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Sergio Perez to Replace Heidfeld at Sauber in 2011

Future Sauber pilot Sergio Perez

The Sauber team has announced that Mexican GP2 driver Mexican Sergio Perez will partner Kamui Kobayashi for the 2011 season.  The 20 year old driver currently lies second in this year’s GP2 contest.  This marks the second surprise announcement by Sauber about their driver lineup in the past few weeks.  They unceremoniously dumped driver Pedro de la Rosa recently, replacing him with Sauber/BMW veteran driver Nick Heidfeld.

It’s reasonable to assume that Heidfeld looked at this as the beginning of a renwed relationship with the team, with whom, in its two incarnations (Sauber and BMW) he’s spent the majority of his career.  However, three into two won’t go, as the saying goes, and, with Perez lined up to partner Kobayashi, it looks as though Heidfeld will be shopping his resume again.

Which, of course, begs the question of why Sauber hired him in the first place, if they intended to replace him in 2011.  Is he that much of an improvement over de la Rosa?  The answer to the latter question is no.  However, a couple of answers to the former question come to mind.

First, Peter Sauber was dissatisfied with his driver line up, and he decided he would neeed new blood.  His dilemma: his current drivers are a returning veteran who has been relegated to testing for McLaren for the past several years, and might be past his shelf date (de la Rosa); and a rookie who showed promise in the final two races last year, when he was a substitute, but whose performance has been rather erratic this year.

De la Rosa will be 40 next year, so it’s clear that he doesn’t have much mileage left in him.  Clearly, Sauber’s money will be on the youngster, Kobayashi.  But the problem is, Sauber doesn’t really have a reliable baseline for evaluating his performance.  De la Rosa is apt to be a bit rusty as a racer, and a driver’s team mate is the best yardstick to use for measuring performance.

Nick Heidfeld, on the other hand, was a known quantity.  Sauber/BMW has been his home team for a decade, so Peter Sauber should be well acquainted with his quality as a driver.  So it’s possible that Sauber’s plan was to hire Heidfeld simply as a way of measuring how worthy Kobayashi was.

A second possibility, which seems more likely, is that Sauber was finally able to land a major sponsor (Telemex, which is owned by the world’s richest man, Mexican multi-billionaire Carlos Slim), and the deal was contingent upon the team’s hiring a Mexican driver.

Of course, that brings us back to the same question, if Sergio Perez was slated to partner Kobayashi next year, why rock the boat this year, and bring in Heidfeld for the last five races.  It might well be of course that that the deal wasn’t finalized until after Heidfeld was brought on board.  Or, it might be that Sauber was initially undecided as to which driver, Heidfeld or Kobayashi, would end up partnering Perez.  If the race at Singapore was intended as a runoff between the two, it wasn’t much of a success.  Both drivers ended up retiring after colliding with Michael Schumacher.

Whatever the chronology, it appears that Peter Sauber has found the key to keeping his team alive.  No one could fail to notice that his cars have been running most of this year unbranded, which implies that Sauber is funding the team out of pocket.  It’s seems unlikely that BMW left him much in the company treasury, as Honda did for Ross Brawn when the latter acquired that team, but you never know.  In any event, the Telmex funding is good news, although the down side for Sauber that he’ll have a pair of driver who, between them, have just a single year of F1 experience.

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