With the Lotus Renault GP team now effectively acknowledging that Robert Kubica could be out for the season, attention inevitably moves to the identity of who could replace him.
The fact that the seat is potentially available for the whole year – and that any driver signed in the next few days will still get six days of testing at Jerez, Barcelona and Bahrain – puts a whole new complexion on things. Assuming that Vitaly Petrov drives on the first two days, then there will be a car waiting for the new driver in Jerez on Saturday February 12.
Bruno Senna was revealed exactly a week ago today as the team’s main reserve driver, on the basis that he raced last year and would thus be relatively fresh, should he be called upon. However even the Brazilian would accept that given its ambitions to win races sooner rather than later – and the R31 was fastest in Valencia after all – for a full season the team has to take a proven driver who can get the job done.
Given the changes over the winter, the number of free agents who raced last year is surprisingly small. Of those who raced in 2010 and are without a current contract with a team, Kubica’s former team mate Nick Heidfeld has to be top of the list, while it’s unlikely that Tonio Liuzzi or Pedro de la Rosa would tick all the boxes for Genii and Group Lotus.
Of those already committed elsewhere, the only third driver with obvious qualifications is Nico Hulkenberg, but it remains to be seen whether his contractual situation with Force India would make it easy for him to take up a chance elsewhere.
While there are probably a few contracted race drivers up and down the pitlane who might envy the Renault seat, it would take a lot of shuffling around for anyone to jump ship.
The one name that keeps springing to mind is Kimi Raikkonen. He’s committed to a part WRC season with Citroen, and has been pretty ambivalent about a possible return to F1. He even had a bit of a war of words in the media with Renault last year after his name came up as a possible 2011 driver.
The difference is that the team didn’t need him then, and he would have been joining a team that already had Robert Kubica. Indeed Petrov was pretty much confirmed anyway, and the fact that the Russian always looked likely to stay means that any discussion of Kimi’s prospects was academic.
This time it’s different. He has the chance of a full season, with six days of testing, in a car that could turn out to be competitive. Group Lotus will certainly be keen to have a big name, and his presence will suit Dany Bahar, who was still at Ferrari when Kimi was there. He wants to be like Ferrari, so hiring the Italian team’s last World Champion is not a bad plan…
Bernie Ecclestone, who likes to get involved in these things, will also be keen to see Kimi back. The Finn still has a huge following, and it would mean yet another World Champion on the grid.
It’s probably not widely known that Kubica and Raikkonen are good friends off track – they share a dislike of the BS that floats around the sport, as well as a passion for rallying – and I am sure that Robert would be the first to tell Eric Boullier and Gerard Lopez that Kimi is the man for the job.
And Lotus Renault would have obvious appeal for Kimi, in that he won’t have the sort of PR commitments that he faced at McLaren and Ferrari. A one-year deal would at least get him back in the game – he could either walk off in 2012, or put himself in a position to go elsewhere.
It might seem a long shot, but then everyone laughed on Sunday morning in Hungary in 2009 when I suggested that Schumacher could stand-in for Massa, including Willi Weber…
There are complications in terms of his arrangements with Red Bull and Citroen, and the winter ‘misunderstanding’ would have to be cleared up. But in the end it’s likely to come down to one thing. Will Kimi want to do it?