Decisions decisionsChris Medland January 21, 2013
As we enter the final week before new car launches, and with just two weeks until the first test gets underway, both Force India and Caterham are yet to finalise their driver line-ups. It's not unusual for teams to take their time over such a decision, but even more hinges on the choice this year than normal.
At Force India, it appears there are political as well as financial considerations. Drivers with sponsorship such as Adrian Sutil and Bruno Senna remain available, but on the other hand third driver Jules Bianchi appears ready to make the step up to Formula One and his Ferrari links could be decisive if the team opts to switch to the 1.6-litre V6s from Maranello in 2014. And that's where the crux of the 2013 decision lies: in 2014.
The change in regulations - primarily the new engines but also other technical rules - means it is a big opportunity for all the teams. Red Bull took advantage of such a change in 2009, launching the RB5 which has continued to develop and delivered three consecutive championship doubles in its later evolutions.
For teams further down the grid, the looming changes cause a big dilemma. Putting aside Vijay Mallya's reported financial difficulties, Force India has been an established midfield team for the last three seasons, but without a budget to match the front-runners a regulation change is its only opportunity to move forward. Yet last season showed just how competitive the midfield is as Force India scored 40 more points than 2011 but dropped a place in the constructors' championship. So how does it approach 2013?
Sutil is a known quantity for the team, and you'd suspect rated more highly than Bianchi as the team is considering bucking the trend it's employed in the last two years of promoting the third driver. But if there's a much better Ferrari engine deal on the table for 2014 provided Bianchi gets the seat this year, the decision makers may be tempted to take the risk of sacrificing this season to some extent.
In the case of Caterham it could stick with the tried and tested Heikki Kovalainen - whose performance appeared to dip slightly in 2012 - or select a driver with significant sponsorship, with Vitaly Petrov still one such candidate.
The former route would give the team the best chance of securing 10th in the constructors' championship again and the millions of pounds that comes with it. The latter would potentially jeopardise its finishing position but give the team substantial cash this year to spend on the development of its 2014 car, when the big opportunity to break in to the midfield arises.
Team principal Cyril Abiteboul confirmed in an interview with the official Formula One website that with Charles Pic in one seat, the decision on who to pair him with is a tough one.
"There are different options," he said. "One option is someone who [Pic] can learn from and who he can use as his benchmark for what we want from both our drivers. Another option, more radical, is to accept the fact that 2013 is a transition year that we use to continue building the team before a period of greater stability in 2014, when a lot of other things in the package will change. Both types of candidates are out there, and we are close to making a decision."
That was in mid-December, and the call still hasn't been made. Bringing in money this year is even more crucial, however, because - as one source in the paddock put it - the new power units are set to cost "considerably more" than the current £7m next year. While the very front-running teams have an easier job of absorbing that kind of cost, it has a much bigger impact on the budgets of those in the midfield and at the back of the grid.
Williams was criticised for appearing to prioritise money over talent over the last two years, but Pastor Maldonado's win in Spain was justification that after the investment, performance can follow. The final piece of that jigsaw is to add a driver with obvious potential - such as Valtteri Bottas - and hope he can reap the rewards of the cash.
Of course, there's no guarantee of success with either approach for Force India and Caterham. A decision needs to be made soon and it needs to be the right one.