Under the bright lights in the Formula One ballroom, most teams have already picked their partners for 2013. The few who remain undecided watch the dance floor, making notes about footwork and presentation, waiting to pick off any talent which hasn’t been snapped up.
According to the latest driver seating update at f1fanatic.co.uk the sharp end is already sewn up, most recently with the confirmation of contract extensions for Felipe Massa at Ferrari and Kimi Raikonnen at Lotus. Once the pressure of securing a drive is off it’s down to the driver and team to continue the relationship and improve. With the exception of the World Champions there will always be room to do better, which brings me neatly to those whose dances seem to consist of mainly sidesteps.
The signing of Sergio Perez by McLaren left a gaping hole at a Sauber team celebrating the most successful season in its history (as an independent entrant – not in colaboration with BMW) but was it the car or the driver making the difference? To me it was Perez who was responsible for the majority of the improvement at Sauber as team-mate Kamui Kobayashi struggled beside him, despite his gung-ho, ‘you’ve been KK’d’ approach. Sauber have long been the team that brings the new blood in, only to relinquish them to the bigger boys once they’ve had a season or two to sparkle, Raikkonen and Massa being two which spring to mind.
This week we learn that it will be Nico Hulkenberg filling the gap. It leads me to wonder what kind of incentives he was offered to jump ship as his performances at Force India are so promising, evenly battling with team-mate Paul Di Resta. Nico is fast, but there will be no career progression from his position if his races are only rewarded with seats with mid-runner teams. The Sauber is not a forward move, the results achieved this season are not comparable, because Sergio Perez is outstanding. His only other realistic option was going back to Williams, whose driver line up for 2013 is by no means settled, but they are in the same boat. This years Williams was above average and we haven’t seen the like since Barcelona again – Maldonado’s win a fluke? No, but it was a flash of brilliance in strategy and set up which Williams have not managed to duplicate.
There are many who speculate Nico’s future based on the Ferrari influence at Sauber, wondering if this is the beginning of a journey which leads to Maranello. It’s possible, but let’s be fair, if the Ferrari young driver scheme was working predictably, why would McLaren signed Sergio while Ferrari’s best option was to keep this years line up? I don’t think Nico is good enough for Ferrari, he has spent the last four seasons negotiating his way out of test driver contracts into the main team, and there are far too many young drivers on the scene now for him be wallowing around mid-grid. If Jules Bianchi gets that Force India seat, and Jaime Alguersuari gets back into a Formula One car the doors will slam pretty quickly, if Max Chiltern proves his worth in the last couple of races there’s no reason why Pic couldn shift sideways too.
It’s obviously all speculation at this stage, but these are variables Nico has to consider because if he doesn’t cut it, Formula One will cut him out.