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Rubens Out, Hulkenberg In, at Williams?

Rubens Barrichello

The driver line-up at Williams still seems to be up in the air.  It had been thought earlier that Rubens Barrichello’s contract had been extended to 2011.  Barrichello had made positive remarks in this regard, and most of the paddock gossip has been around team mate Nico Hulkenberg’s future with the team.

There was a certain logic to this.  Although the young German has been groomed by the team, he got off to a slow start this year, and for the balance of the season he’s been outperformed by the vastly more  experienced Barrichello.  Furthermore, it’s been said that Hulkenberg’s manager, Willi Weber, is asking for a salary bump for his young charge.  It was Weber who was able to secure top-dollar contracts for Michael Schumacher during phase one of the German ace’s career.

Barrichello, on the other hand, has been driving in Formula 1 for nearly 20 years, and for much of that time he was with Ferrari and Honda, well-heeled teams.  He’s made his fortune already, and at this stage of his career is driving at a discounted rate, just to stay in the game.  He can afford to.  And for the team, he represents goos value.

But Barrichello isn’t a driver for the future.  Sooner or later, he’ll have to think about retirement, and Williams will need a replacement, whether they hire a younger veteran, like Nick Heidfeld, or concentrate on grooming someone like Hulkenberg.

Unfortunately, a team’s driver line-up isn’t always about the drivers.  Williams, according to reports, will be losing four sponsors this year, one of them RBS. (The banking giant has had liquidity issues in the wake of the recent financial crisis, and has reconsidered its involvement in sports branding.  Williams isn’t the only RBS beneficiary to lose out.  Sir Jackie Stewart has lost his contract for being their roving corporate amabassador.)

As a solution, it’s been rumored that Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado is currently a likely candidate to replace Hulkenberg. Maldonado is said to have personal sponosorship equaling $15 million per year from state-owned petroleum company PDVSA. Williams has been facing ongoing funding issues over recent years. During the early and mid-nineties, they were the class of the field, but after Adrian Newey left the team, their performance fell off, and in a self-perpetuating cycle, lost performance eventually resulted in lost sponsorship.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that Williams is actively considering the pay-to-pay option for their scond driver slot.  This is an obvious option explored by many midfield and rear-grid teams.  It’s a shame to see Williams go that route, although they’ve let commercal considerations affect their choice of drivers in the past.  Recall that Kazuki Nakajima was their second driver during the 2007-2009 seasons when they ran Toyota engines.

If hiring Maldonado is a foregone conclusion at this point, Williams then faces the dilemma of releasing one of their current drivers to make room for the Venezuelan.  Frankly, they seem to have attained a good balance with Barrichello and Hulkenberg.  The rookie driver’s performance is beginning to improve, and given time he might become a front-running driver.  It would be a shame to interrupt his development at this point.  On the other hand, if Williams ditched Barrichello in favor of Maldonado, they would begin 2011 with the least experienced driver line-up on the grid.  This would clearly have potentially serious consequences, not only in terms of race performance, but in car development.

Barrichello was brought on board for several reasons.  Ad mentioned above, he prepresents good value for the price. He’s a solid performer, a race winner, if not exactly brilliant.  And it was the team’s expectation that he would help mentor his younger team mate.  If Williams replaced Barrichello with Maldonado, they might be gaining $15 million, but they’d be losing quite a bit in the bargain.

Apparently, nothing is decided at this point.  Unofficial word is that Williams will not confirm anything until this winter.  Barrichello was recently asked if his contract at Williams for 2011 was a done deal, to which he responded, “That’s something you will have to ask Williams.”

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