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The pressure problem

Chris Medland October 16, 2012
Kamui Kobayashi looks set to be replaced at Sauber at the end of the season © Press Association
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While the fight for the lead in to turn one in Korea was hugely important, many eyes were on Romain Grosjean further back in the field. Fresh from his clash with Mark Webber in Japan, Grosjean was under massive pressure to stay clean on the opening lap.

He managed to do so, just, as Kamui Kobayashi came pinballing between Nico Rosberg and Jenson Button in to turn three. Another man under pressure had got it wrong and ruined the race for two others.

Kobayashi's podium in Japan last week was a bittersweet day. Joy in front of his home fans was tempered by the threat that he could be on his way out at Sauber at the end of the season. Kobayashi himself said in Korea: "Of course a sponsor could help for next year, but at the moment I have no sponsors to be here. It's very strange to need to find a sponsor to drive for another team or [to drive] here. At this moment of course the money is very important but basically I really want to be one of the top drivers with a good team. I want to be in Formula One and that's what I was dreaming of when I was young.

"Drivers should be thinking about the car and what to do with the car as that's their job, but now it's complicated by a lot of sponsoring and what they can bring. That is the way a driver has to be. I will try to stay in Formula One next year and show for the rest of the season what I can do in Formula One."

Unfortunately, the opportunity to show what he can do lasted all of 1500m, though he limped round for 16 laps before retiring his car. It was in stark contrast to Kobayashi's excellently mature drive at Suzuka in the face of on-track pressure from Button, but it's the off-track pressure that drivers struggle to deal with.

Grosjean's mistake in Japan came as he tried too hard to avoid one accident and caused another. In Korea he was tentative trying to pass Nico Hulkenberg and Lewis Hamilton; much unlike his impressive aggressive style which he displayed passing Hamilton in Valencia and Bahrain.

Even third place in Japan doesn't appear to be enough to save Kobayashi's seat © Press Association

The problem is even hugely impressive performances may not be enough at this stage. Grosjean's seat looks more secure, but for Kobayashi even four victories could prove ineffective without money. It may catch the eye of bigger teams but if, as expected, Felipe Massa is confirmed at Ferrari and Lotus retain Kimi Raikkonen and Grosjean then the top five teams will have finalised line-ups. That leaves Kobayashi's best bet as staying with Sauber, but Telmex money seems set to earn Esteban Gutierrez a seat when his fellow Mexican Sergio Perez moves on.

Gutierrez has been Sauber's third driver for the last two seasons but was not deemed ready for a drive when the opportunity arose in Canada last year, nor has he been entrusted with any Friday practice time this campaign. In GP2 he has shown himself to have flair and raw speed as well as the ability to win races - four so far including three this season - but in his second year he's been largely outperformed by his rookie team-mate James Calado and still made too many mistakes.

One such example came at Silverstone. Trying to take fourth place from Johnny Cecotto Jr on the final lap, Gutierrez ran wide at Vale but kept his foot in across the grass, lost control and veered across in to the side of Cecotto at high speed. Incidentally, if you think stewards' decisions in Formula One can be bad, Gutierrez was given a ten-place grid penalty for the next race, allowing him to keep fourth place and leaving Cecotto scoreless.

Realistically, Gutierrez is not ready for the Sauber drive, even if he has plenty of potential. With complaints this year about drivers making too many errors early in their Formula One careers and the top level not being a finishing school, the last thing that's required is another hothead on the grid too soon. Think Pastor Maldonado, but being promoted to Formula One two years earlier.

Kobayashi's potential to deliver strong results (a third, fourth and fifth this season) coupled with his input which helped Sauber design such a good car this year would make him the sensible choice to remain for 2013. Gutierrez could then build up Friday practice experience alongside another year in GP2 or World Series by Renault in preparation for a race seat the following season. The need to keep sponsors happy, however, looks set to fast-track his path to the grid and leaves Kobayashi with four more races to try and earn himself a seat elsewhere or - more likely - convince a Japanese sponsor to throw serious money behind him.

At the age of just 26, and with a brilliant first podium just eight days behind him, Kobayashi could already be facing the end of his Formula One career. That's pressure for you.