Rookie Team Driver Watch: Grizzled Veterans
Next season sees the arrival of four or possibly even five, if Sauber take over the now vacant Toyota spot, teams into F1. These teams aren’t coming in with Toyota or Honda style budgets and none of them are going to be concerns in the Raikkonen and Rosberg wars of the 2010 silly season.
That means they are going to be scraping the proverbial barrel as drivers go; hoping to grind one or two good seasons out of a driver on the wrong side of 30, looking for a rough diamond they can polish into the next Fernando Alonso or taking whoever has the most money behind them. A sensible team would look to take at least one experienced guy in their first season alongside either someone they feel has potential or someone that brings a shed load of cash.
In this first part of the list I’m going to look at those drivers in the twilight of their F1 careers, who aren’t yet ready to give up their grid spot and acquiesce to a future in the DTM, the Le Mans series or German Superbikes.
In search of an Indian summer
Lets begin with a look at those drivers who are looking to give their F1 careers one last stab before they head off to the DTM or Le Mans for the twilight of their careers. These are the guys who can bring invaluable experience to a new team, who can save them from set-up mistakes and guide them through developing their car in the offseason.
They can all probably be had for little more than a couple of million at most and in some cases a lot less. These guys don’t want to let go of the dream and who can blame them?!
With Toyota’s withdrawal from F1 earlier today Trulli looks to have been given a one way ticket to the back of the grid. In my opinion this is a shame, Trulli is one of my favourite F1 drivers. I understand the Trulli Train phenomenon but I prefer to look at it as Jarno putting a car much further up the grid than it should be rather than that he’s only good over one lap. That however is another column, Trulli entered F1 in 1997, and has 216 races under his belt. He has only one win, the 2004 Monaco Grand Prix, but ten other podiums and 246.5 points scored. He will get a bottom feeder a lot of exposure by dragging a car that deserves to be on the back row out of Q3 at the expense of bigger names in flashier cars. Trulli is still quick and when given the car to do something he will get it done, his second place in Japan is evidence enough of that.
Trulli deserves a better seat in my opinion, Renault and Toro Rosso should be all over him but it looks unlikely, one lucky newcomer will get a steal with Trulli.
Toyota’s withdrawal might be a blow to Trulli but it’s looking like a positive for Heidfeld. The withdrawal of the Japanese giants means Sauber is likely to return to the grid next year and he will likely be delighted to have one of the most perneially underrated drivers on the grid in the car. Heidfeld has yet to win a race in F1 and his chances get steadily smaller as the years pass but you can’t discount the value of a veteran who makes very few mistakes and brings the car home in one piece time and time again. Heidfeld shows he still has the pace with his season ending 5th place in Abu Dhabi that leapfrogged BMW over Williams in the Constructors standings.
As long as Sauber get the 13th spot after Toyota’s withdrawal I don’t see Heidfeld leaving Hinwil. Given a heavy dose of brain fade by Peter Sauber or Bernie then another team would be wise to snap up Heidfeld. Another bargain who should have better teams all over him while the likes of Heikki Kovalainen sit further up the grid.
Fisi’s Ferrari trip has been can be notched down as an epic failure but can you really fault an Italian toward the end of his career for taking the chance to fulfil the boyhood dream of every Italian? Okay he didn’t look anywhere close to Kimi at any point but the Ferrari is a difficult beast to handle and Raikkonen has gotten nowhere near the credit he deserves this season. Fisichella had a great season at Force India, highlighted by the pole and podium at Spa. Giancarlo may not be the superstar he showed the potential to be at times in his career but he’s a solid pair of hands who deserves a seat next year.
If Fisi decides he wants to stay with Ferrari, become their tester and a more able replacement than Luca Badoer in the event of an emergency then this discussion is moot. I think Fisi still wants to be out there however so look for a possible return to Force India or a final season with one of the new squads.
Pedro de la Rosa
de la Rosa seems to be on his way to a seat with Campos, he likely brings Spanish sponsors on board and is a solid if unspectacular driver. Pedro never gave up on the F1 dream and has fought tooth and nail to stay in the sport. He’s a mildly underrated driver who performed well in a tough spot after Juan Pablo Montoya’s defection to NASCAR.
If and when Campos confirm de la Rosa they will get a solid mentor for Bruno Senna who won’t embarrass the Brazilian youngster with scintillating pace but will more often than not outperform him on race day thanks to his experience and solid racecraft.
Wurz might be the most underrated possible hire right now for any new team. The guy is the prototypical car developer, he’s spent many years in the background at McLaren, Williams and Brawn developing race winners and pounding round test tracks. He’s also shown when called upon he’s got enough pace and nous to come up with a big result. His 2007 season with Williams saw him bring home a podium and two other points scoring finishes. He also won the Le Mans 24 hours in 2009 to add to his 1996 victory that everyone forgets about.
Wurz might not be the fastest guy on the grid in 2010 if he’s picked up but he will be worth a small fortune to the development of that teams car and will pick up more than a couple of solid results throughout the year by keeping his nose out of trouble when everyone else goes crazy. If I was the boss of one of the new teams Wurz would be at the top of my list to call.
Villeneuve has long been rumoured to take one of the seats at USF1 and the rose tinted part of my brain wants to see a renaissance from 1997 world champion. For him to come back and prove that he’s still got it after floundering around in a BMW in 2006 for twelve races before being given the boot. The rose tinted part of my brain is wrong however, Jacques is past it and needs to accept that and either make good on NASCAR or stick with the LMS.
USF1 might bring Jacques in for the fanfare it would provide, an ex champion from North America, fondly remembered for his 1995 Champ Car title. That would be a mistake, talented American drivers aren’t queuing at the door admittedly but bringing Villeneuve back would be like Mansell’s McLaren return. Though I admit he probably will at least fit in the car if given the seat.
Bourdais only has a season and a half of F1 under his belt but he has massive experience elsewhere in motorsport. Bourdais was the winner of four consecutive Champ Car titles from 04-07, he won the F3000 championship in ’02. Admittedly he wasn’t stellar for Toro Rosso but was he really ever given the chance? Bourdais is likely to have the bit between his teeth to prove to the paddock and Red Bull that they didn’t give him a fair crack of the whip.
Bourdais is still only thirty, the youngest of those I consider to be an experienced pair of hands. He still has more than a few years left in him if someone takes a chance on a reclamation project. Its less likely than the others and, other than Villeneuve, the one with the least chances of success but for some reason I have a feeling it might just work out.
Those who are long gone
There are a few others who have a small chance of a return, David Coulthard has been mentioned but he’s past it and everyone knows it. Ralf Schumacher can’t buy a win in the DTM and was never good enough to begin with. He’s not coming back. Montoya is having a whale of a time in NASCAR and is currently battling through his first chase for the championship. He is not coming back.
Sadly neither are the people we dream of announcing, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and for me at least Jos Verstappen. Above are some of the realistic candidates, not all of them will find a ride but most of them should.
What should (and won’t) happen
In an ideal world Nick Heidfeld will stay where is and be part of Sauber: Episode 2, Trulli will go to Lotus, de la Rosa to Campos, Fisichella will return to Force India with a mea culpa, Manor should grab Alex Wurz and USF1 should take a chance on Sebastian Bourdais; there’s no way he can be worse than Villeneuve would be.
Of course some of these are more likely to happen than others; some teams will decide they can remake a Takuma Sato or will mistake Vitaly Petrov’s Rubles for Lewis Hamilton like ability. Either of those things could be true but if you don’t give your team a set of experienced hands to build the foundations with you then your attempting to build a boat without a hull.
So it’s time to wait and see who goes for a dose of sensible team building and who tries to build said foundations out of sand. Your move rookie team bosses.
Don’t mess up.
In the next few days I’m going to be looking at the reclamation projects, those who never got their chance and the young hotshots who the teams could put in alongside an experienced hand.
Until then stop hankering for a Schumacher comeback, it’s not happening… unless you want Ralf?