Sizing up F1’s remaining free agents for last 4 seats

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With Sergio Perez (Force India) and Adrian Sutil (Sauber) finding homes last week, the F1 grid is down to its final four remaining seats, the second Sauber, second Marussia and two Caterhams. Here’s a look at who is left and some of their potential upsides and downsides:

PAUL DI RESTA, 12th in 2013

  • GOOD: Consistent points-scorer who’s occasionally starred, notably in Bahrain and Canada this year. Doesn’t overextend the tires, a good trait to have.
  • BAD: Has had a few too many dropouts from Q1 for a driver in his machinery level.
  • VERDICT: Worse than the “bad” is the fact the Scot brings no budget, and thus he’s almost a certainty to return to DTM in 2014. He is F1-worthy talent, though.

ESTEBAN GUTIERREZ, 16th in 2013

  • GOOD: Matured and developed over the course of his first season, especially given the limited testing opportunities. Every race weekend was a trial by fire.
  • BAD: Was made to look worse than he was by virtue of lining up alongside Nico Hulkenberg at Sauber. Like di Resta, too many eliminations in Q1.
  • VERDICT: Has potential, and has some budget, and could probably make a step forward in his second season if Sauber thinks he’s worth it. Otherwise, a year as a reserve driver likely beckons.

CHARLES PIC, 20th in 2013

  • GOOD: Two years of race experience and a few noteworthy moments in 2013’s first half.
  • BAD: Frequently anonymous and has made way too many mistakes in the few moments he has been noticed.
  • VERDICT: Hasn’t done enough at either Marussia or Caterham to think a third year would be anything better. Perhaps sports cars would fit him.

HEIKKI KOVALAINEN, 21st in 2013

  • GOOD: The most experienced free agent on the market.
  • BAD: Simply did not deliver in the two races he drove for Lotus.
  • VERDICT: Could still lead Caterham’s efforts if they opt for a veteran-youngster lineup.

GIEDO VAN DER GARDE, 22nd in 2013

  • GOOD: Higher peaks at Caterham, especially in qualifying, and really developed as the year went on.
  • BAD: A handful of clunky mistakes, notably in Canada and Japan, and not otherworldly talent-wise.
  • VERDICT: Opposite Kovalainen at Caterham makes sense on paper, if the budgets align. Like Pic, would sink or swim in a second year, but did enough to merit a chance.

MAX CHILTON, 23rd in 2013

  • GOOD: Finished every race, proof he doesn’t make too many mistakes, and posted a great qualifying effort at Suzuka.
  • BAD: Shaded teammate Jules Bianchi by a wide margin, and was consistently the slowest driver in the field.
  • VERDICT: Young, reliable and with a hefty budget, all but certain to return to Marussia in 2014. The question is whether he can find anywhere from four to six tenths a lap regularly.

POTENTIAL ROOKIES

  • Sergey Sirotkin: The Russian is still in line for Sauber’s second seat provided the budget comes through and his FIA superlicense is granted, but would face a steep learning curve.
  • Marcus Ericsson: The Swede was rumored for a seat at Caterham. Like Chilton, rather underwhelming in his GP2 seasons although he has two feature wins.
  • Alexander Rossi: The American, as Caterham’s reserve driver, starred in his FP1 outings in Montreal and Austin this year and won the GP2 finale in Abu Dhabi. Another year as reserve would do him no harm, but would likely need to find budget in order to step up.
  • Fabio Leimer: The Swiss driver won this year’s GP2 title but like 2012 champ Davide Valsecchi, doesn’t appear to have a clear path to a race seat with a lack of funding.
  • Sam Bird: The Englishman, long Mercedes’ reserve driver, is way too talented to have not had his F1 opp. But not enough of a budget to make it happen.
  • James Calado: The Englishman made a handful of FP1 appearances for Force India. Talented enough but like the others, hard to see where he slots in without a budget.
  • Robin Frijns: The Dutchman, formerly Sauber’s reserve, seems destined for the same fate as the others – rideless without a budget.

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds