We don’t know yet how the team based in Enstone and currently named Lotus Renault GP Limited will be called next year. We really don’t know much about the team in fact. One thing is certain though, they have the best seat still available, since Massa, Webber and Button have been confirmed for next season (and more in Button’s case) and Schumacher has repeatedly stated he would fulfill his Mercedes contract to the end.
Vitaly Petrov seems quite secure, mainly due to deals with Russian companies, chief among those being car manufacturer Lada. As to the other car, team principal Eric Bouillier has been cited many times as wanting to wait for Robert Kubica as long as possible. This is understandable, as the Pole is arguably the best driver outside the top 3 teams. Or maybe I should say that he was, as this is the big question: Will Kubica ever be able to drive as well as he once did, taking the car to its limits and further? And when would that be?
At first it was understood Kubica would have a test in the simulator in September, but that month has come and gone. Then Bouiller wanted a clear message by the middle to the end of October, which he seems not to have gotten yet. The last information is that a decision has to be taken in November, which is not too far away by now. Unfortunately, this adjournment makes me believe we won’t see Kubica drive a Formula One car in 2012.
So what are the options for Renault in that case? Well, we can safely assume that Nick Heidfeld won’t make a return to the team, even if the Gillette sponsorship agreement was signed only for the 2011 season. Another possibility is current driver Bruno Senna, who has surprised some by holding his own against Petrov. But being an equal to (or even sligihtly better than) Petrov is not enough to ensure a drive at Renault, as Nick Heidfeld will confirm. If Senna wants to keep driving a F1 car, he will need to up his game in the last races of the season. His has a few things speaking for him, though, mainly his last name and a large amount of Brazilian sponsorship.
The next name on the list is Senna’s most serious rival for the drive, current GP2 champion and former Renault racing driver Romain Grosjean. As I wrote in a previous post, there is only a limited choice for Grosjean in 2012. If he doesn’t find a race drive in F1, he might as well go back to his day job as a bank clerk in Geneva. The good news for him is that he will be given a chance to show his skills in Friday practice at the last two Grand Prix of this year. I’m sure he has the talent to be in Formula One, but can he show it under pressure? And nearly as important as talent is sponsorship (it would be more important if Renault didn’t have the Petrov rubles). Grosjean might get some support from Renault who certainly would certainly like having a
Swiss French driver back in F1. And of course he is part of Bouillier’s Gravity Sports Management.
Which brings us to the other young drivers managed by Gravity. While some of their drivers are not (yet) ready for F1 (current GP3 driver Alexander Sims, US-bound Petri Suvanto, Formula Renault 2.0 driver Javier Tarancon and F3 Euro Series runner-up Marco Wittmann) and others will never be ( Buemi’s cousin Natacha Gachnang, former F3 Euro Series hopeful Jim Pla, Adrien Tambay son of former Renault F1 driver Patrick and Dutch-Chinese not-so-youngster-any-more Ho-Pin Tung), a few names remain.
Marussia Virgin driver D’Ambrosio is the first. His engagement with the Russio-British team could be seen as a training ground for a future at Renault, but the Belgian has failed to impress. After looking good in the beginning of the season, he is now not only clearly lagging his (admittedly experienced) team mate Timo Glock, but also often under pressure from the HRTs of Liuzzi and particularly Ricciardo. I think D’Ambrosio will be hard-pressed to keep his Virgin drive, let alone be in line for a better drive.
The last name on the Gravity managed drivers list is German Christian Vietoris. Even if his 7th place overall in the 2011 GP2 season can be seen as disappointing for his second season in the series, a few factors have to be considered. First, he has beaten his highly rated team mate Dani Clos. Second, he missed two events, i.e. four races. And third, in parallel to his open wheel racing, he was racing tin-tops in DTM. While I still believe Vietoris could benefit from a third year in GP2, he has shown as much or more in feeder series than some current F1 drivers and could be the one to be given a chance if Renault wants a truly fresh driver.
Also we should not forget drivers who are not currently associated with Renault and/or Gravity. Kimi Räikkönen seems to have seen enough of WRC, but his relation with Bouillier has suffered from last year’s public statements on how he wasn’t interested in a Renault drive. Rubens Barrichello could try to sell his experience if he loses his Williams seat as expected. Adrian Sutil may well be looking for a job next year. Another potential newcomer from GP2 is Frenchman Charles Pic, whose family apparently has ties with Renault and could be preferred to Grosjean for that reason.
So in the end, my guess is the drive will go to one of these drivers, ordered by probability: Romain Grosjean, Bruno Senna, Charles Pic or Rubens Barrichello.
What do you think? Did I forget someone?