The latest speculation surrounding the last remaining vacancy on the 2013 F1 grid suggests that Jules Bianchi may miss out regardless of his performance in this week's Barcelona group test.
The Frenchman wowed onlookers at Jerez by posting the third fastest time of the week as he rejoined the Force India squad to help shakedown its new VJM06, but is having to share seat time not only with the already-confirmed Paul di Resta, but also former team favourite Adrian Sutil this time around.
Sutil sat out 2012 after being passed over in favour of Nico Hulkenberg but, with his fellow countryman now ensconced at Sauber and the GBH accusations of 2011 now behind him, is hoping to reclaim the seat alongside di Resta in what his management has described as a 'last chance' to return to the F1 fraternity.
Claims regarding the hopefuls' respective financial strength vary, with Bianchi, on one hand, allegedly having nothing but good wishes from Ferrari, to out-gunning Sutil in terms of sponsorship on the other. However, despite the Barcelona test being billed as a 'shoot-out between the pair, other factors may weigh in – and could see Sutil installed as a one-year stop-gap depending on the engine deal Force India strikes for 2014.
This year's campaign is the last to be fought with V8 powerplants, with a 'greener' turbocharged V6 set to be introduced for 2014. The cost of the new engines are set to increase the amount of money that teams need to find, but Force India is in the situation where, with its two contenders, it has a foot in both the Mercedes and Ferrari camps.
Much has been made about Bianchi's bid to partner di Resta being aided by a possible switch of allegiance from Force India, but Sutil's reappearance is now thought to have been boosted by his links to Mercedes, which has been a technical partner to the Silverstone team for some time. Although the German engine is understood to be the more expensive option for 2014, Germany's Auto Motor und Sport
believes that the Stuttgart concern could throw in a gearbox deal, which might also make Sutil a better bet long term.
Meanwhile, French magazine AutoPlus
quotes commentator Jean-Louis Moncet as believing that, without significant sponsorship, Bianchi is likely to miss out this season, although the 23-year old 'is certain to drive with Force India in 2014'.
“With more than an eye on budgets for 2013, Sutil or [Narain] Karthikeyan have a better chance, unless Ferrari contributes financially,” he added.
Karthikeyan was added to the list of possible partners to di Resta between the Jerez and Barcelona tests, having apparently increased the amount of backing he can bring from India. Despite its ownership, Force India has been reluctant to take drivers from the sub-continent, claiming there were more talented options on the market, although that opinion could change given the current economic climate.