Christian Klien could be poised for a belated return to the Formula One frontline next season, if speculation about his contract with BMW Sauber is to be believed.
Rumours in the Austrian media have linked the former Jaguar/Red Bull racer and Honda test driver to the seat currently occupied by Nick Heidfeld, claiming that Klien's deal guarantees him a race role after spending two years helping to develop the Hinwil/Munich team's cars.
Although Klien is reluctant to discuss the possibility of adding to the 46 grand prix starts he achieved in his three years at Milton Keynes, he admits that he is scouting the paddock for possible deals - exactly as he has been for the past couple of years - as the 2009 testing restrictions leave him kicking his heels.
"On the driver's market, things are very quiet at the moment," he recently wrote on his personal website, "Usually, at this time of the year, there [are] a lot of negotiations already going on. This year, there is almost nothing. Let's put it this way: some homework still needs to be done. Once this is resolved, things could go very quickly in this area."
Plucked from the F3 Euroseries after a stellar season as main opposition to eventual champion Ryan Briscoe - whom he beat to the Marlboro Masters title - Klien struggled to make the jump to F1 where, ranged against the likes of Mark Webber and David Coulthard, he managed just 14 points. When Red Bull's patience with him ran out - after the 2006 Italian GP - he was offered the opportunity to take the drinks brand to the US-based Champ Car series, but instead took the brave decision to remove himself from the fold and signed as a test and development driver with Honda for the following season.
While Neel Jani produced a strong rookie season in Klien's Champ Car seat, the Austrian played back-up to Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, and then switched to BMW Sauber in a similar capacity behind Heidfeld and Robert Kubica for 2008, keeping his race hand in with appearances in both the 2008 and '09 Le Mans 24 Hours with Peugeot. According to Austria's Vorarlberg Online
, however, Klien's contract calls for him to be given an F1 race seat for 2010 and 2011
With BMW Sauber in disarray this season - Heidfeld and Kubica currently occupy twelfth and 15th places in the championship with just eight points between them - it is unclear as to which driver Klien may find himself replacing.
While the Austrian speculation suggests that Heidfeld's time with the team may finally be up, despite having secured a fortunate podium in Malaysia, the lack of results - plus the perceived curbing of his championship ambitions in 2008 - could yet prompt Kubica to move on. The Pole has been touted as a potential target for Ferrari, although Fernando Alonso appears ahead of him on the Scuderia's wish-list at present, and continues to interest other teams despite his apparent lack of drive in a losing cause this season. One French media report recently linked Kubica to Barrichello's seat alongside Button at Brawn GP, but the Pole is keeping his cards close to his chest.
"I am still ambitious to improve, to get better, but unfortunately we are struggling to make a big step forward," he told the official F1 website during last weekend's German GP, "I don't think that it is as difficult as it maybe looks from the outside. We are not in a position to fight for wins - for the top five even - but I still think this season can be a good year in terms of experience. Even in this situation, there is always something to learn and, in the end, I guess it is somewhat good to also get this experience, because the racing is quite different so far behind. But, for sure, I don't want to have that experience for much longer."