With Robert Kubica now beginning what seems likely to be a long recovery from injuries sustained in a rallying accident on Sunday, attention at Renault now turns to the task of appointing his replacement.

Questioned on the subject of selecting a new driver, Lotus Renault GP chairman Gerard Lopez said, “If Robert’s recovery will be long and he will not return this season we will rely on a driver with experience.  The fate of our season will depend on the new driver.  Obviously, we’ll bet on a runner capable of winning the championship.”

Obviously.  Who wouldn’t, given the choice?  A more pertinent question might be whether Lopez actually has that choice himself.  It’s now the middle of February and we’re getting into the heart of the pre-season testing schedule.  The first race in Bahrain is just 31 days away and everyone you’d think of as ‘capable of winning the championship’ is already in gainful employment elsewhere.

With a quick reminder that the first person to mention that Nigel Mansell didn’t ever retire from driving and is now a Group Lotus ambassador will win a very firm invitation to leave, let’s consider the main options:

Bruno Senna

Why?

  • As Renault’s lead reserve driver (they have 5 reserve drivers on their books), one of Senna’s roles would ordinarily be to replace an indisposed race driver on a short-term basis.  Using what you’ve already got rather than adding to your payroll makes an amount of sense, particularly when what you’ve already got was racing in Formula 1 last year, albeit at the slow end of the field.
  • For a man who didn’t start his serious racing career until 2004, Senna’s progress through the ranks has been remarkable.  It would be unfair to judge him on 2010 and a season in the awful HRT, but a look through his earlier career reveals adaptability and a knack for learning quickly, married to a good amount of basic pace.
  • Bruno’s uncle drove a black and gold car with the Lotus name attached to it and a Renault engine in the back.  The marketing department want Senna in a Lotus, even if Bruno might never serve up anything as electrifying as Ayrton at his best:

Why not?

  • A good amount of basic pace is a minimum requirement for a Formula 1 drive.  It doesn’t mean you’re destined for the very top of the tree, nor does anything else in Senna’s CV earmark him out as a man on course for a world title.  As a stopgap measure he’d be fine, but he’s neither consistent enough nor ultimately fast enough to make a realistic bid for the world title if Renault produce a car capable of that.
  • He has no experience of leading a team or developing a car through the course of a season.  A lead driver has to be able to provide detailed, concise accurate feedback on exactly how a car behaves and where it can be improved, something Bruno has never been called upon to do.

Kimi Raikkonen

Why?

  • The only man on this list with a world title to his name, edging out Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso to take the 2007 crown for Ferrari.  The Iceman has that experience to call upon, along with near misses in 2003 and 2005, something no other man on this list can offer
  • At his best and most motivated, Raikkonen is as quick as anyone the sport has ever seen, both over a single qualifying lap and a race distance.

Why not?

  • Kimi was last seen at his best and most motivated in a Formula 1 car in the middle of 2008.  Even in his championship year he was inconsistent, a trait which worsened noticeably in the following 2 seasons.  When Kimi isn’t in the mood, his performance nosedives and with no guarantee that the Renault R31 really is the front-running car Gerard Lopez is trying to sell, a man only interested in winning immediately might not see any incentive to take the drive at present
  • Renault approached Raikkonen last year with a view to a 2011 drive.  Their public pronouncements that the Finn was interested in the drive are said to have caused talks to break down, though there’s some conjecture over exactly how advanced these talks ever became.
  • Kimi Raikkonen is contracted to drive for Citroen in the 2011 World Rally Championship, where he can indulge his passion for rallying in a relaxed atmosphere a world away from the pressure-packed, media-fuelled F1 paddock he so hated.  Tempting him away from that will take enormous persuasive powers and, one suspects, a blank chequebook.

Vitantonio Liuzzi

Why?

  • He’s available after being dumped by Force India.
  • Tonio is held in high regard as a test and development driver, known for providing detailed and accurate feedback on car behaviour.

Why not?

  • ‘Dumped by Force India’.  There’s a little more to his departure from the team than meets the eye, but had Liuzzi ever looked remotely like matching his team mate Adrian Sutil last year, he wouldn’t be out of a drive now.  When he’s quick he’s stunning, but Liuzzi is at that level far too infrequently.  The Italian simply doesn’t fit the profile Lopez has put together for his new driver, which makes earlier reports of his inclusion on the shortlist a little difficult to understand.

Nick Heidfeld

Why?

  • Experience.  Nick made his Grand Prix debut with Prost in 2000 and has 172 Grand Prix starts to his name.  He’s led races for BMW and Williams and is the safest pair of hands on this list, with his 41 consecutive race finishes from the 2007 French Grand Prix to the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix representing an all-time record.  To find his last self-inflicted retirement, you have to go right back to a collision with Michael Schumacher in the Australian Grand Prix of 2005.
  • 12 podiums during a career in which only his 2008 BMW could be called a genuine front-runner indicate that Quick Nick is exactly that, possessing the same outright speed that made him so impressive in Formula 3000 through 1998 and 1999
  • As the initial tyre tester for Pirelli during their tyre evaluation programme last year, Heidfeld has more knowledge of their new tyres than any driver currently employed in a race seat.  The construction of the tyres has changed a little since his spell with the company, but the basic philosophy behind their manufacture is the same.  The more knowledge a driver has of how a tyre works, the better he can tweak his car to get the best from them.

Why not?

  • Heidfeld himself comes across as a very pleasant fellow, but one with little presence or marketing clout.  Martin Brundle once described him as being ‘as neutral as Switzerland’ during a TV commentary.
  • Nick is perceived as a nearly man at best, a journeyman at worst.  12 podiums ties the record for most podium finishes without a win, while if he does go on to win a Grand Prix he will shatter the record for most attempts before claiming a maiden victory, currently held by Mark Webber with 131.  It’s perhaps a little unfair – after all, Kubica and Heidfeld were team mates at BMW for 3 seasons and Heidfeld finished ahead of Kubica in the championship for 2 of those – but through his lack of wins and his tendency to be there at the end of every race, Heidfeld has earned a reputation for being the safe, steady choice rather than a world beater.

Nico Hulkenberg

Why?

  • Quick with a capital Q.  Hulkenberg has been a champion wherever he’s competed on his way up the ladder and gave Williams their first pole position since the 2005 European Grand Prix (Nick Heidfeld, our previous contestant, was the man at the controls that day) with a sequence of searing laps on a damp track in Brazil last season.
  • While he’s not proven as a team leader at the highest level and was partnered with the best analytical mind in the car setup business last year, Williams love drivers with a solid engineering background and an understanding of racing car mechanics and dynamics.  He might have had Rubens Barrichello to rely on in 2010 but he has the right credentials to succeed as a development driver himself.

Why not?

  • Is he ready?  Nico came on strongly in the latter part of 2010 but remained inconsistent throughout his rookie year.  For all his pedigree, he remained a man making his F1 debut at the age of 22 and viewed in that context Hulkenberg did a fine job.  That doesn’t necessarily make him the man to lead Renault right now.
  • Hulkenberg is tied to Force India as their test and reserve driver for 2011, while their Mercedes engine supply gives him a route into the works team should Michael Schumacher decide that retirement wasn’t really that much worse than being a racing driver.  Question marks hang over his availability and his desire to go racing this season when there could be a bigger drive at stake come the start of 2012.

Opinions?  I’ll offer you mine.  If I could sell Kimi Raikkonen the idea of a Formula 1 return for one more shot at the big boys, with a package capable of winning from the off and sustaining his motivation for a season, I’d sign him in a heartbeat.  Since I don’t believe the man capable of selling the Finn that idea has yet been born, the logical choice is Quick Nick.

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