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Musical Chairs (**Update)

January 24, 2010

With only seven weeks to go before the start of the 2010 Formula 1 season, the last set of racing seats look ready to fill up with another two positions taken up in the last few days. Since the beginning of the week, Spanish veteran Pedro De La Rosa finds himself back with a competitive drive as he will lead the BMW Sauber team for the next couple of years. Although De La Rosa has never been the fastest or most exciting of drivers, his technical knowledge and prowess are apparently highly rated and it appears that he may act as a lead for the young Kamui Kobayashi in the same way that Rubens Barrichello may well be a technical mentor for Nico Hulkenberg at Williams.

Sadly though, De La Rosa’s new drive leaves German pilot Nick Heidfeld out of a drive and with time getting short, it begs the question as to where Heidfeld may end up. Although he may not be the most exciting driver on the grid, Heidfeld has at least been known to steady with his machinery and consistently brings home good results – a shown with his record 41 consecutive race finishes that stretched from Spain 2007 to Singapore 2009. Something that Heidfeld has struggled with appears to be his lack of a killer instinct – significantly, he has had 167 race starts without a victory; the most points scored without a win and he has achieved the most podiums without taking a Grand Prix (shared with Stefan Johansson) – and as he approaches his 33rd birthday, these statistics will continue to hang over his career.
However the most important factor for many of the remaining seats is money and significant cash may be the one thing that Heidfeld cannot bring to the table and what potential seats are left may be quite dependent on delivery of sponsorship Euros.

Probably the most highly rated drive available is the second seat at Renault to partner the Polish driver, Robert Kubica. Heidfeld and Kubica have been teammates at Sauber since 2006 and had formed something of a steady partnership in the three-and-a-half seasons since then, but with Renault having pulled their backing from the squad, the team are in need of money and that puts talented youngster Vitaly Petrov in pole position for that seat. The 24-year-old Russian finished 2nd in the 2009 GP2 Series behind Nico Hulkenberg and is reported to have large backing should it be required. After four years in the main junior category, Petrov will determined to show that he has the quality to make it at the top level and a seat at Renault team may be his best opportunity. From Renault’s perspective, they already have a proven race winner in Robert Kubica and with the first Russian Grand Prix since 1914 in the offing within the next two-to-three seasons, Renault may be looking to entice Russian backers into the sport by fielding a native driver.

Spanish squad Campos-Meta are still currently without a lead driver to partner the Brazilian rookie, Bruno Senna. As far as anyone has been led to believe, Campos-Meta remain the one team that is closest to collapse; although there is no doubt that all thirteen squads will be on the grid for 2010, it is questionable as to whether they will last this season, let alone make it to next year.
Meanwhile there have been reports over the last few weeks that USGPE may be about to sign former GP2 driver Jose Maria Lopez. Apparently the Argentine driver is weighed down with cash and it is something that the new American team may need in abundance and while it would be beneficial for the squad to have some sort of financial security in the short term, Lopez’s record of results does not stand out as being spectacular in any way. One win and a few podiums with DAMS and Super Nova in 2005 and 2006 is not the kind of form that earns driver’s Formula 1 seats on merit and with that in mind, USGPE may need a driver of Heidfeld’s quality to lead the team during the early years; however this raises some important issues for the German:

  • no offence to either Campos-Meta or USGPE, but at 33 does Heidfeld really need to spend the last years of his career trundling around at back of the grid at every race?
  • does he want to commit himself to a team that may struggle for mid-season improvements and may possibly not be there at all for 2011?

The USGPE team currently have backing from You Tube founder and CEO, Chad Hurley, but it remains to be seen how that relationship develops, if indeed it even lasts. Much like with short-sighted record companies in the music industry, FOM has gone out of their way to remove any semblance of Formula 1 footage from You Tube over the last few years and although many inside the sport have repeatedly requested that the commercial entity take a more welcoming approach to newer forms of media, it is a stance that generated something of a rift between the commercial side and sites like You Tube. Should FOM not take a more welcoming approach now that the video channel is involved with one of its teams, them You Tube may eventually decide to not bother with Formula 1 anymore and that would be a grave mistake.
Meanwhile, even with Hurley’s backing, Heidfeld would probably have to take a massive pay cut in the same way that Barrichello excepted one at Brawn last year; however with the likes of Campos-Meta looking rocky and the other new teams full up, USGPE could be Nick Heidfeld’s last chance.

Especially so now that the Italian Toro Rosso team yesterday confirmed that youngster Jaime Alguersuari to stay on for 2010 to partner Sebastien Buemi. The Italian squad do find themselves in a difficult situation due to their driver’s vast inexperience – no matter what way it is painted, Buemi has only just turned 21 and Alguersuari is 19-years-old. The pair are still very, very inexperienced, but unlike the Barrichello/Hulkenberg pairing, it is questionable as to what exactly they could learn off eachother technical and it must be remembered that their 2009 season, while occasionally very fast, was also littered with unnecessary incidents and accidents. No doubt there is sponsorship involved somewhere along the line, but it is difficult to see Toro Rosso pull themselves up from the lower midfield when they have no one to lead them within the team – if anyone on the grid needed a driver like Heidfeld, it would be Toro Rosso.

Apart from that, should any of the current teams collapse, Stefan GP appears ready to go for the 2011 season and although they are putting their car together, there has been no talk of drivers yet – but then again, why would they? For now, dear old Quick Nick may have to wait and hope for the best and wish that something emerges soon – it would be a great shame to see his career end like this.

Leigh
January 23rd, 2010

(**Update**)
Rumours floating around this morning from Autobild.de that Nick Heidfeld may take a step down and join Mercedes as their test and reserve driver for 2010. It may be announced at the unveiling of the new Mercedes F1 car this week.
January 24th, 2010

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