Formula One is fast heading back towards its former days of paddock politics and as the season reaches its crescendo with on-track action at the front of the field, the teams at the back of the grid have had more focus placed on their short- and long-term future than wheel-to-wheel battles on the track.
Lotus has already made its first move by dropping Cosworth - and is set to announce some significant future plans in Singapore this weekend. It has already successfully built on heritage coupled with professional and relatively transparent new backing to establish itself as a solid little team with some strong ambition and, although Renault is the likely new engine partner, rumours still suggest a possible tie-up with Toyota as the Japanese firm tries to make the most of the continuation of its German-based consultancy. All should be revealed in Singapore.
Virgin seems to also be on solid if apparently less ambitious ground and it is understood that the opportunity of business-to-business deals with the Virgin brand has given their commercial team a unique selling point that has enabled them to bring on board some valuable sponsors. Having set out to run on a budget, their low-cost racing solution seems to be working and although that won't push them up the grid, it also shouldn't see them drop off it.
But the big rumours are circulating around Sauber, HRT and Toro Rosso.
Peter Sauber has been open about his team's future all along. Only on the grid because Sauber could not bear to see it collapse after BMW pulled out of the sport, the team has made no secret it is looking for backers (its all-white livery makes it pretty clear on its own). The strongest rumour is for a Mexican takeover, led by Telmex CEO Carlos Slim, and the arrival of Telmex-backed Mexican Esteban Guttierez as test and reserve driver for 2011 strengthens those rumours. It is understood, however, that the most likely solution would be for Sauber to remain in name with strong Telmex backing.
If that did not happen, it seems Sauber is not an option for the other vultures circling above F1, namely Jacques Villeneuve and Zoran Stefanovich.
Villeneuve's proposed 2011 entry, aligned with Durango, was denied while Stefanovich is said to have pulled his Stefan GP team out from the running after deciding the FIA's delay on their decision left him with not enough time to set up the team from scratch.
Both are now still determined to be racing in 2011, but both claim to have well-developed car designs and both want a controlling part in the design, manufacture and running of their car.
Villeneuve's connection with Durango would suggest Toro Rosso as the perfect potential takeover. He has confirmed he is looking at a team buy-out but his comments that he does not want the team he may purchase "interfering with plans" and that his group has "tremendous confidence in the design... and want to be able to use it" suggests he could have quite a challenge getting in there, as Toro Rosso is already well established as a team with some good engineers on board. Ultimately, Villeneuve's chance here will likely depend on how desperate Red Bull is to offload the team.
HRT is another option and by all accounts they would definitely be open to offering carte blanche on design, development and manufacture. But according to reports, they are already speaking to Toyota (who are now actively back on track with Pirelli) about taking a consultancy on a 2011 project - and that sits nicely with Stefanovich as it is exactly what he was planning from the start.
Ultimately, with HRT rumoured to be struggling (although those rumours have been denied by team boss Colin Kolles) it seems inconceivable that there will not be a change on the grid before 2011 - but whether Villeneuve and Stefanovich can both get what they want remains to be seen.
- Jacques Villeneuve
- Peter Sauber