Sauber has announced the first of its lead drivers for the 2013 season, making the not-unexpected announcement that Nico Hülkenberg will move from Force India to join the Hinwil-based squad.
Hülkenberg is widely considered to be one of F1’s great up-and-coming prospects, having swept to championship titles in a host of junior categories – including the 2009 GP2 crown – before he made his F1 debut with Williams in 2010.
His highlight was a wet-weather pole position at the penultimate round at Sao Paulo, before he was sensationally dropped from the team’s line-up at the end of the year in favour of the better-funded Pastor Maldonado.
He found solace with a late call-up to Force India as the team’s reserve driver, before being promoted to the team’s race line-up this year. In his first year with the team, he’s largely outperformed the incumbent Paul di Resta, and currently sits twelfth overall in the Drivers’ Championship standings with nine points-paying finishes to-date.
“That was the case in GP2 and has continued into Formula 1. An obvious highlight was how he scored pole at Interlagos in 2010 despite the most challenging external conditions. He clearly showed that he can seize the chance if it arises.
“But high spots like that are one thing; systematic teamwork is another – and on that score I have confidence in Nico too. I’m sure he will fit in very well with the Sauber F1 Team. We look forward to working together with him.”
“I’m really looking forward to working with the Sauber F1 Team,” added Hülkenberg.
“It’s a well-placed team and very competitive. Plus it’s a team in which young drivers have repeatedly delivered exceptional performances. I would like to take up that baton. The Sauber F1 Team is currently going through a very positive development and I’m certain that together we can achieve a lot.”
Sauber currently lies 23 points clear of Force India in the battle for sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship standings, so one could argue that this move amounts to a small step forward for the German.
However, given the Swiss team’s longstanding ties with engine partner Ferrari, the move could be astute – one would not be surprised to see this being part of a longer-term strategy to move to the Italian carmaker’s works team in the coming years.
Sauber also confirmed that it will reveal the identity of Hülkenberg’s team-mate in due course.
The team has a number of possible choices available to it, with the logical choice – for the sake of continuity at least – being to re-sign Kamui Kobayashi.
The Japanese driver has delivered some sparkling results – not least of which being his front-row qualifying effort at Spa-Francorchamps, and his podium on home soil at Suzuka – but he has also suffered some major bouts of inconsistency, such as being soundly outperformed by Sergio Perez last weekend at the Indian Grand Prix. It is also believed that his being re-signed could be contingent on him bringing in more sponsorship from his homeland.
Other rumoured options are the team’s reserve driver, Esteban Gutierrez – whose appointment would please the team’s many Mexican sponsors – along with up-and-coming junior racer Robert Frijns, and currently-sidelined racers Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari.
The announcement also means that Force India will have to source a replacement for Hülkenberg next year. The team also has a choice of drivers available to choose from, with the frontrunner believed to be reserve driver Jules Bianchi. Also in the mix are Alguersuari and – more recently – the team’s former driver Adrian Sutil.