll his F1 debut with Sauber.
Should, by some miracle, the Quantum money appear, then Nico Hülkenberg remains best-placed to take the seat. There is no doubt that Hülkenberg would be the better fit from a talent and technical feedback standpoint, but the German is growing increasingly impatient with the uncertainty and reports are firming that he is also being courted by Force India, and now Sauber.
LIKELY: Romain Grosjean
CONTENDERS: Pastor Maldonado, Nico Hülkenberg, Davide Valsecchi
OUR PREDICTED LINE-UP: Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado
The Swiss outfit’s financial situation is not too dissimilar to Lotus’, although its problems are comparatively smaller. The team recently signed a deal with a group of Russian investors to help prop up its finances, but not all of the money has arrived and nothing is completely certain until it does.
Should the cash appear, then Hülkenberg could remain on board – a potentially smart move given the rate of progress the team has made in the second half of the season.
Quite who will get the second seat remains to be seen. Esteban Gutiérrez has proven wildly inconsistent in his debut year with the team and is probably more of a liability than an asset at this stage. That being said, he could well settle down an improve if given the opportunity to race for a second year.
Commercial backing will almost undoubtedly be a factor determining who gets the drive with the Hinwil team, and if Gutiérrez is dumped, then it’s probably a toss-up between its very inexperienced test driver Sergey Sirotkin (whose father is part of the said Russian investment group) Sergio Pérez, and – perhaps – Pastor Maldonado, or Caterham’s Giedo van der Garde.
CONTENDERS: Pastor Maldonado, Nico Hülkenberg, Esteban Gutiérrez, Sergio Pérez, Giedo van der Garde, Sergey Sirotkin
OUR PREDICTED LINE-UP: Nico Hülkenberg and either one of the Mexicans
Force India also has two seats open and again, money will probably be a factor in securing at least one of the seats. Maldonado is reportedly sniffing around there too, but Hülkenberg also remains in contention there.
Incumbent drivers Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta shouldn’t be discounted either, although it’s looking increasingly likely that di Resta – who is not a popular member within the team and has a difficult relationship with the F1 press – will not be retained, despite out-scoring Sutil.
Should that be the case, expect to see the Scot return to the DTM championship or possibly make a switch to the IndyCar Series, where he has been linked with taking over the seat at Chip Ganassi Racing vacated by his cousin, Dario Franchitti, who announced his medically-forced retirement last week.
LIKELY: Adrian Sutil
CONTENDERS: Paul di Resta, Nico Hülkenberg, Pastor Maldonado, James Calado
OUR PREDICTED LINE-UP: Adrian Sutil and James Calado
Further down the grid, Caterham is caught between its need for more finances while also having a line-up with enough experience to help develop its 2014 car.
Perhaps it paid for its decision to dump two experienced drivers – Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov – for the well-backed but inexperienced pair of Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde.
Certainly the cash both brought with them helped keep the team’s finances relatively healthy, but its decision to pair them in a barely updated version of last year’s car has seen the team languish in last place behind Marussia in the Constructors’ Championship since the beginning of the season.
Barring a miracle at this weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix, the team is likely to lose out on any Constructors’ Championship prizemoney and that will place further pressure on the team to take on drivers with cash.
While Pic was signed on a ‘multi-year’ deal after his debut season with Marussia, the Frenchman has largely been outperformed by rookie teammate van der Garde. The commercial backing that both bring will continue to make them attractive prospects, but waiting in the wings is Kovalainen, who was rehired as the team’s reserve driver to aid in the development of its troubled CT03 racer and is now acting as a substitute driver for Lotus.
LIKELY: Heikki Kovalainen
CONTENDERS: Charles Pic, Alexander Rossi, Giedo van der Garde
OUR PREDICTED LINE-UP: Heikki Kovalainen and Giedo van der Garde
Marussia has just one seat to fill to complete its 2014 line-up, and while its rehiring of Jules Bianchi almost certainly came with some sort of financial incentive from Ferrari, the second seat is certain to go to the highest bidder.
Incumbent driver Max Chilton has healthy backing from the AON insurance giant (which is run by his father), but the Englishman has not been able to hold a candle to Bianchi all year.
Added to that González has proven to be hopelessly slow in his Friday practice outings for the team.
Who will land up getting the second seat remains a mystery, and it’s quite possible that either van der Garde or Pic could find themselves beating down Marussia’s door if they’re not retained by Caterham.
CONFIRMED: Jules Bianchi
CONTENDERS: Max Chilton, Rodolfo González, Charles Pic, Giedo van der Garde
OUR PREDICTED LINE-UP: Jules Bianchi and whoever has the fattest wallet