Force India waited until Friday February,1, to announce Paul di Resta would be staying with the team for 2013 and now they are unlikely to announce their second driver before the second pre-season test in Barcelona.
Bob Fernley, the team’s deputy principal, revealed that test and reserve driver Jules Bianchi and former driver Adrian Sutil were in the running “among others” at their car launch two weeks ago.
Fernley also suggested Bianchi was intended to be the team’s test and reserve driver for two years rather than stepping into a race seat in 2013. Whilst this bucks the normal Force India trend of test and reserve drivers becoming race drivers after one season (think Tonio Liuzzi, Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg) the team were not expecting Hulkenberg to leave the team.
Whilst Bianchi is said to be ready to become a full time driver in the eyes of the team it does beg the question: why have the team not yet confirmed him as a race driver?
Bianchi tested for Force India at the recent Jerez pre-season test, setting the third fastest time on the last day and he now believes he has done enough to prove to the team he deserves a seat. The decision to run Bianchi only heightened rumours that he is likely to secure the second race seat at the team but still there is yet to be confirmation.
We do not know what has been going on behind the scenes, however with Bianchi being a Ferrari protege it can be expected that Ferrari is having some influence in the discussions. Ferrari even admitted to pushing for Bianchi to get a full time race seat and there have been rumours of Ferrari becoming Force India’s engine supplier in 2014.
Bianchi’s outings for Force India during free practice have perhaps highlighted that he may not yet be ready for his debut in F1. The Frenchman took part in eight free practice sessions for the team with a best finish of 13th fastest time in Korea FP1. Bianchi failed to beat either Paul di Resta or Nico Hulkenberg during the free practice sessions, consistently being one second slower.
At the Force India launch Fernley said: “Is Jules ready to go into a primary seat? Yes, he is. Absolutely. But we’ve just got to make sure we tick all the boxes now.” These boxes most likely concerning money and sponsorship.
The seat is very valuable to Force India with it being the only seat left on the grid with Marussia having confirmed Luiz Razia but ultimately Bianchi may not be the best solution for Force India.
The other driver said to be in contention, Adrian Sutil, is a known quantity for the team. He will know the engineers and know the internal structure of the team. There is some things against him, namely his criminal conviction but also a year out of F1 with no racing during that period.
Sutil offers the team a dependable driver who showed promise of becoming one of F1s top drivers and certainly a top-ten contender during his time in F1.
The issue of F1s 2014 engine change is also on the minds of all those at Force India and may prove pivotal to the decision. At the launch Fernley said: “In 2014 we are into a completely different era and we need to have drivers that we feel are going to be capable of developing the car through.” He went on to say that the team were looking for long term stability from their second driver.
In the past few days there have been rumours that Narain Karthikeyan is in contention for the seat as well. The Indian driver has good financial backing but hasn’t had the most impressive career.
Add to this that even Dr Maylla himself has previously said that none of the Indian drivers in the sport are good enough to race for Force India and this suggests that Karthikeyan landing the drive is unlikely.
The report also suggested that Karthikeyan had already secured the third driver role at the team but was now keen on securing the second race seat. Whether or not this is true only time will tell.
If the team do decide to field Karthikeyan it suggests that rumours of its financial difficulties are true and confirm that money is more important than talent for the team at this time.
The longer Force India wait to name the second driver the less time that driver has to prepare for the new season. They may feel that taking their time will provide the best solution but missing out on the first test and pre-season preperations will not help the chosen driver.
The lack of decision from the team is unexpected considering its midfield status in F1 and will ultimately give its rivals confidence leading up to the first race in Australia.
We may not know why Force India are so reluctant to name a driver but the lack of decision doesn’t bode well for the season ahead.