The Sauber (formerly BMW-Sauber) F1 team has confirmed that Kamui Kobayashi will join their driver line-up for 2010. Kobayashi impressed many observers when he substituted for Toyota’s Timo Glock in the final two races of 2009. It was widely assumed that Kobayashi would be rewarded with a permanent seat at Toyota, but the Cologne-based team subsequently announced their withdrawal from the sport.
The BMW had made a similar announcement earlier in the season, and the future of the team’s assets (factory, personnel, intellectual property, etc.) was in doubt for several months. However, the founder of the team, Peter Sauber, who sold an 80% equity position in the team four years ago, ultimately was able to repurchase his majority stake from the German carmaker.
As reported in The Guardian, Sauber said that the rookie’s performances in Brazil and Abu Dhabi convinced him that Kobayashi was a driver worth cultivating. “Particularly in the Abu Dhabi race he demonstrated not only that he can drive fast and aggressively, but also his ability to successfully implement a strategy,” said Sauber. “I am convinced he has a great deal of potential and will be able to make the most of it in our team.”
In a related statement, Kobayashi said of his placement with Sauber, “I am very happy that my two races in 2009 have earned me a cockpit place. I will do my very best for Peter Sauber’s team and I am proud to be able to carry on flying the Japanese flag in Formula One.”
No doubt, Peter Sauber would have preferred to announce both drivers at once, but the second Sauber seat is as of yet unclaimed. Nick Heidfeld had been linked with the seat, although the German has also been mentioned as the plan B driver for Mercedes.
Heidfeld has spent most of is Formula 1 career with the Hinwil-based team in its various iterations. He spent three years with Sauber (2001-2003), then four years with BMW-Sauber (2006-2009). He also spent a year each at Prost, Jordan and Williams. Certainly, if Heidfeld remained at the team, that would provide them with a certain amount of continuity in a time of transition. On the other hand, one wonders if perhaps Peter Sauber wouldn’t prefer to inject the team with new blood.
It seems likely that the second Sauber vacancy won’t be resolved until the new year. The lynchpin for the next round of driver placements would seem to be the Mercedes vacancy. According to reports, Mercedes have made an offer to Michael Schumacher, to which he’s agreed to in principal, contingent upon the results of a final medical exam for his neck injury.
A report in Bild indicated that Schumacher planned to test a GP2 car in Abu Dhabi before the end of this year, presumably to assess his neck fitness. If the test and the exam go well, it’s likely that a Mercedes announcement would follow shortly thereafter. Once Heidfeld is out of the picture at Mercedes, it’s likely that he would opt for Sauber.
A dark horse in all of this is Robert Kubica, who is currently nervous about the viability of Renault. The French manufacturer just announced the sale of their team assets to a Luxembourg-based venture capital firm. The new owners are guaranteed free engines, and the use of the Renault brand, for a year. There seem to be question marks on the horizon, though, and it’s possible that Kubica might reconsider his options, even though the ink on his contract is barely dry. Either Sauber or Mercedes might be in the picture, should either of those teams need a fallback choice.