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.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.