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Force India choice down to Bianchi and Sutil?
2 February 2013
With the 2013 F1 car launch season in full swing offering teams the ideal chance to show off their plans and driver line-ups to assembled crowds of journalists, Force India sparked gossip by being singularly lacking in driver presence at their own launch at Silverstone on Friday.
Paul di Resta did the honours, although despite receiving a public endorsement from team principal Vijay Mallya there's still speculation that his own 2013 race seat is not entirely as secure as the Scot would like. But the team was certainly completely tight-lipped about who might be in the frame for the team's second seat.
"The decision we will make will be for the benefit of the team," deputy boss Bob Fernley told the media attending the launch of the new VJM06.
Although rumours of a tweet from di Resta 'outing' former Williams F1 driver Bruno Senna as his new team mate did the rounds on Friday, any such message was quickly deleted. And while Senna, Luiz Razia and Jamie Alguersuari have all been linked to the seat in recent days, the smart money now seems to be split between former Force India driver Adrian Sutil and the team's 2012 test and reserve driver Jules Bianchi.
"At least Jules and Adrian, absolutely ... Jules is a significant candidate for what we're doing, along with Adrian," said Fernley when asked about possible candidates for the second race seat. "And a few others," he added quickly: "I think we shouldn't close any doors off."
Most of the betting seemed to be going in Bianchi's direction at the end of the week, but the Frenchman opted not to be present at Silverstone on Friday and instead attended the Ferrari launch at Maranello earlier in the morning. That possibly points to the Ferrari Driver Academy graduate taking up a third driver position at Ferrari in 2013 rather than sticking with cash-strapped Force India.
Fernley went on to stoke speculation that his team had perhaps not been entirely sold on the idea of putting Bianchi in the race seat so soon, having not expected their former driver Nico Hulkenberg to exit the team for Sauber as early as he did.
"If we'd had an ideal world we'd have liked to run Jules for two years as a third driver," Fernley admitted. "We were not ready for Jules to take that step, we were looking at a longer period of time."
Fernley insisted that the team had now resolved such doubts and believed that Bianchi was indeed ready for the prime time, and that it had been just a case of ticking all the boxes.
"So no, there isn't an element in terms of Jules' abilities - he's obviously a first-class racing driver," continued Fernley. "What's happened with the Nico departure is that it's just taken us out of our comfort zone in terms of where we were wanting to plan going forward."
The informed guess is that Bianchi's 2013 destination depends on what deal Force India and Ferrari between them can put together over the Frenchman's future. Ferrari would like Bianchi to have actual Grand Prix racing experience with another team before fielding him themselves, while Force India would like something in return - like an engine deal, perhaps?
"It's part of the decision making process," admitted Fernley when asked about the engine component, before adding: "It would be too simplistic just to say it is linked to an engine, because it's not the case at all.
"We've always had these mythical stories about Paul coming linked to Mercedes and it's total nonsense," Fernley added. "There's no link to Paul and Mercedes whatsoever. There's a strong link between Jules and Ferrari - of course - but it's not contingent."
And Fernley was also adamant that it wasn't about a driver bringing cash to the team, although Force India's finances are thought to be in less than ideal health at present.
"It doesn't necessarily follow that that is a financial requirement," insisted Fernley. "In fact it's highly unlikely that it will be."
Fernley did say that the team was fully aware of the capabilities of all the drivers still in the frame to receive a nod for the remaining race and test slots, and that no more selection tests or shoot-outs would be needed. Once the decision was made things would move fast, he said.
"They'll go straight into the programme," he stated. "We can bring the second and third driver in for Barcelona and they will be competitive straight away."
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