Kamui Kobayashi's Options: McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull or Mercedes
I've been a fan of Kamui Kobayashi since his first race in F1, and I can even pinpoint the exact moment. When he ran Nakajima right off the track and into the barriers with a very risky pass, I knew I had a new hero. Since then, he has failed to disappoint. I don't honestly believe he's one of the best drivers yet, due to some inconsistency, but I can definitely see him in a top four drive. He's got the speed and passing ability, and his English isn't half-bad either!
I'm not saying he's got his choice of drives, and it seems that he's already committed 2012 to Sauber.
Sauber has been a good place for him to be so far. However, he won't be fighting for podiums there, and I believe he has the ability to do so. So, where might he fit in best, and who would he replace there? Let's see.
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It's no secret that Mercedes have been underperforming. While it's difficult to say why, it's quite easy to say how. They've been steadily slipping back, and Force India have been outperforming them recently. Nonetheless, they have the resources to fight back and look for wins, if not this year then next.
I think it's obvious that Kobayashi would be a replacement for Schumacher. Schumacher's contract runs out at the same time as Kobayashi's, and I don't see Schumacher signing on for another year. Kobayashi definitely lacks the ability to give the detailed feedback of Michael, but makes up for this with his youth and aggression. The pairing of Rosberg and Kobayahsi would give them the best of both worlds.
Would Mercedes want Kobayashi? Hard to say. It would give them a definite marketing angle in Japan, and Kobayashi's passing ability is definitely needed to make up for Michael. However, Mercedes seem to have a thing for German drivers, which Kobayashi most definitely is not.
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Alonso is not going anywhere until he decides to. So Kobayashi would definitely be taking Massa's seat if he moved to Ferrari. While Massa has been improving his performance this summer, it looks like he lost some of his edge in his horrific crash in 2009, and I'm doubtful that he'll get it back. I think Ferrari will give him another year to try, but come 2013, they'll be looking elsewhere for a good backup for Alonso. Alonso is the current master of controlling the race and letting it come to him, whereas Kobayashi tries to wring its neck. They would be a good pairing, as long as Kobayashi recognized his second driver status. He hasn't been in a position for this to be a problem so far, so it's difficult to say how he would react.
Would Ferrari want Kobayashi? They've been looking for a fighter to replace Massa, and Kobayashi definitely fits the bill. Plus, I can see the Tifosi getting behind him quite easily. I think this would be a good fit. The only downside is Kobayashi's inconsistency, which is a big drawback for Ferrari. If he can improve this, it's a move that has a chance of happening.
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To be honest, I don't see this happening. A Kobayashi/Hamilton pairing is certain to cause heart-problems at McLaren, due to their obvious similarities in tending to the reckless side. The same goes for a Button/Kobayashi pairing, due to their inconsistencies. Button needs the right car under him in the right conditions to perform, and Kobayashi doesn't have the qualifying skills to ensure maximum points. Granted, this is a drawback for any team that considers Kobayashi, but especially McLaren if they need to replace Hamilton.
Which is the other reason I don't see this happening. I guess McLaren will be sticking with their current driver lineup for as long as possible. Where else could Button or Hamilton go if they left McLaren? Hamilton is obviously not going to Ferrari as long as Alonso is there. Button would be a good fit at Ferrari, but I don't think he'll be interested in leaving McLaren, as they seem a natural fit for each other.
1. Red Bull
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Vettel isn't going anywhere for a while, similar to Alonso. However, I guess next year will be Webber's last at Red Bull.
On the face of it, a Vettel/Kobayashi pairing would be a good combination. Vettel's qualifying and racing out in front ability would mix well with Kobayashi's passing and ability to make up places in the race. However, Helmut Marko has plenty of drivers in the pipeline already, so Kobayashi would need a spectacular year in 2012 to get in front of the queue. While I can hope, I don't expect that stellar of a year from him in Sauber next year.
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Will any of these teams be interested in Kobayashi in 2013? That's a question I don't have an answer for. I hope he'll improve his qualifying and consistency, but only time will tell. If these areas do improve, and I think he has the ability to do so, then either Mercedes or Ferrari are the best options for him. If he doesn't improve and stays at Sauber or goes to a lower team, I'm sure he'll still provide entertainment, much like his compatriot, Takuma Sato did.