Force India are trying Adrian Sutil and Jules Bianchi in Barcelona this week for a possible drive alongside Paul di Resta for this season – but should they go for youth or experience?
Not long ago, German Adrian Sutil was one of the sport’s most highly rated drivers, tipped as a possible successor to seven-time champion Michael Schumacher after showing impressive talent in his formative years and finishing runner-up to Lewis Hamilton in F3 Euroseries.
He test drove for Midland in 2006 then got a race seat when it became Spyker in 2007, dominating three different team-mates throughout the year to briefly secure the attention of both McLaren and Williams.
He stayed on at the team as it morphed into Force India in 2008 and was loyal to them for four years, scoring a total of 94 points with a best finish of fourth in the Italian Grand Prix in 2009. He clocked up 90 race starts before being replaced by Nico Hulkenberg at the end of 2012 after (but not because of) a nightclub incident in Shanghai, for which he was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence.
In Sutil, Force India would have a fast and competitive driver who has a proven ability to score points. More than that, he has already partnered di Resta and shown himself to be more than a match for the Scot (albeit when di Resta was a younger and less experienced driver).
Jules Bianchi, meanwhile, is a different option entirely.
Around six-and-a-half years younger than Sutil, he’s a young charger who has ticked many boxes against respected competition on his way up the ladder.
He was the F3 Euroseries champion in 2009, beating ART team-mates Valtteri Bottas (who makes his F1 debut with Williams this year) and Esteban Gutierrez (who also steps into F1 this season with Sauber).
He moved to GP2 with ART in 2010 and in his second season he finished runner up to Romain Grosjean (now established in F1 with Lotus). Then in 2012, when he stepped across to Formula Renault 3.5, he just missed out on the title in controversial style after allegedly being run off the road by eventual champion Robert Frijns (who is now test and reserve at Sauber having also tested for Red Bull last year).
So in Bianchi, there is no denying the team could have a potential star on their hands because by mixing it with so many different drivers in so many different categories the Frenchman is a clearly proven talent.
This year, however, is a big year for Force India – and the decision over which drive to take could be crucial.
The team struggled to find their form in the first half of last year but came back strongly in the second half to finish seventh in the championship.
These are difficult times in terms of sponsorship for the lesser funded teams, so championship position is crucial as it comes with significant steps up in prize money – and securing minimum sixth must be a priority for Force India this year.
Their technical partnership with McLaren has given them a strong base and although the momentum was good at the end of last year the team decided to follow McLaren’s lead and re-design much of the car to give them development potential for the season ahead.
Getting the most out of that development will be key to winning the midfield battle and chasing down Sauber (who finished just 17 points ahead last year) and staying ahead of Williams (who finished little more than 30 points behind in 2012) and a renewed Toro Rosso (who were well down on points last year but have made significant developments on their car over the winter).
That would suggest the ideal solution would be two fast, experienced and knowledgeable drivers, making Sutil the one to go for.
But it’s not as clear-cut as that.
Bianchi is a Ferrari development driver, managed by Nicholas Todt (son of FIA chairman and former Ferrari boss Jean Todt), and is being groomed as a possible replacement for Felipe Massa – particularly now Ferrari’s other young recruit Sergio Perez has defected to McLaren.
After driving in nine Friday practice sessions last year with Force India, Bianchi also knows the team well and now needs to get some racing experience.
So he’s not just a young rookie, he’s a young talent who knows the team, comes with good connections and possibly could even bring in a driver placement budget – and that makes him worth thinking about.
Indeed, Sauber has a line-up of experienced and rookie with Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez and Williams does too with Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas. Toro Rosso is the only midfield team without a rookie as they field Jean Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo for a second year.
So while both drivers would benefit the team in different ways, perhaps this time the gamble of youth over experience is one worth taking...