When a seat with a top Formula One team becomes available there is usually someone groomed and ready to fill the prized vacancy. Winning teams rarely cast doubt over their driver line-up for long.
This winter McLaren are bucking the trend. They only have one driver confirmed for 2008 and there is no obvious candidate to fill the empty seat alongside him. Alonso’s defection has given McLaren total control of the driver market.
Heikki Kovalainen is the most likely choice for the team at this stage. He has turned out to be very fast and has all but ended the career of Giancarlo Fisichella at Renault. His tough season gave him a lot of good experience and it was very clear how much he improved throughout the course of 2007. Heikki is not an abrasive character and that is exactly the sort of person that McLaren need right now.
It would also be a move that suits Renault because it would allow them to partner Alonso with Nelson Piquet Junior.
The other current driver with a chance of joining McLaren next year is Adrian Sutil. He would be appropriate for the same reasons as Kovalainen, and given the massive queue of talent lining up at Force India right now they could afford to let him go.
There are a few other eligible candidates who would look good dressed in silver. Vitantonio Liuzzi and Christian Klien are both quick and available, and Robert Doornbos would also be an option if he wasn’t tied down to Red Bull.
There are enough experienced drivers out there to prevent McLaren from taking a risk on a newbie. In fact, there is one established driver without a seat next year that would suit McLaren perfectly.
Patrick Head stirred up the press recently when he suggested that McLaren might lure Michael Schumacher out of retirement. The Williams director said “Ron Dennis has proved to be a lateral thinker, which is why I am musing over the idea that he might look to Schumacher. Michael’s still fit and probably bored. I suspect he has found sitting on the pit wall dull”.
It sounds pretty crazy but is not totally without merit.
Michael has lost none of his pace and has enjoyed seeking new challenges lately. Last month he rode Casey Stoner’s Moto GP Ducati and was just five seconds behind the lap record. It was a very impressive effort. You need a lot of skill to drive a Formula One car at the limit but it takes something else altogether to ride one of those Moto GP monsters.
Schumacher also won the International Challenge of Go Kart Champs this weekend. He took a comfortable victory in the first of two races after swiftly moving into the lead from fourth. Due to the reverse grid format Michael started the second heat in eighth place and stormed through the pack once again before his brakes failed.
Against a field that boasted a number of current Grand Prix drivers Schumacher was unmatched.
Then of course there was the Formula One test at Barcelona last week that he dominated.
Michael Schumacher may still be the best driver in the world.
McLaren could afford him and Michael would fit perfectly with Mercedes who helped the German into Formula One all those years ago. He would also relish the challenge of coming up against Lewis Hamilton because (apparently) he was looking forward to racing Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari before deciding to retire. Michael would not be afraid of the rookie sensation.
However the Schumacher-Hamilton dream team will remain just that, a dream. Ferrari have become Michael’s family so there is no way he would drive anywhere else. He will be an ambassador for the Ferrari brand long into the future.
Patrick Head will love the fact that people are now suggesting otherwise.
Instead, McLaren might find themselves with another fresh talent.
Ron Dennis justified his decision to hire Lewis Hamilton last year by saying he felt none of the established drivers could do a better job. With that sentiment in mind, McLaren may be willing to introduce another youngster into F1.
Who do they have lined up?
Mercedes have a few young men contracted throughout the junior ranks and arguably the best of them Paul di Resta. He is currently a Mercedes driver in the DTM series and the 21 year old Scotsman has some serious pedigree.
Paul’s dad won multiple Scottish Formula Ford titles and his cousin is none other than current Indy 500 and IRL Champion Dario Franchitti. The di Resta family believe Paul is showing more speed and talent in his youth than Dario, which is saying a lot.
Di Resta advanced out of karting and into the UK Formula Renault Championship where he scored five wins. His early success made him the youngest ever recipient of the BDRC Young Driver of the Year award. It is quite an achievement becoming the youngest man to win a young driver award.
Paul moved into the Formula 3 Euroseries and won the 2006 title just a year after Lewis Hamilton did. His three teammates that season were Sebastian Vettel, Giedo van der Garde, and Kamui Kobayashi, all of whom are now contracted to Formula One teams.
Current Williams driver Kazuki Nakajima was also in the 2006 Euroseries but could only manage seventh in the title race.
Paul Di Resta beat them all.
This year represented a new challenge for the Scot as he moved into the DTM Championship. Unfortunately it didn’t look very promising because di Resta was stuck behind the wheel of a Mercedes that was two years old.
It didn’t matter. Paul was impressive before the first race even began by topping the timesheets in his debut practice session. He also took the lead during the first race, which was quite a triumph given his machinery.
Di Resta finished the season with four podiums and led the title chase with three rounds to go. His performances were sensational and caught the attention of Mercedes boss Norbert Haug who said “For me, Paul currently does in DTM what Lewis Hamilton does in Formula 1”. That is a very big compliment from a man with a lot of influence at McLaren.
Paul ended up fifth in the championship, four places ahead of current McLaren test driver Gary Paffett, and also ahead of ahead of Mika Hakkinen. It was no small accomplishment.
Mercedes management know what Paul di Resta is capable of but so does the man himself. He recently said “I believe that I am ready for Formula One and I think it is terrific that Lewis has done so well this season because it demonstrates to the older drivers that the youngsters can go out there and make their mark immediately. Just like Lewis I won the Formula 3 Euroseries and I used to beat him when we were racing against each other in karts and cars, so I am confident that if I was offered a chance in F1 I would be up to the job.”
Paul got to test the McLaren just over two weeks ago at Silverstone so it will be interesting to know what the team thought of his efforts.
There has been some talk that another Mercedes DTM star, Bruno Spengler, might get the drive with McLaren. Spengler had been linked to Prodrive before it failed and has recently spent time in the McLaren simulator. He finished runner-up in the 2006 and 2007 DTM Championships which is important to Mercedes because he now has a large fan base in Germany. Perhaps the biggest advantage that Spengler would bring to McLaren is that he is from Canada and would generate huge interest in the crucial North American car market.
Bruno Spengler may be a great driver for marketing purposes but is probably not the quickest man available.
Paul di Resta has a far better record in Formula Three than Spengler and also matched his performances in the DTM. On paper the young Scot is a much better bet.
If experience and sponsorship value meant nothing to McLaren, Paul di Resta would be right at the top of their list to join Lewis Hamilton.
He may even be the next Michael Schumacher.