SILVERSTONE, England (Reuters) - Germany’s Adrian Sutil and Frenchman Jules Bianchi are frontrunners for Force India’s second Formula One race seat but the decision is about more than just the highest bidder, the team said on Friday.
Deputy principal Bob Fernley said the team’s shareholders would take a long-term decision with 2014, when a new V6 turbocharged power unit is due to replace the existing V8 engine, and beyond in mind.
A decision, on what is the only remaining vacant seat with an established points-scoring team, was likely before the start of the second pre-season test in Barcelona on February 19.
“In 2014 we are into a completely different era and we need to have drivers that we feel are going to be capable of developing the car through,” Fernley told reporters at the launch of the new VJM06 car.
“We need performance but we also need the development ability. And it’s about bringing the right person in to do all of that and getting the long-term stability.”
Force India have Britain’s Paul Di Resta as one of their drivers but have to fill the second seat vacated by Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg, now at Sauber.
The assumption, in tough financial times with teams tending to appoint drivers who can bring much-needed sponsorship millions with them, is that Force India are looking for someone with backing.
Fernley said that was not a given but was more of a media assumption.
“The decision we will make will be for the benefit of the team. And it doesn’t necessarily follow that that is a financial requirement. In fact it’s highly unlikely that it will be,” he declared.
The experienced Sutil drove for the team, through its various incarnations, from 2007 to 2011 while Bianchi was the test and reserve last season and is also a member of Ferrari’s academy.
Other experienced drivers with some sponsorship behind them and still looking for a seat include Russian Vitaly Petrov and Brazilian Bruno Senna.
Ferrari said this month that they wanted to find Bianchi a role in Formula One and that has been interpreted as a hint that he could be part of a package with the Italian engines replacing Mercedes for 2014.
However, Ferrari said at their car launch at Friday that Bianchi could be their reserve driver this season with the matter “under discussion”.
Fernley agreed that the media would inevitably “put two and two together”, and said Bianchi was “a very significant candidate” but his Ferrari connection wasn’t the key to it.
“It’s part of the decision-making process,” he said. “It would be too simplistic just to say it (the drive) 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.”
Di Resta won the DTM (German touring car) title with Mercedes, has had close ties to the German car manufacturer during his career with some speculation that his breakthrough into the team was linked to the Mercedes engine deal.
The Scot will do most of the testing of the new car in Jerez next week, with the focus on systems and making sure everything is working.
Fernley doubted there would be any problems in getting the second driver up to speed before the start of the season in Australia on March 17, with simulators playing a much bigger part in preparation than track work nowadays.
“It’s nice to have the track time but the track time is only quality if we’ve got the conditions to go with it,” he said.
“Paul is a major part of what we do. He gives us stability, his technical feedback is excellent and that’s why it’s quite important that we optimise Jerez with Paul.”
Force India finished seventh overall last year and Fernley said the aim in 2013 would be to step up from being a team “knocking on the door” of the podium places to actually converting the chances. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)