With Kimi Räikkönen signing a two-year contract to race for Lotus Renault GP (or what will become Lotus in 2012), his appointment has still created more questions than it has answered over who will be his team-mate…
Vitaly Petrov apparently holds a contract that runs through to the end of the 2012 season, so all logic suggests that he should be Räikkönen’s team-mate next year.
However, the Russian will be well aware that his team-mate, Nick Heidfeld, was summarily dumped mid-season, and that despite him having his own contract, it’s still a piece of paper at the end of the day.
He certainly didn’t help his cause with his recent dummy-spit on Russian TV where he roundly criticised the team’s performance in the latter half of the year.
Reports from his homeland have suggested that his manager, Oksana Kosachenko, rushed to the team’s Enstone base in the hours after Räikkönen’s signing was announced to gain assurances that her client was still part of the team’s plans for 2012.
And it would seem that her worst fears have been realised. She told Moscow-based news agency Ria Novosti: “After today’s decision was announced, I was given a very short amount of time, literally ten days. We have until December 10 to decide if Vitaly stays or leaves.”
While Petrov has performed well this year – claiming his first podium at the Australian Grand Prix – he is an attractive prospect to the team, which is looking to broaden its sponsorship base. With Russia set to host its first Grand Prix in 2013 at the resort city of Sochi, it makes commercial sense to keep Petrov on board.
However, there are a queue of other drivers jostling for position to claim the second seat alongside Räikkönen: Romain Grosjean, Bruno Senna, while (if rumours are to be believed) Adrian Sutil, Rubens Barrichello and Heikki Kovalainen are also rumoured to be in consideration. And let’s not forget Robert Kubica, whose recovery could throw yet another spanner in the works…
To look at them individually, this year’s GP2 champion Grosjean is probably the most favoured of the bunch, with his cause being helped by him being managed by team principal Eric Boullier. But the team’s woeful performance in the second half of the season has Boullier’s position apparently under threat. It might not be best to add further change to an already destabilised team, but ultimately it will be for the team owners to decide if Eric (in the absence of other suitable candidates) is the ideal front man for the team.
Bruno Senna comes with some good backing from his personal sponsors, but he’s not done any better a job than Nick Heidfeld (the man he replaced) could have done in the car, and he’s often looked decidedly race-rusty. He picked up two of the team’s paltry tally of five points it scored in the second half of the season, but his collision with Michael Schumacher and subsequent drive-through penalty at Brazil last weekend won’t have helped his chances. He is, at best, a long shot.
Adrian Sutil’s standing will ultimately depend on what his current employer, Force India, decides to do. It promised it would have its decision made and announced before the Brazilian Grand Prix, but it’s little surprise that this promise wasn’t fulfilled. Ideally, the team wants to promote Nico Hulkenberg and keep Paul di Resta at the expense of Sutil, but he’s had a stellar season to finish ninth in the Drivers’ Championship, and booting him will be a decision that’s now even tougher to make. He’s also rumoured to be lining up a drive at Williams next season.
The thought of him joining LRGP would be odd to say the least. Not only have he and Räikkönen had their fare share of collisions in the past, but his situation has been further complicated by the fact that the team’s co-owner Eric Lux has launched criminal proceedings against Sutil, claiming he was stabbed in the neck with a champagne flute in Shanghai. His joining the team would be the ultimate PR coup!
Barrichello ended his wretched season in the dreadful Williams with a solid – although again, point-less – drive on home soil, which is widely tipped to be his last appearance in F1. He’s not helped his cause with some serious moaning to the press this year (hardly a way to motivate the troops), and if Williams really wanted his services next year, one feels they’d have snapped him up long ago. If ever there seems to be an example of someone in total denial about their time being past, then sadly Barrichello is it.
The more obscure suggestion is that Heikki Kovalainen could team up with his old employers at Enstone, having made his debut with the team in 2007. This would only really be likely if his current employed (Team Lotus / Caterham) decided to take on Daniel Ricciardo, as is rumoured, and not jettison Jarno Trulli. Equally, Kovalainen’s team boss Tony Fernandes has gone on the record and categorically stated that he won’t let the impressive Finn out of his clutches. Additionally, two Finns in the same line-up is a narrow marketing window for LRGP.
And finally, there’s still the matter of Robert Kubica. We speculated last week that his manager’s dummy-spit over the wording of his press release) which confirmed he still wasn’t race-fit) was the start of a ploy to disengage the Pole from the team, and give him scope to approach Ferrari for a test driver role next year, in readiness for a full-time return in 2013.
But Renault has still insisted that it wants to hold talks with Kubica about him being able to join the team at some stage in 2012, thereby kicking out whoever the team decides to field as Räikkönen’s team-mate at the start of the season.
But the team is only going to enter into such a commitment – of giving Kubica extensive running in an older car – if he offers the team a long-term commitment to stay.
“I need to sit down with Robert and his manager to understand what is the timescale for him to come back,” Eric Boullier told AUTOSPORT yesterday.
“We have confirmed Kimi and we will confirm the second seat when we are ready to confirm it.”
The team would be brilliantly placed to have a motivated Räikkönen and a race-fit Kubica on board in its quest to move up the grid. It’s just a question of what the team ultimately decides to do…
So who do you think will be Kimi Räikkönen’s team-mate for the 2012 season?