Not surprisingly, Caterham’s decision to dump its experienced driver line-up for an F1 debutant and a sophomore – both of whom come will considerable funding – has been meet with stinging criticism from those close to the team’s two outcasts, Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov.
Both are the latest in a long list of drivers who have found themselves shoved aside by better-funded drivers, as Formula 1 looks to pay drivers to help cover for shortfalls in sponsorship income.
When Caterham announced that it had signed Marussia rookie Charles Pic, that news effectively spelt the end of the road for either Petrov or Kovalainen, and then the subsequent appointment of van der Garde sealed the fate of both.
Pic comes well supported by his father’s trucking business, while van der Garde enjoys the long-time backing of Dutch clothing house McGregor, which is chaired by his father-in-law.
“In the end they chose money over skill,” former Grand Prix driver Mika Salo, a compatriot and friend of Kovalainen, told Finnish broadcaster MTV3.
When news of Kovalainen’s dumping broke over the weekend, Kovalainen remained silent about the matter. Some media figures have suggested – we think unkindly – that the 31-year-old former Grand Prix winner feels his F1 career is now finished.
Not so, says Salo.
“I think he can still come back,” the 46-year-old said, whose greatest career highlight came with a ‘moral’ win at the 1999 German Grand Prix while substituting for the injured Michael Schumacher.
“It often happens that there are new, young drivers, but their song can be short if they make a lot of mistakes,” Salo added. “That’s when people start looking around again for an experienced professional.”
The sentiment is echoed by Petrov’s manager, Oksana Kosachenko, who has blamed the current economic environment and corporate Russia for the 28-year-old former podium finisher not being on the 2013 grid.
Ironically, Petrov was branded a pay driver when he first made his F1 debut in 2010, but he silenced his critics by scoring his maiden podium finish in his second season of Grand Prix racing.
“I believe that a driver who has shown his possibilities in Formula 1 within three years deserves to be supported. We have to do something to promote the Sochi Grand Prix, and this is a bad mistake they are doing,” she told R-Sport.
“Formula one is really expensive at the moment,” she lamented.
“Actually it isn’t a sport at the moment, it’s tending to be a show, and I believe that we have more and more and more rental drivers.”
So what are the next prospects for Petrov?
“We have a few offers for Vitaly to stay in F1 and around the paddock, so we have to decide what is the best for him,” she added, admitting that it was not in her interests to get him a race seat outside F1.