The uncertainty regarding Force India F1's driver line-up for 2011 appears to be thickening by the week, with Vitantonio Liuzzi's protestations that he has a firm contract for next season rather undone by Otmar Szafnauer's assertion that 'there is a seat available' at the Silverstone-based squad – with Nick Heidfeld's name now having entered the name to occupy it.
Liuzzi returned to the top flight in last year's Italian Grand Prix at Monza, following Giancarlo Fisichella's call-up to Ferrari, but thus far the 29-year-old's comeback has fallen some way short of expectations, with a combination of bad luck and generally disappointing single-lap pace seeing to it that he trails team-mate Adrian Sutil in F1 2010 by 47 points to 13, and by a staggering 13-2 in the qualifying stakes.
Indeed, whilst the German has six times made the final top ten shoot-out on Saturday afternoons, the Italian has by stark contrast missed even the Q1 cut on five occasions, leaving him at an immediate disadvantage on race day – and as FIF1 battles desperately to keep a resurgent Williams behind and retain sixth spot in the end-of-season constructors' standings, Liuzzi's position is understood to be considerably under threat. The Bari native, however, insists the rumours do not concern him.
“I'm pretty sure that I have a future in F1, and at Force India as well,” he told ITV-F1
. “We still haven't talked about the future; we will talk at the end [of the season]. I always mention that I have a contract, this is clear. At the moment we're just focussed on finishing sixth in this championship, and then we'll talk.
“We had a few difficult problems with the car that the team tried to sort out and it's now okay, and I think the future is quite clear, but we'll talk about that later on.”
Szafnauer's revelation, however, will hardly be words of comfort to Liuzzi's ears, with the general consensus being that current test and reserve driver Paul di Resta is all-but a shoo-in for a Force India race cockpit in 2011, and the team known to be keen to retain the services of Sutil, unless he moves to either Renault F1 or Mercedes Grand Prix. It does not take a rocket scientist to ascertain that three into two does not go.
“We never talk about contracts,” insisted the team's operating officer, before conceding: “We haven't made any decisions yet on where we go. I think we have got the luxury of being able to assess the situation and make a decision – but there is a seat available.”
Just to cloud the waters yet further, meanwhile, the name of Heidfeld has similarly been linked with the Vijay Mallya-run operation. The German rejoined the grand prix grid with Sauber a fortnight ago in Singapore, but there is no room at the inn for him at the Hinwil-based outfit next year following the recruitment of GP2 Series graduate Sergio Pérez, and he is consequently looking around for alternative employment.
Whilst Renault has seemingly refuted any interest in the man from Mönchengladbach [see separate story – click here
], it appears Force India could be an altogether more viable possibility, with the 33-year-old's recent Pirelli tyre-testing regarded as quite a boon. It is also understood that should FIF1 agree to field an all-German pairing in 2011 – ie. Sutil and Heidfeld – engine-supplier Mercedes-Benz has promised to reduce its price by 50 per cent, with the Stuttgart manufacturer believed to be keen to continue to benefit from the latter's experience after he filled the role of test and reserve driver earlier this year.
Force India is tipped to complete its driver negotiations by the end of October or early November.