F1’s driver situation in 2014 looks exciting. Kimi Raikkonen is rejoining Ferrari, Daniel Ricciardo will attempt to better fellow countryman Mark Webber’s effort by joining reigning champions Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, Kevin Magnussen will face a rookie season in the spotlight at McLaren and Max Chilton has been retained by Marussia. OK, maybe the last one isn’t as exciting, neither is the prospect of seeing Hulkenberg drive around in the midfield, despite his burgeoning talent. However, one team has yet to announce either driver for next season – Caterham. In this article I will look into realistic options for Caterham’s 2014 season.
If I were in charge of Caterham, I’d aim to bring in an exciting, well backed youngster to drive alongside a calm head, with recent experience in an F1 car. Due to a huge shift in the regulations for next season, having someone with experience in the car should be an imperative. In fact, I’d argue that it’s more important than bringing money into the team. Obviously, I don’t know the extent of Caterham’s financial situation, but I doubt they’d need the money of two paying drivers. 2014 offers Caterham and Marussia their best chance of points yet, if we are to believe the reliability problems rumours, so they need someone who is experienced to increase their chance of getting those points. However, the second driver should be a risk, GP2 and FR3.5 have a wealth of drivers who would bring speed and money, and Caterham should look to exploit this opportunity, this, however, should not exclude ex-F1 drivers who have showed speed and bring money.
Firstly, experience, below is a list of all the drivers who have left the sport in the last three years, who are realistic targets for next season, green indicates it’s likely they’ll sign to sign, orange maybe and red unlikely.
Jaime Alguersuari – Criminally under-discussed, Alguersuari last drove in F1 in 2011, but has tested for Pirelli. Unlikely to have sponsorship.
Rubens Barrichello – F1’s most experienced driver, last drove in 2011, strongly linked to Sauber late 2013 (with £~9m sponsorship), would like a return to the sport.
Jerome d’Ambrosio – Currently test driver for Lotus, last drove one race in 2012, full season 2011. Rumoured to have had £3m in sponsorship for 2011.
Paul di Resta – Available for next season, has implied he will be leaving F1. Drove for Force India in 2013. Negligible sponsorship.
Kamui Kobayashi – Competed in WEC in 2013, but has expressed desire to return to F1. Claimed sponsorship of around £5m for 2013, but failed to get drive.
Heikki Kovalainen – Drove for the team 2010-12, test driver in 2013. No sponsorship.
Charles Pic – Drove for the team in 2013. Around £5m sponsorship.
Vitaly Petrov – Drove for the team in 2012. Wants to drive next season, but might look at other series. Brings serious sponsorship(~£18m).
Bruno Senna – Competed in WEC in 2013, linked to various series for 2014 including F1, but no solid evidence. Potentially £6-10m sponsorship.
Giedo van der Garde – Drove for the team in 2013. Brings sponsorship, probably about the same level as Pic.
In my opinion, the best combination of experience, sponsorship and speed is Kamui Kobayashi. Loved by fans for his attacking style, he is still in the prime of his career (unlike Barrichello) and is an excellent qualifier. Impressing since his first race in 2009, he out performed de la Rosa, edged Heidfeld, and matched Perez in their two seasons together. In 2011, Kobayashi was comfortably ahead of rookie Perez, but in 2012 his good qualifying performances proved to be a hindrance, as Perez exploited the tyres brilliantly to take 3 podiums, yet finished a mere 6 points behind. Perez moved to McLaren, Kobayashi was dropped. For me, Kobayashi has to be the priority. If Alguersuari were interested, I’d also look at him as second choice, however, he has lost Red Bull backing and I wouldn’t consider him for my sponsor-driven second seat.
Vitaly Petrov, Charles Pic, Giedo van der Garde and at a push Jerome d’Ambrosio would also be in my thinking for the second seat. Additionally:
Alexander Rossi – Caterham’s reserve driver, has been solid in junior series but nothing outstanding. Brings little sponsorship.
Felipe Nasr – Brings Brazilian sponsorship (rumoured ~£9m), and 4th in GP2 last year, but no wins.
Marcus Ericsson – Has been definitively linked to Caterham, 6th GP2 2013, rumoured to have “double digit million sponsorship (£10m+).
Fabio Leimer – Last year’s GP2 champion and linked to Sauber seat, brings some sponsorship.
Robin Frijns – Despite winning FR3.5 at the first attempt, he failed to find a seat in 2013 and is currently Sauber’s test driver. Has very little sponsorship.
For me, the best option for the second seat is Vitaly Petrov. The team know him well from 2012, he brings sponsorship, is capable of bringing a good result out (3rd for Lotus in 2011, 11th for Caterham in 2012) and most importantly, especially if you listen to team principal Cyril Abiteboul, he brings money, and lots of it. This discounts Frijns from the equation, as, despite an excellent junior career, he brings very little money. For the first time next season, Russia will be hosting an F1 GP, and I’m sure Petrov’s sponsors would be willing to give a little more to see Petrov drive at his home GP, especially considering it’s a very underused market in F1. Additionally, by the end of their stint as team mates, Petrov had more than matched Kovalainen (despite his reputation).
However, despite Petrov’s glowing CV, most pundits seem to think the two seats will be given to two of Kobayashi, Kovalainen, Pic, van der Garde and Ericsson (and Rossi as a long shot). In that case, I’d keep vdG alongside Kobayshi. Once he’d settled, Giedo started to outperform Pic, and coincided with Ericcson’s average lower formulae record and Kovalainen’s refusal to attract sponsorship, van der Garde is the most sensible option. However, if Caterham’s finances aren’t as good as I think they are, I certainly wouldn’t look down on the decision to bring in Ericsson and his backers. Additionally, I’d keep Pic and bring in Frijns as test drivers.
1st driver: Kobayashi (Alguersuari)
2nd driver: Petrov (van der Garde)
Test drivers: Pic, Frijns (Rossi)