Adrian Sutil may have to raise his game if he is to be given the option of remaining with the Force India F1 team beyond the end of 2011, with fellow countryman Nico Hulkenberg being tipped to return to a full race seat next season.
The incumbent German insists that his first choice would be to continue with the Silverstone-based squad - one year on from a contract hold-out as he chased the vacant seat at Lotus Renault, amongst others - even though he has generally been matched in on-track performance by rookie team-mate Paul di Resta. Although Sutil leads the intra-team battle by 24 points to eight, he trails 5-7 in qualifying and only a degree of misfortune has prevented di Resta from racking up more top ten finishes.
With team boss Vijay Mallya keen to keep di Resta, and his Mercedes links, on board for a second season, Sutil could come under pressure from Hulkenberg, who has been carrying out third driver duties in Friday free practice throughout the year, having been snapped up by FIF1 after his release from Williams. The young German, who won the 2009 GP2 title, recorded a surprise pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix, but it was not enough to protect his position from the better-funded, but more erratic, Pastor Maldonado.
While Hulkenberg reveals that other teams have begun to enquire about his services, he admits that he is happy with Force India and insists that he has 'a realistic chance of racing again in 2012', suggesting that Sutil's place could be in danger after spending his entire F1 career with the squad through its various post-Jordan incarnations as Spyker, Midland and Force India.
"He did very well at Williams last year and deserves another chance," 28-year old Sutil said of his rival in an interview with Germany's Auto Bild Motorsport
, before insisting that he was keen to see off the challenge for his seat.
"We are currently the fifth best team - and with an extremely small budget - so why should I go? Of course, I hear things about me [going] somewhere else, but I'm a loyal person and my first contact will be Force India."
Ironically, one team being spoken about as a possible alternative for Sutil is Hulkenberg's former employer Williams, which continues to hold talks with veteran Rubens Barrichello about extending his contract into 2012. Hulkenberg recalls that the Brazilian was clearly team leader during his spell at Grove, but fears that Maldonado may now hold the upper hand, despite trailing in both qualifying and championship stats.
"Last year, Rubens had the complete support of the team," Hulkenberg told Motor-Total.com
last month, "Everyone was standing behind him and what he said was more or less law. However, this is no longer quite the case, from what I read from the media, and I think that his performances might suffer a bit."
With nominated reserve Valtteri Bottas not yet though to be ready for F1, despite leading the GP3 standings, Williams could be looking for an alternative to the most experienced F1 driver of all time, and BBC
pundit Eddie Jordan believes they could do worse than settle for Sutil.
"This is a real possibility, because I see Hulkenberg and di Resta at Force India next year," the Irishman noted,