The Brazilian GP has always had a special place in the hearts of F1 insiders, thanks to the unique atmosphere of Interlagos. The place is steeped in history, and World Champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna – and not forgetting Carlos Pace, after whom the venue is named – all played a part in creating it.
The track has looked a little rough around the edges for many years, and despite a lot of talk, we have yet to see any signs of a makeover. Bernie Ecclestone has a soft spot for this country, and he’s given the organisers a lot of leeway, and one can’t imagine any other venue being allowed to get away without a revamp. The primitive pit and hospitality buildings make life hard for mechanics and catering staff alike, but they are also part of the charm of the narrow, cramped paddock.
Brazil hasn’t always been the last race, but on the many of the occasions that it has been, we’ve said farewells to departing drivers. This time around the focus is on Mark Webber, who still has a shot at third in the World Championship. A win in his final race would be a nice way to sign out, but he neither wants not expects any favours from Sebastian Vettel, who has his eye on a ninth straight victory, which will put him on a par with Alberto Ascari in terms of that particular stat.
Uncertainty in the driver market
We’ve also had many memorable title showdowns in Brazil over the years, but this time the excitement surrounds the driver market, which remains in an unprecedented state of flux. The bottom line is that five key seats are still available, with one at Lotus and two apiece at Force India and Sauber.
And in essence there are six drivers battling for those seats, namely Nico Hülkenberg, Esteban Gutiérrez, Adrian Sutil, Paul di Resta, Sergio Pérez and Pastor Maldonado. Even if there are no wild cards like Sergey Sirotkin – currently off the radar after his backing fell through – one of the guys on that list will end up without a drive.
It’s an extraordinary scenario, and daily conversations in Austin and again here with some of the key players, including driver managers, underline that nobody is quite sure how things will play out.
At Lotus the story appears to be relatively simple. If the Quantum money comes through, the team’s financial situation will be eased sufficiently for it to be able to employ Nico Hülkenberg. If it doesn’t, and few sensible paddock observers have any faith in the ability of Quantum to back up its bold promises, then it still needs a massive influx of funding.
The man who appears to be able to provide that is Maldonado, who has been linked with Lotus for months. And yet the deal is still not done, and he’s been hinting that it’s not yet clear whether PDVSA, having extracted itself from a Williams contract, will be coming with him after all. Pérez is also an outside bet at Lotus, but again only if he brings Mexican funding.
It’s no secret that Sauber is in dire financial trouble, and the collapse of the Sirotkin deal has been a major blow. The team is now relying on renewing contracts with its Mexican backers, which run out at the end of this season. The Gutiérrez camp is confident that it still carries that support, and logic suggests that the rookie will get a second season at Sauber.
Interlagos paddock wall mural
That begs the question of what will happen to Pérez, for whom Sauber is arguably his best bet. The team still rates him and he would return as an undoubtedly wiser and more experienced driver.
But two Mexicans in one team? It’s been discussed, but it’s a little tricky, especially given the fact that the backing orchestrated by Carlos Slim is relatively modest – and potentially not enough to justify seats for both drivers. Having said that, splitting the funding and placing the drivers in different teams could be even more difficult.
Putting them both in the same team, with a two-year deal that guarantees that they will both be around when the delayed Mexican GP joins the calendar in 2015, would be Slim’s ideal plan. But as ever, it’s a question of $$$, and you don’t become as wealthy as his family is by spending money if you don’t really have to…
Sauber could yet surprise us by looking at other drivers, possibly some names from the bottom of the current grid, who can bring guaranteed funding – and as it happens, more experience than Sirotkin has. And Hülkenberg could yet stay at Sauber, but again only if the team doesn’t require drivers with funding.
At Force India in theory the choice will be the same as it was for 2012, when it came down to perming two from Hülkenberg, di Resta and Sutil. The last named lost out back then, but he is in favour this time around, while there’s also a push to get Hülkenberg back. In which case di Resta will be in trouble. Two Germans in one team? When I asked Vijay Mallya about that a few weeks ago he joked that if nationality mattered that much, he’d have two Indians…
Force India could be a fall back position for Maldonado, and Pérez has emerged as a late joker. I get the impression that while the team understandably has conversed with those guys, given that cash is always welcome, the preference is to stick to the drivers it knows.
Meanwhile all concerned are waiting, waiting, waiting, with Maldonado still regarded by most as the key to the whole thing.
“For sure everything is running,” said the Venezuelan when I asked him today. “I really hope to have a confirmation quite soon. But I don’t have any hurry, we are working on that. It could be hours, days, even months. I hope to get the 100 per cent from the negotiations. Let’s see.
“Sometimes when you are negotiating, it takes some time, and it’s taking some time. But it’s quite clear that I will be in F1, it’s quite clear where, and everything. I still have some options, but I have my preference…”
“It’s definitely looking better than it was seven days ago,” said Pérez this afternoon. “We have made some progress in that respect, which is positive. But as we know in F1 if you don’t have the contract, there’s still nothing there. I’m confident that I will get a seat that will keep me very motivated to achieve my dreams in F1.
“There are some options, and one of them is going back to Sauber. But there are other options that we are looking at at the moment. Force India can be another option as well, but nothing really deep in discussion. All the teams that haven’t announced a driver, for sure we are looking to see what can be the best option for my future.”
Just to complicate matters nobody has any real idea of what the pecking order will be next year, so drivers and managers are shooting at a moving target. Intriguingly Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari are all represented in the three teams at the heart of the story. It will be fascinating to see how it all pans out – and who has the right lottery ticket…