Nico Hulkenberg physically signed on the dotted line of a 2014 Force India contract in Brazil on Sunday. That is the claim of Germany's reliable Sport Bild, as it emerged that the German had until midnight to take up an option granted recently by the Silverstone based team, for whom Hulkenberg raced last year.
The 26-year-old had joined Sauber for 2013 after Force India became late in its payments, but it was the Swiss team that found itself in the deeper financial trouble this year. So, in a sure sign that Lotus' 'Quantum' investment deal will ultimately collapse, Hulkenberg opts for Force India, who according to Sport Bild have included a bank guarantee of EUR 1.9 million to cover the unpaid wages of 2012.
It is believed Hulkenberg's teammate next year will not be countryman Adrian Sutil, despite that German hinting repeatedly in recent weeks that his is a done deal. In fact, it is understood the experienced Sutil is taking his Medion sponsorship to Sauber. Force India's other 2013 driver, Paul di Resta, is almost certainly leaving F1. "People are saying it's not budget related," the Scot told BBC's radio Five Liv, "but there are things which are. I go into the winter with my head held high."
It seems Force India will head into 2014 with an all-new driver lineup, completed by the McLaren refugee Sergio Perez, who is bringing a reported EUR 15 million in sponsorship, having patched up his relationship with Telmex. McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh, having dropped Mexican Perez at the eleventh hour, has hinted he helped to broker the deal.
"I am very happy," Whitmarsh is quoted by the Guardian. "Lots of stuff has been written but he's a young man who has been incredibly dignified. "He is very much liked in the team, is a thoroughly likeable guy and I said to him: 'Prove us wrong'. We've done what we can to help him out and he certainly deserves to be in formula one, so I'm delighted for him that we'll see his smiling face in the paddock."
Whitmarsh admitted it is bittersweet that, in helping Perez, fellow Briton di Resta is apparently being pushed out of F1. "It's a complicated sport these days and there are drivers with less talent than Paul who will be in the sport, and that's sad," he said.
The obvious conclusion of all the latest 'silly season' goings-on is that Pastor Maldonado, the most powerfully sponsored driver on the market, is taking his PDVSA millions to Lotus to fill the Quantum hole. F1 correspondent Heikki Kulta, of Finland's Turun Sanomat newspaper, expects the news to be announced early this week.
Alongside Sutil, the likely occupant of the other Sauber is less clear, as team boss Monisha Kaltenborn on Sunday refused to "speculate" about the future of Mexican Esteban Gutierrez. It appears she was waiting for midnight, and the expiry of Hulkenberg's Force India option. Also waiting in the wings is the Russian teenager Sergey Sirotkin.
"My sources tell me that Sauber is still waiting for Hulkenberg," former long-time Sauber driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who was also managed by Hulkenberg's agent Werner Heinz, told German television Sky. (GMM)