The 2009 grid is filling up. BMW Sauber announcement last week they would continue with Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld in 2009 means that half of the current teams has confirmed both their drivers for next season. Ferrari, McLaren, BMW Sauber and Williams will enter 2009 season with unchanged race drivers line ups. The only confirmed change so far is Sebastian Vettel replacing retiring David Coulthard in Red Bull. And although there has been no official confirmation from Toyota yet, the fact that Kazuki Nakajima remains with Williams for another season may be a clear indication that both Glock and Trulli will stay on (as widely expected anyway).
So, 6 teams and 12 seats are but there are still 8 question marks left:
Fernando Alonso has made up his mind already (at least that is what he claims). He insists however that he will only tell us after the Brazilian GP. There have been some rumours linking him with Toro Rosso but I doubt anyone took thise seriously. For now it is either Honda or Renault. And while Honda guys are still waiting for YES or NO from Alonso I believe that anything other than “Alonso stays with Renault for 2009″ would be a surprise.
Nelson Piquet has some job to do to convince Flavio Briatore to keep him in the Renault racing seat. Hs Japanese GP performance might have helped but he would need to follow it up with similar showings in China and back home in Brazil. Otherwise the team may turn to his fellow Brazilian Lucas di Grassi …
It was widely expected that Honda would announce their 2009 line up, it was also believed that Rubens Barrichello will not part of it. But there was no annoucement. Instead Nick Fry told ITV just before the race, that they are still waiting for a yes or no from certain driver. This certain driver is Fernando Alonso. Jenson Button is set to stay on (no confirmation yet though). It looks less and less likely that Alonso would choose to move from quickly improving Renault to sorry (but hopeful for 2009) Honda. The speculations that Honda may be looking beyond 2009 and that may be reason to wait. In 2010 drivers like Kubica and Alonso will be free and if Honda sees any chance to sign them then they might prefer to stay on with Rubens Barrichello instead of hiring a young gun for only one season. But how they plan to find out if they have any chance attracting top drivers ? Based on what would any top driver commit himself to Honda ? Based on the traditional promise that next year will be Honda year ?
In any case it does look like Rubens Barrichello is now considered a disposable asset and will be dropped should some more exciting option come by, be it Alonso or Senna. Another Brazilian mentioned in connection with Honda is Nelson Piquet, allegedly preferred by Honda’s sponsor to be – Petrobras.
It has become a bit quiet here. Sebastien Bourdais had a good race in Japan but he will need to reporduce similar performances in the last 2 races of the season to help his cause. Tost and Berger can be ruthless when it comes to making decisions about their drivers as Scott Speed and Vitantonio Liuzzi can tell.
There are at least 3 other candidates for the Toro Rosso drive next year – Sebastien Buemi, Bruno Senna and Takuma Sato. It would be fair to say that each of them has about 50:50 chance. Bourdais would mean continuity and some experience, Buemi would make sense as he is part of Red Bull’s junior drivers program, Senna would bring the famous name and all that comes with it, Sato would bring Red Bull brand closer to Japan. The decision may also rest on the future plans of Dietrich Mateschitz. The recent successes of STR seem to be swinging him away from the intention to sell his share in the team. The possibility of continued legality of certain form of customer cars may make his decision making easier.
Both drivers seems to be confident they will race next year. Fisichella openly talked about promise from the team to get better car n 2009, Sutil claims he never had any doubts as he has contract in hand for 2009. We all however know what contracts mean in Formula 1. On top of it Force India seems to have turned around on the customer car idea and instead of fighting it is embracing it now. If a strong partner like Mercedes comes around with a good deal for engines and KERS and a driver they would like to put in the cockpit – like for example Mercedes DTM driver Paul di Resta (UK) – some contracts may fly out of the window. Signing with Mercedes would mean Force India would have to get out of their engine deal with Ferrari. If they could manage that, they sure would not have too much trouble to get out of the contracts they may have with their current drivers …
Photos: Honda Racing F1, Renault/LAT, Daimler Media