Hulkenberg move freezes out Kobayashi

Kobayashi appears to be on his way out of Sauber

With the news yesterday that Sauber have signed Nico Hulkenberg for next year, the rumours that the team has decided to release Kamui Kobayashi at the end of this season have been all but confirmed.

Sauber has said that it will announce its second driver for 2013 at a later date, but that is most likely to come down to a shoot-out between Esteban Gutierrez and Robin Frijns, both of whom are due to test for the Swiss outfit in the Abu Dhabi Young Driver test next week.

Whilst both drivers have huge potential, you’d have to fancy Gutierrez to get the drive based on the fact that he is backed by Telmex, who currently sponsor Sauber. Telmex have said that despite Sergio Perez’s move to McLaren next year they will continue to back Sauber, and although it is possible that Gutierrez could continue his reserve driver role, you’d imagine that they would be less keen to continue backing them if they chose someone else to race for them next year. Therefore, expect to see Gutierrez partnering Hulkenberg next year with Frijns taking over as the reserve driver.

Hulkenberg (left) will almost certainly replace Kobayashi next year

The big story in this is the almost certain departure of Kobayashi. Whilst there has been no confirmation that the likeable Japanese driver will leave the team at the end of the season, it makes no sense for Sauber to wait to announce their second driver if they have decided to keep him on. In addition, the noises coming from the team in recent races have been less than encouraging, with Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn being very reluctant to talk up Kobayashi’s chances of still being at the team next season, even after he took a brilliant podium in his home Grand Prix at Suzuka.

You can’t help that feel that if Kobayashi is dropped it would be incredibly harsh on him. Since joining Sauber three years ago he has consistently produced good performances, building a reputation as a fearless racer who is not afraid to tough it out on track. In 2010 produced some storming drives, most notably in Valencia and Suzuka, and contributed 32 of his team’s 44 points on his way to 12th in the championship.

It was a similar story last year. A run of six straight points finishes in the early part of the season allowed him to assert his superiority over Sergio Perez, and when Perez was sidelined by injury in Monaco he showed great leadership to galvanise the team and produce both his and Sauber’s best result of the season with fifth place. He again finished 12th in the overall standings, four places ahead of his teammate.

This year has seen Kobayashi lose the teammate battle for the first time. With three races to go he trails Perez by 16 points in the drivers’ standings and has only one podium to his teammate’s three. However, Perez is one of the best young drivers on the grid and his performances have convinced McLaren that he is capable of replacing Lewis Hamilton next year. Perez has the potential to be a world champion in the future, and could even go onto be as good as the likes of Vettel and Alonso. Whilst Kobayashi does not have quite the same promise, it is no shame to be where he is when you consider how talented his team-mate is.

Furthermore, Kobayashi has outqualified Perez 9-8 this year and has progressed to Q3 more times. It can also be said that this had hindered him as it has left him with fewer tyres for the race, whilst Perez has taken advantage of being given free choice over his tyres to gain positions in the race. Kobayashi has also had bad luck at time, no more so than at Spa when after qualifying a career best second he was taken out of contention at the first corner.

As a driver in a midfield team he has done well. Although Nico Hulkenberg is a talented driver there is far from certain that he would beat Kobayashi in the same car. And for a team like Sauber who are unlikely to be challenging for wins and titles you need guys like Kobayashi who aren’t afraid to go for overtaking moves, who will drive the wheels off the car but at the end of the day will still bring the car home in one piece and in the points. He has done nothing to warrant being replaced, and if he is shown the door he will have every reason to feel aggrieved, particularly given that Hulkenberg does not bring much in the way of sponsorship.

And if he is shoved out, there are precious little options for him at other teams. Hulkenberg’s departure from Force India has left a vacancy there, but there are numerous other drivers such as Jules Bianchi, Jaime Alguersuari and Adrian Sutil who have been linked with them. Williams is another possibility, but Pastor Maldonado and his millions are nailed on for one seat and reserve driver Valtteri Bottas is the hot favourite to partner him.

That realistically only leaves Caterham as an option. There are doubts over both Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov’s futures, but Kobayashi lacks funding and the likes of Bruno Senna and Giedo van der Garde, with large amounts of sponsorship, will be ahead of him in the queue should either Kovalainen or Petrov leave the team.

It’s a shame, because Kamui Kobayashi has done nothing to warrant losing his place in Formula One, and in the world of Formula One where money can get you a long way it looks like that is a real possibility. And if Kobayashi doesn’t line up on the starting grid in Melbourne next year, then the world of Formula One will be a poorer place.

Stephen D’Albiac

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