From Russia with Love: Why Caterham’s driver decision is clear cut

The three, now two, ‘new teams’ in Formula One have to survive on two different models. The first, running ‘pay’ drivers who bring millions in sponsor dollars to the team. In the other model, the team runs one ‘pay’ driver and one driver there on merit. These two models have both their benefits and pitfalls.

Caterham faces a move between these two models for the 2013 season.  They have signed Charles Pic for the upcoming Formula one campaign and this leaves one more vacant seat.  Pic is undoubtedly a good driver.  He gave Timo Glock a hard time on several occasions, beating the German handily in Germany and Hungary last year.  While Charles is a good driver, he does bring money to the team, as a lot of young drivers must do these days.  The question is for Caterham, do they fill the other seat with a pay driver or one who doesn’t bring money, but real talent?

In the past few days, rumblings have been developing, hinting at the open seat going to Russian, Vitaly Petrov.  He had an impressive first season with Caterham last year.  While he didn’t have the upper hand in qualifying, he was out qualified 13 times by Kovalainen, he did out qualify the Finn five times out of the last seven races, when the pressure mounted to overhaul Marussia for 10th place in the Constructors’ Championship. In the races, Vitaly beat Kovalainen 10 times, making it equal between the two. However, when you consider that the Russian was out qualified more times than not, Vitaly’s ability to come back in the race is all the more impressive. 

The shining moment for Caterham in 2012 will easily be Brazil.  It was the last chance for Caterham to catch Marussia in the Constructors’ Championship. The rain provided a good opportunity to get a surprise result.  In the end, it was Petrov who impressed with an 11th place finish, sealing 10th in the championship. Had Raikkonen gotten more lost when he went off the track, maybe Petrov could even have taken Caterham’s first championship point.   

I was very impressed with Vitaly’s performances this year.  He was going up against a proven, good driver in Kovalainen, while having joined the team after the first pre-season test.  Vitaly was solid and, towards the end of the season, very impressive on track, proving he isn’t just a ‘pay’ driver, he is a good driver.  I think the Russian’s season at the back of the grid has taught him a lot about having to fight in every single race, even though points weren’t on offer. 

Caterham has an important decision to make soon. Do they go with a consistently proven driver with no money, or a driver with money who has started to prove himself consistently?  While it is looking more and more likely that Vitaly Petrov will take the final seat at Caterham, it isn’t guaranteed he will get it.  Nevertheless, I think Petrov is the better driver to go with.  Caterham has learned this year that they aren’t guaranteed 10th place every year.  Marussia is on the up, and they have a very solid line up for this upcoming season.  Caterham will have a very solid line up regardless of which driver they choose for the final open seat.  I put Vitaly and Heikki on equal footing in terms of what they are capable of on track, and if one of them has money to offer, then the choice is easy.

If the line up with Charles and Vitaly works out, then they have a platform for a long-term line up that will being them success in the future. If it doesn’t then they have a hard decision to make for 2014. For now, though, there is a clear-cut choice which Caterham will be smart to make.

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