It’s a sad feature of F1 that sometimes drivers’ careers end before we realise it.
They turn up at the season finale then depart never to return as someone else takes over their place for next year.
Heading into the final race of 2011 there are a few likely candidates for drivers whose time in F1 may be up.
Barrichello has been in this situation before. Three years ago he approached the final race – like this year, his home Grand Prix at Interlagos – unsure if his Honda contract would be renewed.
By a strange sequence of events the dissolution of the team ultimately paved the way for him to hold onto his place in Formula 1, as the remnants of Honda metamorphosed into Brawn.
This year his place at Williams is under threat after a sometimes lacklustre season, even when taking into account the obvious deficiencies of the FW33.
There are persistent rumours the team is courting Kimi Raikkonen for an F1 return. And even if that fails to materialise, the driver situation at Force India could send the likes of Adrian Sutil in the Grove team’s direction.
Pastor Maldonado’s place in the line-up has looked secure thanks to his substantial backing from Venezuelan state petroleum company PDVSA. The legitimacy of this deal has recently been called into question in his home country, but it remains to be seen if this is a credible threat to Maldonado’s place in F1.
Next week’s race will be Barrichello’s 326th. He already holds all the records for career longevity. But there are signs he may fall short of a 20th season in the top flight.
Sutil had a poor start to the year but has clearly improved as he’s got used to the Pirelli tyres. He is 34-23 up on di Resta in the points standings.
But has Sutil, with 89 starts to his name, conclusively proved his worth over di Resta, who’s in his first season of F1?
This is the question Vijay Mallya is expected to answer soon, and in doing so judge whether to swap Sutil for Nico Hulkenberg. His compatriot impressed in his first season of F1 and only lost his seat at Williams for sponsorship reasons.
A Di Resta-Hulkenberg line-up at the team next year would be short on F1 experience. But di Resta’s performance this year suggests that may not be too great a problem.
Money may ultimately play a deciding role here. The financial problems of Mallya’s other business interests have been well-documented, and he sold part of his share in Force India earlier last month for that reason.
Whoever can bring money to the team may tip the balance, and that could work in Sutil’s favour. Even if it doesn’t, an opportunity at Williams may secure his place in F1.
Like Barrichello, another Brazilian driver whose home race could be his last.
Senna has a fairly weak claim to a place in F1 at the moment, given that he’s the replacement for one driver who was a substitute for another driver.
In his seven races since taking Nick Heidfeld’s place he’s tended to match Petrov in qualifying (which is rather better than his predecessor did) but not performed as well in the races. Weighed against that we have the deteriorating performance of the R31 and Senna’s reliability problems – such as KERS failures in the last two races.
Robert Kubica looks increasingly unlikely to return at the start of next year, leaving GP2 champion Romain Grosjean as the greatest threat to Senna in the team.
On paper, Vitaly Petrov has nothing to worry about – his current contract expires at the end of next season. His recent public criticism of the team was embarrassing but hardly a sack-able offence.
That leaves Senna in a vulnerable position but the sponsorship he helped bring to the team earlier this year could stand in his favour. He’s popular within the team and if he were to get a place next year at the expense of the under-contract Petrov, it would be a significant vote of confidence in his ability.
There are some who believe Charles Pic already has a deal to replace D’Ambrosio at Virgin next year, when the team becomes Marussia.
D’Ambrosio has arguably performed better as Timo Glock’s team mate than Lucas di Grassi did last year, but that may not be enough to keep his place at the cash-strapped team.
Who knows who’ll turn up at the wheel of an HRT next year. Liuzzi brings experience and continuity to the team but this is another seat where income is likely to overrule talent.
The Toro Rosso driver logjam
Toro Rosso have four drivers in the hunt for two seats. It’s conceivable that either, neither or both of their current pilots could lose out.
Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi have been closely-matched in their second full season together. Alguerusari has started to pull ahead in the points standings of late, albeit aided by three car failures in four races for Buemi.
With Daniel Ricciardo, currently seconded to HRT, and Jean-Eric Vergne both making their way up the Red Bull Driver Development ladder, something’s got to give in time for the start of next season.
See which drivers are already confirmed for 2012 here: 2012 F1 drivers and teams
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Images ?é?® Williams/LAT, Force India/Sutton, Renault/LAT, Red Bull/Getty images