Insight: Left on the sidelines?

Insight: Left on the sidelines?

3 January 2012 – Amazingly, no less than 11 drivers who contested Grands Prix in 2011 are currently still on the lookout for 2012 F1 race seats. Problem: only two vacancies remain on the grid. Result: a selection of reputable names are to be left on the sidelines this year. takes a look at the who’s, whys and wheres…

The 2012 Formula 1 World Championship has all the hallmarks of a truly fantastic year: 20 Grands Prix at a superb variety of circuits across 19 countries, including a much-anticipated return to America. We also have six World Champions on the grid for the first time ever, bettering what was already a record of five this time last year. So just why are so many peddlers going to be left unhappy?

The 2012 driver market always was going to be tight, even before the surprise reappearance of Pedro de la Rosa at HRT and the F1 comeback for Kimi Räikkönen with Lotus (LRGP). Add to the mix that both former Toro Rosso and LRGP drivers have been replaced, and the fact that Nico Hülkenberg had always been promised a Force India position, and you are naturally left with a somewhat crowded substitutes’ bench.

The ‘substitutes’ in question are the following (in alphabetical order):

Country: Spain
Age: 21
F1 career: 2009-2011 (Toro Rosso)
Race starts: 46
Best result: 7th (x2)

What happened? Jaime really couldn’t have done more in 2011. He acknowledged early on that Toro Rosso had to ‘push’ and push he did. His technical finesse was clearly demonstrated through various team radio communications in practice sessions throughout the season and, as he promised early on in the year, he pinpointed the issues and then worked hard to develop the car further. Qualifying was a weak point but that didn’t stop him notching up an impressive seven top ten finishes and comfortably beating team-mate Sébastien Buemi by 11 points in the final standings.

What now? Tricky situation…Alguersuari and his management have rather sensibly stayed quiet since the bad news came. A Red Bull reserve role is possible, although Buemi seems to be the favoured option. HRT would very likely have signed him had the surprise Toro Rosso exit come before announcing F1 returnee Pedro de la Rosa; however, due to the natural commercial interest of two Spanish drivers in the only ever Spanish F1 team, this has to be the best tempory solution if it is possible.

Country: Brazil
Age: 39
F1 career: 1993-2011 (Jordan, Stewart, Ferrari, Honda, Brawn, Williams)
Race starts: 322
Wins: 11

What happened? Sadly, the 2011 Williams-Cosworth was a rather hopeless package – both slow and unreliable. Barrichello never gave up but there wasn’t much either he or Pastor Maldonado could do. In a time of great economic difficulty, Maldonado’s contract has been renewed – partly due to his performances and (more likely) due to his strong backing from Venezuelan government-backed PDVSA. At the end of the season, with the driver market saturated, it looked as though Barrichello could be forced into retirement in the same fashion as Eddie Irvine at the end of 2002.

What now? An 11-time Grand Prix winner and F1’s most experienced driver is having to search for sponsors to help keep his career alive – a rather sad situation and one from which many colleagues have advised Rubens to retire. He’s not giving in, though, and fresh recent rumours coming out of Williams are that the Paulista could still be in with a chance of remaining on the F1 scene…perhaps for one final season?

Sébastien BUEMI
Country: Switzerland
Age: 23
F1 career: 2009-2011 (Toro Rosso)
Race starts: 55
Best result: 7th (x2)

What happened? Like so many rookies, Buemi immediately impressed the Formula 1 establishment by scoring two points in his maiden Grand Prix (Australia 2009). But has he done enough to cement a solid race drive in the sport? Not really. The Swiss is quick and has often been a decent performer with the exception of a few forgivable early errors. However, does one deserve to stay put after some more silly slip-ups in 2011? He was also beaten by team-mate Jaime Alguersuari. You decide for yourselves…

What now? A race seat at Williams or HRT seems unlikely. His performances do not leap out above the other ten drivers and he has no obvious connection with either of the two teams – be it nationality-wise (for commercial interest) or talent-wise. A probable option (and maybe the only one) is to return as official reserve driver for Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso, not that it would be a completely comfortable return.

Country: India
Age: 27
F1 career: 2010-2011 (Hispania, Team Lotus)
Race starts: 11
Best result: 14th (x2)

What happened? In fairness, Karun has never had a fair crack at F1. A very popular guy in the paddock, he was presented with the unbelievable challenge of not driving his 2010 Hispania until qualifying for the first race! He then made a one-off outing with Team Lotus at the 2011 German Grand Prix although, with hindsight, it really didn’t do his reputation any good. He has proven his speed over the years and bounces off much media interest in homeland India. Chandhok is also clearly talented when it comes to media commitments, although he faces the possibility of being one of those drivers who ends up developing a career in television commentary as opposed to racing (not that this is bad, of course!). But we know which he would rather be doing…

What now? Team Lotus (now Caterham F1) wasn’t able to give him the race drive he craves, following several Friday free practice outings – many of which were rain-affected. His best bet for 2012 is to keep his racecraft sharp in another formula while representing an F1 team as reserve and development driver…not the ideal solution but probably the only realistic option under the current circumstances.

Country: Belgium
Age: 26
F1 career: 2011 (Virgin)
Race starts: 19
Best result: 14th (x2)

What happened? Jérôme had to take his F1 chance with both hands and he certainly did, wreathing the most he could from the underperforming Virgin-Cosworth. He also statistically finished ahead of more experienced team-mate Timo Glock in the final 2011 standings. However, d’Ambrosio was occupying what I like to dub ‘The Survival Seat’ – the team has to encourage fresh sponsorship and that will often mean replacing its second driver. The same happened with Lucas di Grassi in 2010 and Charles Pic is now presented with the challenge for 2012.

What now? What can you do? You drove your heart out and many won’t ever know it. Unless he is invited to another team for a reserve driver role (and that could be another ‘new’ team such as Caterham or HRT) he may require a trip back to GP2 to prove his worth all over again, just as Romain Grosjean has done.

Country: Germany
Age: 34
F1 career: 2000-2011 (Prost, Sauber, Jordan, Williams, BMW, Sauber, Renault)
Race starts: 183
Best result: 2nd (x8)

What happened? One of the most underrated drivers in the history of Formula 1 has been left on the sidelines. Again. It’s amazing how many people have missed a trick with ‘Quick Nick’ Heidfeld over the years. He battled hard en route to the European F3000 title of 1999 and really was the next big thing – a Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel. He tested for McLaren in 2000 but crucially, after a year with Sauber in 2001, it was team-mate Kimi Räikkönen who got the McLaren race break for 2002. Imagine how different it could have been. I’m sure Nick has. Having travelled through several outfits, he was the sensible replacement for injured Robert Kubica at LRGP. He managed a great podium finish in Malaysia despite the car not being designed with him in mind. Sadly, despite being the team’s highest-placed driver at the time, he was replaced by Bruno Senna shortly before Renault announced four new sponsors connected to the Brazilian. Such is life.

What now? Can he believe he is in the drive-hunting situation again? There is a general belief that staying in F1 is far more difficult than reaching F1 – you bet it is. However, if Pedro de la Rosa can make dramatic returns (and we mean nothing against Pedro), then why should Nick not be able to? His trump cards are experience, consistency and superb technical knowledge – an ideal candidate for growing HRT. Williams is also being restructured and he has driven for them before. If it doesn’t work out, maybe on this occasion it is time to look for motorsport success elsewhere.

Country: India
Age: 34
F1 career: 2005, 2011 (Jordan, HRT)
Race starts: 27
Best result: 4th

What happened? Although Narain impressed many during his time with Jordan, particularly in the early part of 2005, half a decade out of Formula 1 didn’t help. His return with HRT was solely commercial-based, with much interest centring around the Indian on the run-up to the country’s first Grand Prix; this was only stressed by him mentioning the event in almost every press release of 2011. But credit where credit is due – on merit, he out-raced Daniel Ricciardo in Greater Noida and that proved that he hasn’t lost his raw abilities.

What now? Staying in F1 won’t be easy and the chances are we will never see Karthikeyan racing in the sport again. But stranger things have happened. On the other hand, let’s be realistic – 2012 will likely see him crop up in another form of racing. Unfortunate, yes, but not being able to consistently beat his 2011 team-mates (Ricciardo and Tonio Liuzzi) cements his position on the sidelines.

Vitantonio LIUZZI
Country: Italy
Age: 31
F1 career: 2005-2007, 2009-2011 (Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Force India, HRT)
Race starts: 80
Best result: 6th (x2)

What happened? Another classic case of an Italian Formula 1 driver lost en route to finding success; with no disrespect to the country of Italy, it is true that several of its drivers have wandered off their F1 trails over recent years (Fisichella and Trulli are the two most obvious examples…extremely rapid at times, but seemingly off-colour when it matters). In fairness to Liuzzi, he couldn’t do much with the HRT. Intriguingly, since February 2011 he has always stressed that he is with the team for the long-term and continues to state that a contract is already in place for 2012. However, in 2011 ownership of the outfit shifted from the Hispania Group to the Thesan Group – that could cause complications when it comes to contracts.

What now? It may well be the case that Liuzzi does indeed have a 2012 HRT contract and that he will soon be confirmed alongside Pedro de la Rosa. On the other hand, if there are complications of any sort (which seems likely after this length of time), moving to Williams is highly doubtful. Like Karun Chandhok, his best option may be a reserve position while racing in another series to keep himself fresh.

Country: Russia
Age: 27
F1 career: 2010-2011 (Renault)
Race starts: 38
Best result: 3rd

What happened? Russia’s first and so far only Formula 1 driver. 2011 started like a dream, with that podium finish in Melbourne. However, although he finished in the top ten of the championship, a staggering 40 percent of Petrov’s points had come from that opening race alone. It just went pear-shaped; the car had been designed with Robert Kubica in mind and the injured Pole wasn’t around to work on it. As development dropped off, Petrov grew frustrated with the team and vice-versa, it seems. This was official in the shape of his post-Abu Dhabi Grand Prix outburst on Russian television, for which he publically apologised to the team. Whether that was the reason for his departure…well, only Eric Boullier truly knows the answer.

What now? Manager Oksana Kosachenko is working tirelessly to find a solution for 2012, which – if it is to be a decent race seat – can only now be with Williams. At the same time, rumours continue to circulate about a Marussia move, although the team has already confirmed its drivers and it is easy to see how the Russian press has helped strengthen that particular piece of gossip. If the Williams deal doesn’t come, your guess is as good as ours with regards to Vitaly Petrov in 2012.

Country: Brazil
Age: 28
F1 career: 2010-2011 (Hispania, Renault)
Race starts: 26
Best result: 9th

What happened? Now, this really is a surprising one. The dismal and interrupted 2010 campaign with Hispania proved that having ‘Senna’ as a surname would not guarantee a race seat, but LRGP’s strange move to replace Nick Heidfeld (bringing in key sponsors through Senna) brought light to the end of the Brazilian’s dimly lit tunnel. It was all going very well…a brilliant seventh place on the grid at Spa was ruined by a clumsy first-corner mistake, although he immediately made up for it by scoring two points at Monza. The car was never up to the job after that. Despite keeping Vitaly Petrov on his toes while continuing to generate great media interest with his name, the F1 return of Kimi Räikkönen proved to be Senna’s downfall.

What now? The situation must be hard to take, but Bruno surely has more chance of remaining on the grid than most other drivers in this list. He can now back up his World Champion name with some solid 2011 performances. You can never ignore his background, which would suit Williams perfectly from an interest point of view; although the connection bares tragic memories, a driver named Senna in a Williams-Renault would attract huge attention towards the Grove-based team. On the other hand, a lack of experience could be a problem; with 2011 newcomer Pastor Maldonado already signed by Williams, the team may prefer to recruit a more experienced head alongside the Venezuelan (such as Rubens Barrichello, Adrian Sutil or maybe even Heidfeld). If Senna is left out again, the mission is to find a reserve seat and attempt a Hülkenberg-like comeback for 2013. Tough to take, but maybe the only remaining solution.

Adrian SUTIL
Country: Germany
Age: 28
F1 career: 2007-2011 (Spyker, Force India)
Race starts: 90
Best result: 4th

What happened? Some say he upped his game once again, scoring 42 points to achieve his target of jumping up to ninth overall at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Others argue that, after five seasons with either Spyker or Force India (depending on the team’s guise at any given time), Adrian has had more than enough time to prove himself in F1. In his defence, the equipment has usually been substandard but, when the car was on the money (Monaco 2008, Nürburgring and Monza 2009, Sepang and Spa 2010 and São Paulo 2011, for instance) he has been right up there and mixed it with the best of them. However, silly errors still creep in from time to time and, when newbie Paul di Resta is performing so well and Nico Hülkenberg is all but promised a 2012 race seat, that can’t be accepted. The outcome was hard-hitting but you can see why it happened.

What now? He has to keep his F1 career alive by joining Pastor Maldonado at Williams. Sutil is a strong candidate, but there are several other strapping applicants pushing for the same seat. And does he have the technical nous required to help Mike Coughlan and co successfully restructure what is now a Williams-Renault package? That is up for Sir Frank and Adam Parr to decide…if a 2012 Williams position doesn’t happen for Sutil, his F1 career will be in jeopardy and that would be a real shame – but he wouldn’t be the first to face such a situation…

Place your bets...

It’s 3 January and 2012 is already in full swing. Before you know it the team and car launches will be underway, so we should expect the Williams announcement to come at some point in January. HRT could leave it later – in past seasons, teams have confirmed drivers just days before the opening race – although new Team Principal Luis Pérez-Sala is likely to want a confirmation as soon as possible to avoid the ‘last minute’ bad press which has engulfed the team in both 2010 and 2011.



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