December 4th, 2012 (F1plus / Paul Godley).- It was the news that many that expected, but few wanted to hear. Last Friday we learnt that Esteban Gutierrez would be partnering Nico Hulkenberg at Sauber for the 2013 season; pushing the hugely popular Japanese star Kamui Kobayashi out of not only the team, but possibly Formula 1 altogether (for the time being at least). Although many think that the decision to replace 'KK' was wrong; I believe (unfortunately, as a fan of Kamui) that it was the right one. And here is why.
Sauber are an independent team and thus will need drivers who can bring a budget/sponsor(s) with them. It is common knowledge that this is something Kamui is lacking; and I'm assuming this had at least some part in the team deciding against retaining him for 2013. But something else that stands out (to me at least) about Sauber is their history when it comes to selecting drivers. One point I've seen raised by many since Gutierrez's announcement concerns his lack of experience. This is a man who's raced in Formula BMW, Formula 3, GP3 (2010 Champion) and GP2; gaining a host of admirers (on and off track) along the way. So at 21, having raced competitively for the last 6 years, he would appear to be ready, especially when you compare him to past Sauber drivers.
Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez all arrived into Formula 1 at a young age and with arguably less racing experience than Gutierrez has. Raikkonen spent one season at Sauber before McLaren snapped him up. Massa spent three seasons at the Swiss team before Ferrari signed him in 2006. Perez has spent the last two seasons with the team and will now move to McLaren for 2013 and beyond. These are examples of three drivers in the past 10 years or so that Sauber have signed/spotted with relatively little experience and have gone on to bigger and greater things, including winning a World Championship. So does the argument of a lack of experience stack up?
Let's not forget, Kamui himself was brought into Formula 1 when many didn't necessarily believe he was ready. Stepping in for an injured Timo Glock for Toyota in 2009, Kamui impressed many with strong drives in the final two rounds of the season, enough to get him a full time seat in 2010. With who? Sauber.
Clearly money does talk, especially in Formula 1, and the budget that Gutierrez brings with him has helped. But the 21-year-old Mexican has been with the team since 2010 (just like Valterri Bottas at Williams) and the team clearly rate him. It always looked likely that Gutierrez would be promoted to a full time seat at some point. Now whether that should have been in 2013 or 2014 remains up for debate, outside of Sauber at least.
Kobayashi's lack of major sponsors will have played a part in being dropped for 2013, but lest we not forget, his performances this season (particularly early on) have been largely overshadowed by Sergio Perez. Aside from Perez's three podiums this year, there haven't been many other moments of note. But those three podiums, in a midfield team such as Sauber, were real stand out moments. And maybe that's what you also need to do; have stand-out moments. Just look at Williams. Pastor Maldonado has shown extreme speed at times this year, even winning in Spain. Bruno Senna has been more consistent yes, but maybe just a little too steady. What do people remember the most? Those moments that make you really stand up and take notice; like Maldonado's victory or Perez's incredible battle with Fernando Alonso in Malaysia.
Esteba Gutierrez will partner with Nico Hulkenberg at Sauber for 2013.
I really do feel for Kamui. He's one of the sport's most exciting drivers, a true racer and a man who has given us many memorable moments and overtakes (Suzuka 2010 etc.). But having been in the sport for three full seasons now, has he progressed as much as Sauber would have liked? He's outperformed Perez since the Mexican signed with McLaren, but was it too little too late? A brilliant podium at his home round in Japan left many thinking that the well liked Kobayashi would remain with the Swiss team for a 4th season. Sadly, it didn't.
The team have chosen to go into 2013 with two new drivers (to the team anyway), with Nico Hulkenberg joining the aforementioned Gutierrez. I have no doubts that Hulkenberg will be able to finish on the podium, maybe even take a win, should the car be as competitive as we've seen at times in 2012. But what about Esteban Gutierrez? Many will quickly make a comparison to his fellow countryman Perez, given his nationality, experience and financial backing. One thing is for sure, he'll need to make a good first impression, not only to please Sauber, but the fans too. Kobayashi has grown to be one of the most popular drivers with the fans and media; and with Gutierrez replacing him for 2013, he'll need to quickly show what he can do. It'll be sad to see Kamui not on the grid in 2013, but he and many others remain hopeful that he could be back in 2014. We don't ever want to lose drivers, particularly ones as exciting as the Japanese star, but ultimately money (and performances) will and do talk.
As I said at the start, Sauber are an independent team and will always need investment. 2012 has been a largely successful season for the team, although they might feel they should've beaten Mercedes to 5th place, but to ensure 2013 is equally as positive for the team, they'll need financial backing. They're a team that takes a chance on young drivers (Kimi, Felipe), so will Esteban be the next name to join that list?