Of the five top teams in Formula One – Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Lotus – only Lotus have said nothing about their 2014 driver line-ups. McLaren haven’t confirmed Jenson Button yet for next season, but that is a mere formality now that Kimi Raikkonen has signed for Ferrari.
Raikkonen’s departure from Lotus at the end of this season presents a problem for the team from Enstone. They still have Romain Grosjean, who is doing a reasonable job this season, but he is relatively inexperienced. Lotus will want to have a driver who they believe can challenge for the World Championship, and Grosjean (who has yet to win a race) is not at that level at this early stage in his career.
So Lotus are looking for at least one driver for 2014, and they would ideally like to select their team leader from within the ranks of current F1 drivers. They therefore have a few options. Most prominently, now that he’s out of a drive at Ferrari, Felipe Massa is on the market. Massa has won 11 races and narrowly missed out on the Drivers’ Championship in 2008. The experience of fighting for the title could make Massa an attractive option for Lotus, although he has not shown that level of performance in the five subsequent seasons.
Another strong candidate is Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, who has long been rumoured to be on Ferrari’s radar, but missed out on a 2014 Ferrari drive to Kimi Raikkonen. Hulkenberg came into Formula One with Williams in 2010 after winning the 2009 GP2 series comfortably and impressed in his debut F1 season, taking pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix. But he was not retained in 2011 by Williams, who preferred to take advantage of the sponsorship that came with Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado.
After spending 2011 as Force India’s test and reserve driver, Hulkenberg landed a race drive at Force India for 2012, but then jumped ship to Sauber in 2013. He has not yet had a chance to show what he can do in a properly competitive car, but has consistently delivered strong performances in each of his three F1 seasons. He is considered a champion of the future and is expected to drive for Ferrari at some point in his career.
Hulkenberg would provide not only talent and a bit of experience to Lotus, but he would also probably be cheaper than a driver of Massa’s success, as he has not yet won a race or even stood on the podium. Lotus could therefore spend more money on developing their car and take advantage of Hulkenberg’s talents at the same time.
Other drivers who have yet to make decisions about 2014 are Force India’s Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta. Sutil has 102 Grands Prix under his belt, and is well regarded in Formula One. He has only ever driven for Force India (in 2007, he drove for Spyker, which became Force India the following season) and has a good relationship with the team, which suggests that he is likely to extend his Force India contract past the end of 2013.
Di Resta has said right from the beginning of 2013 that he is looking to move to a more competitive team. He looked quick in the early part of this season, before Force India started to struggle when Pirelli revised their 2013 tyres, and recorded an impressive fourth-place finish at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Heikki Kovalainen, who has won a race for McLaren and is currently assisting Caterham with the development of their car, is probably the most sought-after driver to not have a current F1 race seat, and it seems highly unlikely that he will remain on the sidelines again in 2014. If Lotus were to offer Kovalainen a drive for 2014, he would surely grab it with both hands.
Lotus has two test drivers. Jerome D’Ambrosio raced in Formula One for Virgin (now Marussia) in 2011 and made one appearance for Lotus in 2012, standing in for the banned Romain Grosjean at the Italian Grand Prix, where D’Ambrosio finished 13th. Davide Valsecchi, the other Lotus test driver, is the current GP2 series champion, but has yet to make his Formula One debut. It seems unlikely that either D’Ambrosio or Valsecchi will take the step up to a Lotus race seat in 2014. It is more likely that Lotus will seek a more experienced driver currently on the grid.
However, for the second Lotus seat anything is possible. Romain Grosjean has not been confirmed for 2014, which means his seat is potentially up for grabs. If Lotus decide to replace Grosjean, they could well look to a less experienced driver as a development plan for future seasons. Whatever decision is made, it is likely to be confirmed before the end of the season, as next year’s major regulation changes make it necessary for teams to start 2014 preparations as early as possible, and that includes integrating new drivers into their organisations.