Pedro de la Rosa, who has been the test and reserve driver for McLaren Mercedes for the past seven years, has been confirmed as the second driver at BMW Sauber, where he’ll partner semi-rookie F1 pilot Kamui Kobayashi. De la Rosa, who is 38 years old, last contested an F1 race when he subbed for Juan Pablo Montoya in 2006, and last raced full time in Formula 1 with the Jaguar team in 2002. (The Jaguar team was sold to Red Bull Racing at the end of the 2004 season.)
While some paddock prognosticators had tipped Nick Heidfeld for Sauber’s second seat, it’s clear that Peter Sauber has decided to go in a different direction. Heidfeld has raced for the Sauber team previously, and at times was considered to be undermotivated. In fact, when the competitive Robert Kubica joined Sauber to replace the underperforming former champ Jacques Villeneuve, it was thought that Kubica lit a fire under Heidfeld, by turning in impressive rookie performances which threatened to make the more seasoned driver look lackluster by comparison.
As reported by Autosport, Peter Sauber said of his new hire, “Pedro has spent many years working for a top team at the highest technical level. We as a team stand to gain from his experience, and the same goes for young Kamui. The combination of a seasoned racer and an up-and-coming young driver has repeatedly proved a very fruitful one. I don’t expect either of them to disappoint in 2010.”
It would appear that Sauber is trying to capitalize on de la Rosa’s long experience as a development driver. With in-season testing banned, it will be essential for teams to maximize their track time on race weekends for collecting data, essentially using free practice sessions on Fridays as mini-test sessions. While de la Rosa might be a bit rusty as a racer, his test skills will be well honed, and should prove to be an effective compliment to Kobayashi’s game racing style, which was demonstrated so ably in the final two races of the 2009 season.
De la Rosa has fallen out of the limelight somewhat during his years as a tester and reserve driver. As has been the case with other test drivers, such as Luca Badoer and Alex Wurtz, many suspected that he would end his F1 career in that role. Ironically, it was the current test ban regulations, which essentially limit all on-track testing to a brief pre-season window, that motivated de la Rosa to find an active race seat.
“I always firmly believed I would be given another chance as a team driver,” the Spaniard said. “Since the number of test drives were radically reduced, this was what I was working towards.” Clearly, the test ban had left de la Rosa with little to do during the race season, beyond lurking about the paddock, waiting for a chance to fill in for one of the regular drivers. As injuries are relatively uncommon in the modern Formula 1 world, this seldom happens. The 2009 season was rather exceptional, as two drivers, Felipa Massa and Timo Glock, ended up needing stand-ins.
As a side-note, while Peter Sauber’s team will apparently be retaining the BMW-Sauber nomenclature which they’ve used for the past several years, in the wake of BMW’s complete withdrawal from the sport, Sauber will actually be using Ferrari engines.