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Renault: It's down to Heidfeld, Senna and Liuzzi

10 February 2011

Lotus Renault GP has narrowed it down to a shortlist of just three drivers with a view to finding a replacement for the injured Robert Kubica in F1 2011, it seems – although BBC F1 pit-lane reporter Ted Kravitz reckons there is one overwhelming favourite to snare the seat.

Kubica broke his arm and leg and did serious damage to his hand in an accident on the Ronde di Andora Rally in Italy last weekend, with a piece of Armco barrier penetrating straight through the Skoda Fabia RS the Pole was sharing with co-driver Jakub Gerber, who emerged from the wreckage unscathed.

Judging by photographs of the crash, Kubica was indeed lucky to escape with his life, but as the former Canadian Grand Prix-winner begins what is expected to be a long period of convalescence – with some doubting whether he will even be able to return to F1 at all – focus is already shifting to the identity of the driver who will likely take his place in a car that on initial evidence at least, is set to be the season's dark horse.

Lotus Renault GP managing director Eric Boullier hinted earlier this week that the selection process has now been reduced to just three men – reserve driver Bruno Senna, out-of-work BMW-Sauber refugee Nick Heidfeld and Vitantonio Liuzzi, who has similarly been linked to buying his way into the vacant Hispania Racing (HRT) berth using his pay-off settlement from Force India F1.

Boullier did stress that there are two additional candidates who are 'in perfect condition to drive the car' – widely-assumed to be Senna's fellow reserve Romain Grosjean and Pedro de la Rosa – but the former has been displaced from this week's Jerez test to make way for Heidfeld, and the latter has perhaps too much of a 'journeyman' image inside the paddock. Former F1 World Champion-turned-rallying convert Kimi Raikkonen has also been mooted, but Kravitz reckons the decision is now all-but made.

“I would suspect that Heidfeld will get the nod,” he opined during a special pre-season BBC F1 'Meet the Team' session. “Eric Boullier has said 'we're looking at three drivers – Bruno Senna, Tonio Liuzzi and Nick Heidfeld'. Heidfeld is out-of-contract, so it's easy contractually; he has experience of making tyres last and looking after them; he's committed, experienced and he can score points for fun – he's an established points-scorer.

“He also has KERS experience, and the only other people amongst the top six drivers who have long-term KERS experience are Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, and even Felipe didn't do the whole of the [2009] season because of his accident.

“Kimi Raikkonen I don't think is going to happen – he's not exactly friends with Renault at the moment because they used his name in vain in the middle of last season, and the last I heard, he was telling Eric Boullier that he doesn't know how to go about doing business correctly. I don't think Kimi will even pick up his 'phone if Eric Boullier rings him up. I don't think the other ones are going to happen, either.

“I would say Nick Heidfeld is the man to score some points – which is what they need. He is a safe pair of hands, although he'll rattle around a bit in that Renault cockpit, won't he – they're tall boys, Kubica and Petrov...

“He's not an insult to Kubica, though. If you get someone like [Nico] Hülkenberg, you're saying 'get well soon Robert, we're going to put a new hotshot in the car to see what he can do', possibly one of the most exciting prospects in F1. That would be a bit of a kick in the ribs, which probably is the only thing that's not broken on Robert Kubica...

“If you put Heidfeld in, Kubica knows he's better than Heidfeld; okay, they were fairly evenly-matched at Sauber, although he knows he probably has the edge. It's not insulting to Kubica, so I think for all those reasons, Heidfeld will be the driver for what will probably be the whole of the year. Maybe Kubica will come back for the last six 'flyaway' races, but I'd be surprised if that happens.”

As to whether at 33 years of age, 'Quick Nick' merits the opportunity, Kravitz is more non-committal, conceding that part of him would prefer to see a young gun like Hülkenberg given the chance to demonstrate his mettle after being released – unjustly, in many observers' eyes – by Williams F1 to make way for the well-heeled Pastor Maldonado this year. But then the 'Incredible Hulk' is tied into Force India and Mercedes, whereas Heidfeld is a free agent.

“He's had his chances throughout the years – he was in a car that could win races at BMW...Kubica won a race in it – but a lot of drivers never get Heidfeld's chance,” he mused. “He's had a good career as a professional racing driver, he hasn't disgraced himself, he would have gone away this year, called it a day and gone to sportscars, DTM or whatever, so if he can perform the role of the 'super-sub', then I think he'll be happy with that.

“Does he deserve the chance? Well, he's had his chances so I don't know if he deserves it or not. You could say Hülkenberg deserves it more than Heidfeld, who has had the opportunity to show what he can do – but I hope Nick gets it, because he's a good guy.”

The F1 2011 World Championship campaign will rev into life with the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir on 13 March. The BBC will broadcast all of the action both on and off-track season-long via comprehensive coverage across TV, HD, radio, online, red button and mobile.


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