Sauber and Caterham filled in two more slots on the 2013 Formula One grid on Friday by announcing race seats for 21-year-old Mexican Esteban Gutierrez and Frenchman Charles Pic respectively.
Gutierrez’s promotion from the reserve role at Swiss-based Sauber was already taken for granted in the paddock, with the team having Mexican sponsors and backing from the son of the world’s richest man Carlos Slim.
His arrival on the starting grid will give Mexicans two drivers to cheer on next season, for the first time since the 1960s, with Sergio Perez leaving Sauber for McLaren as Mercedes-bound Lewis Hamilton’s replacement.
Japanese fans will be troubled however, with the announcement leaving their sole current driver Kamui Kobayashi looking for one of the few remaining seats available without having major funding to tip the balance in his favour.
Pic’s arrival at Caterham on a multi-year deal will give a welcome boost to the Malaysian-owned team’s finances with the Frenchman, a competent rookie at Marussia this season, one of the better-funded drivers in the sport.
Caterham, whose owner Tony Fernandes had a busy day with his struggling Queens Park Rangers Premier League soccer club sacking manager Mark Hughes , will have an increasingly French feel with Renault engines and Frenchman Cyril Abiteboul now running the British-based team.
“We are all looking forward to working with a young driver who has clearly shown in his first season in F1 that he has the pace, race craft and demeanour to help us achieve our goals,” said Abiteboul in a statement.
Pic’s arrival throws the future of Finland’s Heikki Kovalainen into uncertainty, with his current Russian team mate Vitaly Petrov having the advantage of bringing useful sponsorship.
Kovalainen has ruled out seeking sponsorship cash to keep him in Formula One.
“If it is the last race it’s a shame but the situation is quite tricky for me,” the former McLaren driver told reporters at the Brazilian Grand Prix. “We are looking at other options...but even the other options require some money, teams asking for money, and I don’t want to go that route.”
“I told my management not to actively find money. I don’t think it leads to anything. If you had a big backer like Santander, and they went with you to a team then that’s a different thing.
“But to collect the money in a pot for one season, to me it doesn’t really do anything,” added the 31-year-old Finn.
The most appetizing declared vacancy now is at Force India, who must find a replacement for German Nico Hulkenberg who will be Gutierrez’s team mate at Sauber next season.
Hulkenberg will be very much the new man at the team, despite his two seasons as a race driver with Williams and Force India, given that Gutierrez has been part of the Sauber set-up for three years already.
“We have followed his career very closely,” team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said of the Mexican. “In 2010 we signed him up as an affiliated driver, and in 2011 and 2012 he was our test and reserve driver.
“We mapped out his path to Formula One step by step. Esteban has great talent and now he’s ready to take the leap.”
His sponsors undoubtedly helped smooth the move but Perez, widely labelled a ‘Pay Driver’ when he made his debut for Sauber, has – like Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado at Williams – forced a revision of what was once considered a pejorative tag.
Perez has been on the podium three times this season for the mid-table team.
“The support from my family, as well as from my sponsors, has been a key factor in getting there and I am very grateful to everyone who has been involved in our project,” said Gutierrez in a statement.
Pic also recognized the role of his sponsors in securing what should be a step up, despite Caterham having yet to score a point in three seasons and being overtaken by Marussia – also pointless – in the standings.
“I’m enthusiastic to have the opportunity to continue to grow in a team that has a technical relationship with a number of French global companies, including Renault and Total, plus an Official Partnership with EADS,” said the Frenchman.
“The prospect of the automotive industry project nurtured by Caterham Group to produce sports road cars in conjunction with Renault is another reason for my decision to join the team.”
Williams have yet to announce their 2013 lineup, with Finland’s Valtteri Bottas tipped in the media to replace Brazilian Bruno Senna alongside Maldonado, while the paddock expects Frenchman Roman Grosjean to be confirmed by Lotus.
Britain’s well-funded Max Chilton is a strong candidate to replace Pic at Marussia, who will be waiting to see who can bring the most to the team and are unlikely to rush into any decision.
Spanish-based tail-enders HRT face an uncertain future, with the team up for sale in a troubled economy, and may not be around for next season.