Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- Drivers fighting for the last F1 seats
- Grosjean, van der Garde, 2 F1 candidates
- Karthikeyan, Chandhok ready for Indian GP
- But is the Indian circuit ready for F1?
Drivers fighting for the last F1 seats
Many drivers and their managers always get very nervous towards the end of the season as some have not yet found a place in Formula One for 2012. The scrap for getting a race seat in 2012 has only just begun, but with so many contenders it will be difficult to close in on a good deal. Only a few teams have confirmed their 2012 line-up, it is certain McLaren will continue with Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button and Red Bull have retained the services of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
At Ferrari, Felipe Massa’s contract for 2012 has been confirmed, after Fernando Alonso had mentioned ‘Massa is his best team mate ever’, but Luca di Montezemolo has hinted 2012 could be the Brazilian’s least season at Ferrari. Sauber will be entering the 2012 championship with Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez again; the same is the case with the Mercedes GP team where Michael Schumacher has been confirmed to drive alongside Nico Rosberg next year.
A few teams have so far signed one driver for 2012, Team Lotus has signed Jarno Trulli, but Heikki Kovalainen’s future with the team remains uncertain. Team principal and owner Tony Fernandes has four test and reserve drivers, Karun Chandhok, Liuz Raiza, Ricardo Teixeira and Davide Valsechhi. Marussia Virgin driver Timo Glock has signed a long-term deal although he wasn’t entirely happy with the team’s pace this season. Rookie Jerome d’Ambrosio has no contract for 2012, and recently Robert Wickens has tested for the team. Team principal John Booth is however not in a hurry to announce their second driver and wants to keep all options open.
The remaining teams have also kept all possibilities open, Force India is looking to retain Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta, but team principal and owner Vijay Mallya has recently said he will evaluate his drivers at the end of the season, and has said a decision is expected around December 15, 2011. Force India’s test and reserve driver German Nico Hulkenberg wants to make a race return in 2012 and for him the white and orange livered Indian team is the only option. “I'm not sure yet,” Hulkenberg said when asked about his future at Force India. "I hope I can race with Force India but the team will decide not before December, so I must wait." In an interview with the German Auto Motor und Sport magazine he also revealed ‘everyone from Renault down wants to see money’.
Next on the list is Toro Rosso, team advisor Helmut Marko has said current drivers Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastian Buemi will have to earn their 2012 seat, but after Red Bull announced Webber had signed a contract for 2012, there is really no way either of the two drivers will be promoted to their big sister team. Alguersuari wasn’t happy when he heard the news, as he was hoping to take the Australian’s place, but instead is now fighting for a race seat with Buemi and Daniel Ricciardo. “I want to be with a team that can win races. I am very happy with Toro Rosso and delighted that I got to go to Formula One at the age of 19, but I want to win,” the Spaniard said.
Ricciardo has temporarily moved to HRT to learn the ropes, but as Marko always has said Toro Rosso and Red Bull will hire drivers from their own young driver’s programme, and it is more than likely he will join Toro Rosso one day or another, which could even be as soon as next year. Which means Alguersuari and Buemi will be fighting for the second seat, but again, Marko has indicated no decision will be made before the end of the season.
Williams is another team in the spotlight, the British team has overhauled its technical staff in an effort to get back on the podium. It seems Pastor Maldonado’s future is guaranteed by his Venezuelan sponsors, but for veteran Rubens Barrichello this year could even be his last season in Formula One. On the one hand he is reluctant to stay as he is not entirely convinced Williams will have a winning car next season; on the other hand there is really no other place to go for him. Plenty of drivers are willing to take his place, test driver Valtteri Bottas, GP2 driver Giedo van der Garde, ousted Lotus Renault driver Nick Heidfeld and even Hulkenberg are potential candidates.
HRT has remained silent about their 2012 lineup; the team has recently had a financial boost from investor Thesan Capital but no word on the future drivers. It is possible their new Spanish sponsor is looking to contract a Spanish driver to strengthen the team’s Spanish identity; the name of Javier Villa has been mentioned.
Lotus Renault cannot make up their mind at all, after Robert Kubica’s rally crash in February, team principal Eric Boullier has imposed a deadline, Kubica has to prove he is ready to return to Formula One before October 15, if not, Boullier could be forced to hire another driver. Many believe this is just an excuse of Boullier to get rid of the Pole who apparently doesn’t have a contract for 2012, as he is very eager to hire Bruno Senna for next year. The Brazilian has replaced Heidfeld during the last two races and also brought Brazilian sponsor monies to the team, but there are more candidates. GP champion Romain Grosjean is one of them and has raced in Formula One before with Renault, and the Frenchman is managed by … Boullier. Also Vitaly Petrov’s seat isn’t certain although the Russian claims he has a contract for 2012, and it has been suggested both Kubica and Petrov could be snubbed in favor of Grosjean and Senna.
And last but not least, the name Kimi Raikkonen has been mentioned to make a return to Formula One, but those rumors have been around ever since the Finn left the sport in 2009. After a visit to the Williams factory last week rumors again intensified, but Raikkonen has according to the Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat indicated he wants to be in ‘world rally, the legendary Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, and the 24 hours of Le Mans’ next year, and if true, he probably won’t even have the time to think about Formula One.
Two GP2 candidates, Grosjean and van der Garde
Like many GP2 drivers, both Grosjean and van der Garde are looking for a way into Formula One, Grosjean has had some experience as he replaced Nelson A. Piquet during the last seven races of the 2009 season, but it was not a very successful appearance, his best classification was 13th during the Brazilian Grand Prix, and he retired from two races. His GP2 Series achievements however, are more impressive. In 2008 he won the GP2 Asia Series with the ART GP team, and in that same year finished fourth in the (European) GP2 Series, also for ART GP. The Swiss/French driver moved to the Barwa Addax GP2 team in 2009 and again became fourth overall.
In 2010 he moved to the French DAMS team, initially not a very successful move, as he was classified in 14th place overall, but this year Grosjean won the GP2 Series title at Monza after winning five races. His manager Boullier thinks Grosjean is now ready for Formula One, “Everybody is talking about him in the paddock now.” And Boullier added, “He's done a good job in that discipline and I think he's now ready to step back into Formula One.”
Dutchman van der Garde had his first taste of Formula One as a test driver of the Super Aguri team in 2007, but things went completely wrong after he also announced he was the Spyker F1 test driver for 2007. Team owner Aguri Suzuki was livid when he heard of the in his eyes illegal switch and Suzuki contested the Spyker contract and van der Garde’s contract was submitted by the Super Aguri team to the Contracts Recognition Board in 2007. The two teams couldn’t solve the contractual problems which for van der Garde meant he was sidelined and didn’t drive at all in 2007.
The Dutchman won the Holland Mini Juniors championship and the Formula Super A championship in 2002. He then moved on to the Formula Three Euroseries where he raced with di Resta, Kobayahi and Sebastian Vettel and became sixth in 2006 and 2007. In 2008 he raced in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series and took the title after winning five races. He was also part of McLaren’s Young Drivers programme from 2006-2009. From 2009 onwards he competed like Grosjean in the GP2 and GP2 Asia Series, and this year became fifth in the GP2 championship. In 2011 he was also mentioned as a candidate for Marussia Virgin team and Williams but those second seats went to d’Ambrosio and Maldonado respectively.
Van der Garde thinks he is now ready for Formula One, and recently said he would not return to GP2. Asked about his future plans he commented, “It will not be another season in GP2, I am now 26 and need to be realistic. It is Formula One or nothing,” Asked about his GP2 results he replied: “My results in GP2 do not say anything about my skills as a driver. Look at Kobayashi and d'Ambrosio, two drivers who are doing well in Formula One, but in GP2 they were nowhere.” And he added, “I am ready for Formula One and would love the chance to show what I can do in those cars. They are much better for me than GP2. These GP2 cars are sometimes like a rally car, with Formula One cars requiring a much more refined style. That's my style and I hope I can prove it.”
Karthikeyan and Chandhok ready for India GP
It was already predicted, the only two Indian Formula One drivers ever, will participate in their home Grand Prix on October 30, although Chandhok's appearance has not yet been confirmed. Both drivers have raced for HRT, Karthikeyan this year and Chandhok last year, but both were ousted and replaced in favor of better paying drivers. Last week HRT announced Kartikeyan would be back in the car after he was forced out by Toro Rosso protégé Ricciardo.
“Of course it's a great feeling to be driving on a Grand Prix weekend once again, and on the subject of my home Grand Prix of India, the team had assured me that I'd be driving when I stepped out of my seat after the European GP,” Karthikeyan said. He will already be back in the car during the Friday morning practice session for the Singapore Grand Prix this weekend. He is already looking forward to get in the car, “The Singapore circuit will definitely be a challenge as it is new to me so I'll have to get to grips with it fairly quickly. From what I know, it is a very demanding race physically, not only because of the temperatures and humidity but also being a high-speed street circuit it is extremely bumpy.”
Team principal Colin Kolles was also happy to see the Indian back, “It is great to have Narain back in the car as it will give him critical seat time before he drives at the Indian GP. He is the best driver to come out of the region and is undoubtedly extremely talented as he has proved through his progress this season.”
Chandhok was ousted by the HRT team last year, and the sympathetic 27-year old driver was signed as 2011 test and reserve driver for the Malaysian Team Lotus outfit, and has occasionally been behind the wheel during the Friday morning practice sessions and also replaced Trulli during the German Grand Prix. Team owner Fernandes has recently extended Trulli’s contract, but apparently one of the conditions was that the Italian would step down during the Indian Grand prix in favor of Chandhok.
Fernandes however, stated no decision has been made yet, “It's too early to confirm, but I can't rule that out. Motor sport is booming in the continent. Sponsors are ready to pour millions into the sport. Being the second most populous country with a vibrant economy, India offers great opportunities for Formula One marketing.” And about Chandhok’s chances to participate in his home Grand Prix he said, “I would like him to. It’s up to the team to see whether he will.” But although both drivers are ready, there have been reports the Indian circuit is not ready.
But is the Indian circuit ready for the Indian GP?
Reports are currently circulating whether the Indian Buddh International Circuit near New Delhi, India will be ready in time for the inaugural Indian Grand Prix on October 30. When it was announced the final inspection by FIA delegate Charlie Whiting was postponed until early September, Bernie Ecclestone was the first to deny the circuit wouldn’t be ready in time. “I have no doubt in my mind that the circuit is going to be one of the nicest we have and that it’s going to be complete on time. We are checking everything all the time, on a daily basis,” he told reporters in August.
There has been a lot of negative publicity surrounding the Indian Grand Prix, drivers and team members apparently have problems obtaining a visa, and last week there were reports teams might have to pay taxes for bringing their equipment to the new venue. These problems have been solved as the promoters of the race have promised they will, if need be, pay the taxes to make sure all teams can bring their equipment to the circuit.
Yesterday a Spanish newspaper reported the situation of the Buddh circuit was ‘alarming’ and photos of the circuit made by a fan were published and show unfinished grandstands, unfinished roads and un-asphalted sections of the pit lane, as well as piles of sand in the pit lane, and workers were still busy working on some of the buildings. Force India team owner Mallya, who also is a member of the FIA World Motor Sports Council (WMSC) was asked to comment on Whiting’s visit. “Charlie Whiting's track inspection report is very flattering. I was exceptionally proud to read his report. He said that everything is done to a very high standard and he has asserted that there is no reason why the track should not be fully ready by the race,” he said. Asked whether he was happy with the progress he replied: “Absolutely, without a doubt. As far as the promoters of the track are concerned, they say we can race there tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, the promoters have also reported they expect a ‘full house’, as many of the tickets have already been sold, “So far, we have sold tickets worth more than 50 million rupees. We knew the response would be good and we are very pleased!”
Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”