AUGUST 28, 2008
The driver market
In the next few days there may be some more driver announcements for 2009. The end of August is often used as an option date and so it will be no surprise to learn that one or two variables have been removed from the market. The most likely is that BMW will take up its option on Robert Kubica. This will remove one name from the Ferrari picture. In theory the Italian team will not be changing next season, but there continue to be question marks and rumours about Kimi Raikkonen's future. McLaren is staying the same. The second seat at BMW is more interesting. Nick Heidfeld's contract is up this year and he has been struggling a lot in the last few months. This has been blamed on tyres, but it seems odd that he did not have such troubles at the start of the year. One should also add that he has finished second on three occasions and is not far behind Heikki Kovalainen in the World Championship. A change is always disruptive and unless there is a driver who promises a major improvement, there is little point in changing, particularly if the team is climbing upwards. BMW did have deals with Sebastian Vettel and Timo Glock at one point or another and let both of them go. It is safe to assume that the Munich company would not have let this happen unless there was something in it for them. The only value in letting young drivers go is that they make their mistakes with other teams. Both men will probably stay where they are in 2009, but one has to ask whether one or the other will return in 2010.
Renault's situation is delicate because of its poor results for the second consecutive year. Morale is not what it once was and Fernando Alonso's suggestion that he is on the market, and Nelson Piquet having done very little to warrant a new deal, the team may be looking for two new drivers in 2009. In recent years the team has tended to use younger (cheaper) drivers so one should look to test drivers Lucas di Grassi and Romain Grosjean as possibles for one drive. Starting the year with two inexperienced men is not a great idea so if Alonso goes, the team should either keep Piquet or find a man with some experience behind him.
Toyota has Glock and questions over Jarno Trulli. The Italian is a known quantity. He qualifies brilliantly but has never been a great racer. In the modern era this works out sometimes because overtaking is so hard. Toyota will probably conclude that the team needs a bigger star now that there is better performance and will probably be chasing Alonso, but it is hard to see him joining the team, given his other potential options.
Red Bull is already decided on Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, while Williams too looks like staying the same in 2009, although there is some disquiet at the number of points that have been thrown away this year by Nico Rosberg. He is now in his third year with the team and should not be making basis mistakes. The other point that is slightly troubling is that a rookie should not be getting as close to Rosberg as Kazuki Nakajima has been this year. The team needs a morale-boost to get more confidence in Nico and he himself needs some points to keep his name in the frame as a man of the future.
Honda will keep Jenson Button but the future of Rubens Barrichello seems to depend on whether or not the team can talk Fernando Alonso into joining. That would be a huge leap of faith and, like most teams, Honda would like a longer term deal to enable the relationship to build. With a Ferrari drive in the offing, Alonso may prefer to wait.
Scuderia Toro Rosso will have at least one vacancy and perhaps two. Vettel is going to Red Bull Racing and Sebastien Bourdais has still not done anything that suggests that the team need him next year. With the main goal being to find money to get through 2009 and to invest in infrastructure, it is likely that the team will accept another Red Bull driver in 2009 with Sebastien Buemi the man in favour this week. The other drive could end up with a driver with money behind him and so it is worth watching Bruno Senna, given team boss Gerhard Berger's affinities and Senna's ability to find cash.
Force India may make a change but there are other more pressing issues at the moment. There is believed to be an option on Giancarlo Fisichella which is due soon and so we will find out how keen the team is to keep him. Adrian Sutil has money behind him and Tonio Liuzzi is sitting in the wings, looking for a drive.
Of those outside F1, the man who does not seem to fit anywhere is Giorgio Pantano, who is leading the GP2 championship. He had one chance in F1 a while back and winning the title in GP2 might open doors. However, when there are top GP2 drivers with money behind them, notably Senna, Vitaly Petrov and Karun Chandhok, plus well-connected drivers like Grosjean, de Grassi and Buemi, it is hard to see where Pantano might fit in.
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