If you believe the rumours floating about at the moment the fight to be Rubens Barrichello’s team-mate at Williams next season is between two men. Both have plenty of talent, each having taken dominant GP2 titles, but they are also very different.
First up is incumbent Nico Hulkenberg. 12 months ago he was the next big thing; today everyone’s feeling a bit unconvinced. It’s not been a bad rookie season, but it’s also not been the supersonic destruction of old man Barrichello we were told to expect. The jury’s out.
His rival for the drive is recently-crowned GP2 champ Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan set a new record for feature race wins in the category this season and had the title sewn up with a round to spare. He is also – and this is crucial – extremely well backed by PDVSA, the state-owned oil company from his homeland. But in his case too the jury is out.
What makes this so interesting is that these two were teammates at GP2 superteam ART Grand Prix last year, where Nico thoroughly walloped Pastor. The German – who was a series rookie – won the title, whilst the Venezuelan – in his third year of GP2 – could only finish sixth. If you suggested at the time that Pastor would be rivaling Nico for a seat in 2011 you’d have been laughed at, possibly even made to wear a little hat with ‘I don’t know anything about motorsport’ written on it.
After Pastor’s textbook GP2 season and Nico’s wobbly F1 campaign it’s less clear cut. However you’d still be wrong to suggest that Maldonado is any better than Hulkenberg. Yes, he won the GP2 title but it took him four years. That’s a long, long time in racing. Nico came in and got the job done immediately, embarrassing Maldonado along the way. That’s a big part of why he landed the Williams drive in the first place.
What do we think of Nico’s maiden F1 campaign then? It’s been far from spotless, but it has seen flashes of real potential. He’s out-qualified Barrichello, who despite being 38 has lost none of his fire, on five occasions. He put in stellar performances in Hungary, and has generally been close to Rubens since F1 arrived in Europe. He was just 0.03 shy of the Brazilian at Suzuka on Nico’s first visit to the extremely testing Japanese track.
If you think Nico’s been involved in too many scrapes then Pastor probably isn’t your sort of driver. In his earlier career he defined the word ragged. He has a habit of banging wheels, breaking cars and generally getting leery in the pack – he was even hit with a suspension for failing to slow at the scene of an accident, landing a track worker in hospital.
His wheel bumping tendencies a big problem this year as he’s generally been able to run and hide at the front. But that won’t happen in a 2011 Williams. He’ll probably be mid-grid, and you worry that, in his rookie F1 year, he’d send a lot of carbon fibre in to the atmosphere with comings-together.
But here’s the simple truth: this will come down to money. Williams don’t want to drop a driver they’ve patiently waited a season to see the best of. They know he’s quick, it’s plain obvious, so they’ll want to reap the fruits of a season’s experience. If they simply wanted a more reliable driver there are several out there: Sutil, Heidfeld and Glock to name just three. Problem is only Adrian brings any cash, and it’s not in the same league as Maldonado’s cheque.
Pastor is thought to have around €12m in sponsorship. That sort of money doesn’t so much open doors as blow them clean off their hinges and lay a red carpet at your feet. ‘”Would you like to sit down, sir? You must be tired from carrying all that sponsorship cash around, have a seat. Nico – stand up! Pastor wants to sit down.”
We jest, but you get the idea. Williams are losing sponsors over the winter, and they’re not getting free engines or massive assistance from their power-plant partner. They are a privateer team battling the might of two Mercedes-powered goliaths, Renault, Ferrari and the mind-boggling money of Red Bull. Pastor’s cash would be hugely welcome at the team and the fact that he’s a quick driver only sweetens the deal.
We’re certainly not saying that bringing Maldonado in would be a Hispania-like dive for the cash. He’s no Yamamoto – he’s very quick in fact. Just because you’re paying for your seat doesn’t mean you’re a useless racer. Maldonado could, in the right car at the right time, be very impressive. But he could also turn out to be a bit of a Petrov. We know he’s quick, sometimes, but he’s not necessarily the best man for the job, all candidates considered.
If money isn’t an issue Williams will stick with the Hulk. He’s quick – no question – and a year of work would be wasted if they let him go. If they do he will find another F1 seat, because his reputation remains very high. Lotus or Virgin would do an absolutely superb bit of business to pick him up on the cheap.
But if Maldonado gets the seat it won’t be a huge injustice. It’ll just be a sign that times are tough at the team that spent the nineties stocking its trophy cabinet to bursting point.