If you were asked to name the viable candidates to replace the injured Robert Kubica at Lotus Renault GP in F1 2011, you would probably come up with the likes of Nick Heidfeld, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Pedro de la Rosa, Bruno Senna, Nico Hülkenberg, Romain Grosjean and even Kimi Raikkonen – but how about Rubens Barrichello?
Barrichello may not have been mentioned in connection with the unexpectedly vacant seat, but BBC F1
pit-lane reporter Lee McKenzie reckons the veteran Brazilian should not be discounted. What's more, with Kubica likely to be out for the balance of if not indeed the entire campaign, Lotus Renault GP managing director Eric Boullier has openly admitted that he needs the Pole's replacement to be an experienced driver – and nobody in top flight history has begun more grands prix than Barrichello.
Although the likeable Paulista was credited with doing much to improve Williams' performance and season-long consistency last year – and as such is a very valuable asset to the former multiple world champions – the Grove-based outfit is palpably short of cash, as the arrival of Pastor Maldonado in place of Hülkenberg and the recent announcement that the team is to be floated on the stock market attest. Therefore, McKenzie muses, might Lotus Renault GP seek to swoop in clutching a bundle of banknotes?
“They need to have an experienced driver, really, for set-up and to be able to give feedback,” she reflected, speaking during a special pre-season BBC F1
'Meet the Team' session at Television Centre. “I don't know what you would get if you had two...I know they're not rookies, but second-season drivers. Should they buy Rubens out of his Williams contract because Williams need the money? There are so many different things.
“I think they need the experience to get the results that they are hoping for – and I don't think it would reflect well necessarily on [Vitaly] Petrov if he had another inexperienced driver with him, because he needs to be improving. Although he's got this long-term contract, he is under pressure as well, and it's not good for his own career progression if he's trying to set up a car that he doesn't necessarily understand at this stage.”
The hot favourite, of course – subject to a satisfactory testing appearance for the team at Jerez this weekend – is out-of-work Sauber refugee Nick Heidfeld, Kubica's former team-mate, whilst 2007 F1 World Champion-turned-rallying convert Kimi Raikkonen is seen as the very longest of long shots, particularly given the acrimonious manner in which the Finn's tentative discussions with Renault ended last summer. McKenzie agrees that the 'Ice Man' is unlikely to be back – at least not yet awhile.
“It seems increasingly unlikely that Kimi will be in the car,” she expressed. “I think it would be great to see him back – we need to have characters, and he is a great driver. Whether he wants to demonstrate that or not is a whole different question. I don't think we'll see Kimi back in F1, certainly not this year. I think it would be great if he came back, but you don't want someone to come back in a half-hearted manner, and I think towards the end he was fed up.
“I think rallying has proved much more difficult than he thought it would, there's no doubt about that. The Finnish journalists have been saying that in some ways they would rather he'd started off in a Finnish championship or a Scandinavian championship and learned his craft and then gone on and he could be very good, but it just depends how he decides to apply himself and to what genre of motorsport he wants to apply himself.
“If you're looking for a safe pair of hands, a steady driver, a solid driver who's going to be able to give you really good feedback, then Nick would be the person that you want because you don't have any contractual dramas or anything like that. He had that massive run, something like 40 races where he finished each one, and he's a lot more experienced as a race driver than say a de la Rosa who has been mentioned as well – but I think at this time, there are a lot of people being mentioned... If you're sitting down, then there's a chance you might be driving!”